Can New Coffee Hybrids Save The Amazon From Deforestation?

When you think of coffee in Brazil, chances are you assume it was brought here by boats, arriving first on the coast. But the true story is less known: coffee actually first entered Brazil in 1727 through the Amazon jungle.

The far distance of this date speaks to just how fascinated people have been with coffee across the centuries. For it was this year—1727—when Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Mello Palheta was appointed by Brazil’s colonial power, Portugal, to (unofficially) bring coffee seeds to Brazil from the neighboring colony of French Guiana. This route ran not through the shorelines, but directly through the jungle. Shortly thereafter coffee was first cultivated in Pará, a state in the Amazon region; in the years after coffee’s cultivation in Brazil spread through other, better-known regions, especially Minas Gerais and São Paulo, which together make most of Brazil coffee exports today.

Nearly 300 years later the coffee world’s attention in Brazil is not focused on the Amazon, but coffee *does* still grow there, though it rarely makes the news. These days most of the international news you hear about the Amazon rainforest features our not-so-environmentally-friendly environment minister, who since the beginning of his mandate has been systematically dismantling environmental protections, contributing to the surge of a 12- year high in the scale of deforestation in 2020. This minister even called on the government to push through further deregulation of environmental policies last year, when people were distracted by the coronavirus.

This is an important story from the Amazon, but it is not the *only* story from the Amazon. I took a closer look at a group of coffee producers in Rondônia, a state in the Amazon region, where the production of Canephora—a coffee species commonly known as Robusta —is on the rise, with results that might offer an alternative to deforestation in the region.

In a 19-year period, the coffee production area in Rondônia has decreased by 77%, while productivity has risen from eight to 32 sixty-kilo bags per hectare. Embrapa (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) researchers argue that if coffee productivity is advantageous, deforestation won’t seem appealing to farmers, providing an alternative to deforestation industries like cattle ranching and soybean cultivation.

Canephora Robusta

Coffee production in Rondônia started in the 1970s with immigrants from Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, and Paraná (states from the south and southeastern regions in Brazil), attracted by the federal government’s motto at the time: integrar para não entregar, or, “to integrate not to give in”. The military considered the region’s territorial occupation an issue of national security, and development efforts that included agricultural incentives, roadbuilding schemes, and mineral extraction rapidly took place. Initially, the producers started cultivating Arabica coffee but gradually switched to Conilon (another variety of the Canephora species) from Espírito Santo, and later to robusta, for its adaptability to high temperature, high humidity growing environments.

In 2019 Embrapa made available 10 new hybrid cultivars of Conilon and Robusta (both Canephora cultivars), promising to reach at least three times more productivity than the current ones being used in that area. The research indicated that Conilon stands out for its small size and greater tolerance to water stress, but it has less resistance to coffee rust. Robusta, in turn, has greater resistance to the rust disease and nematodes, and also greater potential for a finer cup (a topic discussed at length in this interview). From genetic crossing they obtained new cultivars, expressing the best characteristics of the two varieties.

Canephora coffee cherries.

The Matas de Rondônia region is comprised of 15 municipalities, each of which are now proving they can dramatically increase coffee production without the need for deforestation. The forecast for the 2020/2021 harvest is over 2.3 million bags, produced in a planted area 78% smaller than in 2001. The region is flat and there is practically no winter season, and the average temperature ranges from 23 to 26 degrees Celsius, which is perfect for Canephora cultivation. According to Enrique Alves, Ph.D. in agricultural engineering and researcher at Embrapa, Amazonian robustas produce almost twice as much as arabicas on average in the region. Rondônia produces around 96% of all coffee grown in the Brazilian Amazon region, and around 17 thousand families currently work with coffee farms, with an average farm size of only four hectares—small for Brazilian standards.

Alves adds enthusiastically that they are about to receive the Geographical Indication (IG) for the Matas de Rondônia Region and its Amazonian robustas. The Geographical Indication, according to the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI), attests when a certain characteristic or quality of a product or service is due to its geographical origin. “This will be the first IG for robustas in the world,” he tells me.

Canephora coffees have long been stigmatized, and it’s a complex topic. For many, Robusta, in particular, remains synonymous with low-quality instant coffee and cheaper blends. But Enrique Alves tells me there is a new window of opportunity for producers in the region: the so-called fine Amazonian robustas.

Canephora Robusta roasted coffee

“A fine Robusta will have balanced sweetness, acidity, and body,” he tells me, “while Arabicas could be brighter and with more delicate bodies.” In fact, many roasters in Brazil are already featuring Amazonian Robustas on their shelves. Rodrigo Torii, a media professional, and former roaster based in Manaus, tells me he was getting samples from within Amazonas state but there was nothing special about them. “Until the day a friend introduced me to a Robusta from Rondônia, then I realized something there was different. It had controlled acidity and quite pleasant fruity notes.” At the same time, Torii pitched the subject to James Hoffmann’s YouTube channel, and now Torii’s video is available to Hoffmann’s global audience.

Another roaster who has been working with Rondônia indigenous producers is Leo Moço, who used Robusta during the 2019 Brazilian barista championship aiming “to break the prejudice between Arabica and Robusta in the specialty coffee market,”—his words during his presentation at the championship, where he placed second. This was the very first time that a Robusta coffee was featured in a barista championship in Brazil. The lot used was from the São Luís indigenous land within the Alta Floresta d’Oeste municipality, about 370 miles from the capital of Rondônia—produced by Valdir Aruá.

Moço mentioned at the beginning of his work with the Aruá family and other indigenous tribes that the idea was to eventually showcase their coffee at a barista championship, imagining it would take a few years for that to happen. But he told me as soon as he tasted the lots of the first harvest after the beginning of his work with them, he had to use the coffee. According to Moço, it was a balanced Robusta with a slight bitterness and notes of cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, and whiskey. The lot went through the Sprouting Process, a term coined by Moço for a special fermentation process in which freshly harvested beans are placed in a plastic drum without oxygen for 15 to 20 days and away from sunlight, inhibiting the development of fungi and bacteria. Moço states that this environment will make it easy for enzymes to break down coffee sugars, and it has been crucial in helping not only indigenous producers but the majority of Rondônia producers to improve the quality of their lots.

Since then, the Aruá indigenous family has continued to stand out in Robusta quality contests. The Aruá family had been working with coffee for 18 years, but before participating in competitions coffee for them was just another source of income. Now they see it as way of living. The 22-year-old producer Tawã Aruá won third place in the state quality and sustainability contest in 2020, following the steps of his father, Valdir Aruá, who, in 2018, took second place in the same contest.

Enrique Alves

Enrique Alves at Embrapa emphasizes that despite the appalling news on deforestation, there needs to be caution when one approaches the subject, as there has always been a multi-layered relationship between agriculture and forest. “We can’t be naive and say that the world’s food production was not based on deforestation. This has always been a reality,” he adds. “There is a big difference between sustainable food production and environmental degradation.” Alves maintains that Brazil has countless good and bad examples, and his work’s goal through Embrapa is to encourage a new model of integrated and sustainable agricultural production, one that incorporates different combinations between the agricultural, livestock, and forestry components.

Canephora’s role in the future of Brazilian rainforest health is only just beginning to be understood, but the potential is enormous—for the wildlife, the natural environment, the tens of thousands of coffee-growing families, and yes, for those who love a delicious cup of coffee.

Juliana Ganan is a Brazilian coffee professional and journalist. Read more Juliana Ganan on Sprudge.


Inside The Movement For Brazil’s Landless Agriculture Workers

In 1996, in the south of Minas Gerais state in Brazil, the Ariadnópolis sugarcane mill went bankrupt, failing to pay and fulfill its obligations with all of its employees at the time. With no money and nowhere to go, the employees occupied the mill area, where they started living and organizing themselves in an agricultural community, along with members of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), or Landless Agricultural Workers’ Movement, who arrived in that area in that time and the following year.

Although Brazilian agriculture ranks among the most modernized in the world, especially in the field of export crops such as soybeans, orange, sugarcane—and since we are on the subject, coffee—land concentration, or the ownership of large amounts of land by very few people, is alive and well throughout the five regions in our country. Land concentration has in fact been on the rise, according to the latest rural census released in 2018, which shows the contrast between large (over 1,000 hectares) rural properties versus small ones (smaller than 10 hectares). At the beginning of 2018, large farms accounted for merely 1% in number, that is, only 51,203 farms represented 47.6% of the total farmland in the country (up 2.6% from the last census, in 2006). On the other hand, small farms represented in number 50% (or roughly 2.5 million) of the total number of farms in the country but accounting for only 2.3% of the total farmland.

Since it was founded, in 1984, the MST has occupied plots of land throughout all five geographic regions of Brazil. The criteria, according to them, is straightforward: such land should be deemed unproductive and/or abandoned. The occupied areas are, in the majority of the cases, owned by banks or large landowners. The movement stands against monoculture and genetically modified crops, seeking social justice through agrarian reform. Throughout its existence, its members have clashed with large landowners, and mainstream media has often portrayed MST as a threat to private property, giving emphasis to violent episodes of clashes between its members and large landowners especially in the North and Midwest regions of the country.

At the same time, many smaller legalized settlements have been providing food for school programs, and also exporting crops as part of large coops, something that many conservative parties in congress prefer not to acknowledge. The rising influence of the ruralista lobby in congress and Brazil’s dependence on agricultural commodity exports helps echo the theory that the landless movement is a threat to the country’s main economic engine, agribusiness exports.

Now that we have set a bit of a background to our history, let’s go back to Ariadnópolis, in the south of Minas Gerais, a state world-renowned for its fine coffees.

Today, many of the mill’s former employees produce coffee in the area where the sugarcane mill was previously located. Since it is a mountainous area and the farmers do not use any sort of agrochemicals and harvest manually, the overall coffee quality is good but they have been mostly selling it as commercial coffee as they don’t have the knowledge to grade the lots. According to the Movement, today 2,400 people live in the dam area, cultivating around 500 hectares of coffee. They have been trying to resist and remain in the land, although the previous owner of the mill has presented in court a plan to rebuild and financially recover the land that includes leasing it to a major landowner who already cultivates coffee in the neighboring areas and sells to multinational food giants.

A woman who goes by T.T. has been part of the Movement since 1997, when her mother was settled in Campo do Meio, the city where the mill is. T.T. explains that the region has been divided into three settlements: the Primeiro do Sul settlement with 40 families, the Santo Dias settlement with 48 families, and the Nova Conquista settlement with 13 families; and one large camp area, the Quilombo Campo Grande, where 450 families are living off the land. The settlement areas have been granted to those families by law, whereas the Quilombo area is still being disputed in court by the former mill owners.

T.T. tells me that the Quilombo Campo Grande was born out of the bankrupted Ariadnópolis mill and that around 2,000 of its employees went on strike to occupy the land and started using it to grow coffee and other food crops straight away. Many of them had previous experience with coffee having worked as seasonal pickers in the region, so coffee seemed a logical crop choice despite the four-year wait to have their first commercial harvest. Besides coffee, today they have a variety of commercial crops in the area such as corn, peanuts, pineapple, and guava, as well as fruits and vegetables for their own consumption.

In 2012, T.T. and other 30 agroforestry coffee farmers established their cooperative, and with that, their coffee brand, that today is called Guaii coffee. Today, the Guaii co-op as a whole produces more than 15,000 60-kilo bags per year, having more than two million producing coffee trees. They just managed to plant more than 500,000 new coffee trees in the end of 2019, which should start producing around 2023. T.T. stresses that the main goal of the co-op is to help farmers from the region in the transition from merely organic to agroforestry, in a partnership with the Federal Institute of Machado. They’ve also started producing organic peanuts, sesame seeds, and raw brown sugar, but coffee is their main product under the Guaii brand, where 300 families are involved. “Guaii is our dream to have a good coffee, collectively produced in an agroforestry system, being distributed at fair prices to all Brazilians, specially to the working class,” says T.T.

In order to accomplish that dream, they needed help. R.N., a coffee professional from São Paulo, had her first contact with Guaii coffee at the Armazém do Campo outpost in São Paulo. Armazém do Campo is a grocery shop that offers organic and agroecological products that come from the Landless Movement settlements throughout Brazil. She was then invited to revamp the coffee service at the grocery shop but ultimately realized there was no way to fix their coffee service unless she went to origin and tried to sort quality issues together with producers at the origin, that is, at the Quilombo Grande site.

“Guaii producers did not have a thorough comprehension of what is specialty coffee, and divided their coffee into three main commercial blends (Guaii popular, Guaii sustainable and Guaii organic), based solely on screen size and with no regard for cup quality, which is a pity because they had really good coffee out there,” says R.N. The idea going forward is to separate the coffee based on quality and sell it better, and with the income generated train the farmers from the coop on how to cup and sort their own coffee, and also buy basic equipment for the coop.

In parallel, in São Paulo, some coffee shops and coffee professionals formed an informal alliance in order to, together, come up with better practices in terms of hiring minorities, reducing waste, discussing current political issues that could affect the coffee community, and so on. So, R.N. facilitated with them in order to have the coffee produced by the coop shipped to São Paulo and then roasted by N.B., a roaster based in the capital. Each coffee shop then commercialized the coffee to their customer base being very open about the origin of the coffee. The first bags were already acquired by Por Um Punhado de Dólares, Takko Café São Paulo, and KOF cafés in São Paulo and sold under the MST label, in an attempt to show specialty coffee consumers that the landless movement also can produce quality coffee and also that their agricultural goods are not a taboo, as many Brazilians still prefer to believe. They exist, they are legally commercialized, and they can even reach high-quality coffee shops that dare show their customer base their political stance on the subject. This is a big deal: introducing a specialty coffee produced by a Landless Movement community is a way of making the theme mainstream for many Brazilians who still see the movement as anarchic or just plain wrong. These cafes made a bold move when they made the decision to overtly sell coffee from the Movement.

Things haven’t been easy for R.N. though: “When you are working with farmers who are constantly threatened for their lives or their land, it’s very hard to get things done in a reasonable timeframe. Simple tasks, like getting them to ship some samples, get postponed because they have much more crucial things to worry about, such as a trial coming up or an unexpected visit from a neighbor farmer.”

“The Landless Movement in Brazil, in my point of view, goes beyond the subject of land concentration—a heritage from our colonial past—but also does something rare nowadays: affordable, organic, quality food, readily accessible in the cities. If you think about it,” says R.N., “that is revolutionary. And that is why it is so scary to large landowners and the big Agro,” she pauses.

“I mean, imagine what they could do if they had more resources in hand?”

Juliana Ganan is a Brazilian coffee professional and journalist. Read more Juliana Ganan on Sprudge.

*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals


In Brazil, Climate Change Sows Uncertainty For Coffee Producers

In the crop year of 2019, farmers from all growing regions in Brazil experienced both a decrease in output and in overall quality, due to many climate-related issues such as prolonged dry season during summer, unexpected rainfall during harvest back in 2018, and an early blossoming season, among other unpredicted factors.

It’s a fitting time to discuss climate change in Brazil: our current president believes that environmental policies “suffocate” the economy and climate change is a hoax. Perhaps some numbers could help. A report from the State University of Campinas, based on data from the IPCC (International Panel of Climatic Change) from 2004 shows that a rise in temperature can change Brazil’s coffee production landscape dramatically. As much as some try to deny it: coffee (and many other agricultural products) has a direct responsiveness to temperature and hydric stress, needing an ideal rainfall and temperature range for it to develop optimally.

In the most extreme scenario played out in that study, Minas Gerais, Brazil’s largest producing state, could see its suitable area for coffee production reduced by 95 percent. These changes were predicted to happen in about 80 years, but if nothing is done, the researchers alert there is a high risk they will start happening much sooner. Maintaining everything else as is—the coffee trees’ physiological and genetical conditions—the number of cities in Minas Gerais that will be able to produce coffee will decrease drastically in the next decades.

We don’t need to be researchers to agree. I have personally traveled to many microregions in Brazil to buy coffee and we hear the same everywhere: climate issues have affected everyone, in different ways. I spoke with four of these farmers, from three different regions, and heard their perspectives about their crop. These are their stories.

Tarciso and Jhone Lacerda

Jhone Lacerda, from Sítio Santa Rita in the Caparaó region, understands that climate played a significant role in his loss in coffee production output, or quebra, the term the farmers call it in Portuguese. His 2019 output was 800 60-kilo bags, 35 percent less than what he had initially anticipated. “We would go to some of our lots every day, and the coffee would never reach the ripe stage: it was either unripe or straight to dry cherry. Something we never experienced before.”

“Our last real big harvest was in 2008.”

Jhone Lacerda

Lacerda, who is a certified agricultural technician, believes that 2019 is the result of a five-year period of drying for the coffee trees in the region. “Our last real big harvest was in 2008. Since then, we have been observing that it has been raining less and less here. 2019, in my opinion, is the year the plants are feeling the result of this hydric stress the most. Since that directly relates to the ripening of the cherries, it’s normal to have the quality of our crop affected by this drought. All of our neighbors here were affected by it,” adds Lacerda. I ask him if there is anything he can do to prevent another quebra next year. “The only solution would be irrigation, which is not viable in my region since we don’t have water available.”

Clayton Barrossa

Clayton Barrossa, who owns Fazenda Ninho da Águia in Caparaó (not far from Lacerda), tells me not only did he not have a loss in production in 2019, but some of his lots yielded more than he had predicted. I ask him if he imagines why he had the opposite results than the majority of his neighbors—and pretty much many other farmers all over the country. He explains, “We didn’t impose our own time on the coffee trees like the others do, harvesting early, at our convenience, just to get rid of that task. We wait until the cherries are really ready to be picked. We are still doing our selective harvesting when most of the others are done with it. Also, we do agroecological farming—we diversify our crops and thus we believe we create microclimates inside our land that make our coffee trees more resilient to climate change. Also, we don’t add any chemicals to our coffee, so we don’t have a very large crop followed by a smaller crop, but rather an expected standard year-to-year output.”

Yuki Minami, from Fazenda Olhos d’Agua in the Cerrado region, reported a significant quebra. “We would look at the beans and they looked ok from the outside, but the beans were not properly developed inside. We really needed that rain in December/January, which is key for us, and it never came.” Minami says it happened all over her region, many other farmers losing a significant part of their crops too, not to mention the decrease in quality.

Alvaro Coli

In the Mantiqueira region, where I live, a mountainous area in the state of Minas Gerais, it also rained when it shouldn’t have rained, and it didn’t rain when it should have. At the beginning of the year, we are used to heavy precipitation—floods are not uncommon—and most of the area went weeks without a drop of rain. Rainy summers are crucial for the coffee cherry’s proper development in that area, Álvaro Coli tells me. Coli, who owns the Sítio da Torre farm, is one of the several Mantiqueira farmers who experienced a quebra too. “I expected to produce around 1,100 60-kilo bags and ended up with around 700 bags. I blame it mainly on the lack of rain in our region, extremely hot days in January, and also something that is not common around here: irregular blossoming. The flowering started out in August 2018, because of the unexpected rain that we had in that month, and only came to a full stop in January. In all my years as a farmer, I never saw such an irregular coffee blooming period as this one, making harvesting in our region much more problematic. When it was time to harvest, we had all sorts of things happening at the same branch: ripen, unripe, dry cherry, and flowers. Unbelievable.”

Coli went on to say that he never had to do selective harvest in his farm since most of his coffee ripened practically all at once. But this year, in order to try to save the good cherries, he had to do it. “That was atypical for me, and my labor costs went through the roof. But we had to do it in order to save the ripen cherries and try to preserve the few unripened ones that were still there.”

Even with all that effort, the rate of specialty/C market coffee that Coli is used to producing also decreased considerably. “The selective harvest lots were pretty much ones that we were able to score higher when in a regular crop year we have 80+ coffees in all of our areas,” he tells me. For the next year, Coli is more optimistic as the bloomings happened within a shorter period this time, so now he is hoping for a rainy January. I ask him if there is anything he can do in case it doesn’t rain again, “farming is an open-air industry. If it doesn’t rain, I have only other option: praying,” he adds, smiling.

I want to be an optimist. There is always hope, naturally: research funding, genetic adaptation to warmer and drier climates, microfinancing for irrigation, public policies that actually incentivize small farmers and disincentivizes deforestation. But when we open the newspaper and read the politics section, I feel like resorting to Coli’s option: praying.

Juliana Ganan is a Brazilian coffee professional and journalist. Read more Juliana Ganan on Sprudge.

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