El Triunfo: Soil Management and Conservation

By Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing
Photos by Joe Driscoll, Equipment Guru

The Sierra Madre of Chiapas, Mexico, stretches South all the way to Honduras. Equal Exchange buys coffee from several co-operatives along this vast and dramatic mountain range. One super dynamic place is the area commonly known as “Jaltenango,” but officially known as Albino Corzo. The mountain ranges of this area are part of El Triunfo. The entire length of the Sierra Madre also includes the redoubts and byways for the massive illicit traffic that traverses them; this traffic affects every facet of life in this region. Most importantly, the folks of the Sierra Madre also produce some of the great traditional washed, mild coffees of Mexico and Central America--the area biologically known as Mesoamerica.

To see captions, view the slideshow in full screen mode
then click "Show info" in the top right corner.

In 2007, Equal Exchange connected with a group of co-operatives based in Jaltenango, whose members are spread over a wide geographic area. The members are primarily members of Ejidos, a form of legal communal land ownership common throughout Mexico. Our partnership has focused on quality improvement and in-depth analysis of the agricultural practices of the co-op members. The co-operatives operate in areas that are legally designated as a biosphere; the biosphere has two types of designated areas: the nucleus and the buffer zone.

Human activity in the nucleus areas is restricted to scientific studies and extremely limited tourism controlled by the state. The buffer zone includes and promotes the sustainable development of the human communities that existed in the area prior to the establishment of the Park by the State and Federal Governments. The buffer Zone in El Triunfo is five times the land area of the nucleus. Globally the vanguard of the conservation movement focuses on the development of sustainable human economies for the protection of true wilderness. In the Sierra Madre, sustainable coffee production is the cornerstone of the local economy and the key to the continued protection of the remaining forests and its inhabitants; read: biological diversity and watershed productivity.

The intention of the co-operatives is to practice sustainable coffee production and direct export. The co-operative members live in communities that control large areas of communal lands that are contiguous with nucleus areas, including existing forest, much of which is in an eco system service payment program through the federal government. The communities’ forests are located in watersheds that produce tremendous amounts of water. The Sierra Madre is like a huge sponge jutting out of the Pacific Coast some 2,500 meters above sea level; 1500 msnm is the transition to cloud forest which pulls water from the winds off the Pacific Ocean. This water falls and is absorbed into the watersheds of the Sierra Madre which divides the water--much as the continental divide does--between the plains of the pacific coast and inland Chiapas with outflows to the Gulf of Mexico. The federal payments are minimal, but are part of what is growing the global market for eco system services including water production and carbon sequestration. The road to commoditization of eco system services is fraught with peril but yet untold. The water from El Triunfo is part of the fundamental civil and ecological infrastructure of all of Southern Mexico including: coffee farming, cattle farming on the coast, human consumption, forest production, industry and electricity production, to name a few. It is imperative that we maintain the forests of El Triunfo for the ecological and economic survival of Southern Mexico and the broader Mesoamerican corridor. Further ecological deterioration along the Sierra Madre will exacerbate the existing profound social conflict and poverty present in the region.

Despite the enormous complexity and difficulty involved with developing value chains in this environment, we have prioritized it. The first priority being to focus on maintaining and improving productivity at the farm level, the theory is increased productivity increases farm income and increased farm income decreases pressure to exploit the natural resources available in the biosphere. Despite the other many factors that influence farm income, not the least of which being relative currency value fluctuations, I believe that farm productivity is fundamental to the success of individual farms but also the agribusinesses associated with those farms: co-operatives, exporters, importers, brokers, roasters.

After an initial review of on-farm practices it was clear that the majority of the co-operative members were not consistently practicing critical farm management techniques such as pruning, adequate fertilization, and old tree replacement; further, no one had ever done soil tests to determine what was needed. Many of the farmers were practicing traditional coffee production which can be certified organic but typically results in low yields unless the farm is on new or virgin soil - something to be avoided in the biosphere.

Based on those results Equal Exchange funded a two-part project. The first phase included community meetings and trainings on soil analysis by watershed and the acquisition and interpretation of 152 soils samples in the watersheds of Sierra and Cuxtepeques. Based on the results of the soil analysis it was clear that one of the best options was to build a regional composting facility to produce the great quantities of compost necessary to cover the needs of all the members of the co-operatives. Each tree of coffee requires at least two pounds of compost per year; each farmer has between 2,000-10,000 trees - you do the math.

Additionally, it's difficult to acquire all the necessary ingredients to create a compost that contains the necessary nutrients to create a high yielding farm. In the second phase we bought a Jeep so the co-operative’s agronomists could visit the far-flung membership to provide technical assistance and training on farm management techniques like pruning, tree replacement and shade tree management, among others. During this phase they had 25 community meetings and visited over 500 farms, and they continue to provide assistance and follow up to 365 farmers. Perhaps most importantly the technical staff developed a solid proposal for the construction of a regional composting facility for which they have received funding in 2012. Days before my last visit a Colombian consultant had just finished up the technical details of the facility and the co-operative hopes to begin construction and operation in the next six months. The facility will be built on land the co-operative acquired to build a dry mill two years ago.

It is exciting to see the pieces of the productivity puzzle slowly come together and I look forward to seeing the results of our early work in the watersheds of Sierra and Cuxtepeques. This morning I watched the rain pour over New England and thought about the plan for future work we are going to do with the farmers of the Sierra Madre. Look for Organic Mind Body and Soul, make a French press, and dream about the goings on in the cloudy Sierra, and send the families who work there all the productivity energy you can muster.