Can New Coffee Hybrids Save The Amazon From Deforestation?

Is Robusta the key to fighting deforestion?

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.