David McNaught

Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy, Guatemala

Part of UK in Guatemala

14th June 2012 Guatemala City, Guatemala

Wake up and save the coffee

I hope you’ve all tried Guatemalan coffee! If not, do: Guatemalans will tell you it’s the best in the world, they would, I suppose, but they’re probably not far off the mark. But Guatemala’s coffee plantations have been under threat, and that’s why DEFRA – the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – recently announced support, through the Darwin Initiative, for a project that aims to help coffee farmers conserve biodiversity in Guatemala. With a contribution of £250,000, just over Q3 million, over three years this project will not only help conserve Guatemalan forests, but also to strengthen the productive capacity of the coffee crop, and the possibility of new business opportunities with the UK. I recently spoke at the launch of the project in Guatemala. But to tell you more about it is Professor Jeremy Haggar from the University of Greenwich. Over to you Professor!

At the end of the last century the Polochic Valley and the lower slopes of the Pacific volcanic chain of Guatemala were covered with coffee plantations under the shade of a rich diversity of tropical forest trees. Studies by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC) in the 1990s showed the importance of these coffee agroforests for wintering birds from North America.

In the mid 90s coffee prices crashed, severely declining in the early 00s, leaving thousands of coffee producers in debt and hundreds of thousands of workers and small farmers with no income. Many large farms went into bankruptcy, some were bought collectively by the farmer workers with state support, and others were abandoned and then cleared for pastures, or rubber or citrus plantations. A study in 2004 by ANACAFE, with support from the British Embassy, showed the environmental impacts of these changes in land-use, and above all the threat to the fauna and flora that lived in the forest-shaded coffee.

Today only a few farms in the Boca Costa region of Guatemala maintain the traditional forest-shade coffee, most of these in the Palajunoj region above the city of Retalhuleu. Here several coffee estates and small-scale producer associations have declared their land as Private Nature Reserves to help protect the remnant forests and coffee agroforestry.

In the Polochic Valley SMBC found that farms where they conducted their studies have largely eliminated their coffee. However, indigenous K’chi communities maintain coffee production high up on the steep slopes of the Sierra Las Minas in the buffer zone of the Biosphere Reserve. Here the Foundation for the Defence of Nature, works with communities to develop sustainable production systems that combine agriculture and forest and slow the need of families to clear more forest to plant maize. Also many of these coffee producers are members of the Association of Organic Producers of Polochic, which sells their coffee under Fairtrade and Organic certifications.

Recently a consortium of institutions from Guatemala, the National Coffee Association, the Foundation for the Defence of Nature, the University of Valle, and the Natural Resources Institute of the United Kingdom have been visiting these communities to plan the start of a project supported by the Darwin Initiative of the UK government to study and conserve the biodiversity associated with the remaining coffee agroforests.

In our meetings with the farmer associations their interests have been focussed on improving their access to markets that recognize the biodiversity value of how they manage their farms, and how to determine the economic value of the environmental benefits they are providing. Over the course of the next 3 years the project aims to demonstrate the value of shaded coffee for biodiversity and support farmers in receiving recognition for this value.

Thanks Professor!

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About David McNaught

I have been in Guatemala since August 2009 as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy. For the next few months I'll be stand-in Ambassador - Charge d'Affaires in…

I have been in Guatemala since August 2009 as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy. For the next few months I'll be stand-in Ambassador - Charge d'Affaires in diplomatic speak - until the arrival of our new Ambassador, Sarah Dickson. Julie Chappell, our former Ambassador, was a prolific blogger, so I hope I can match her energy as we have plenty of interesting material to blog about! You will also hear from our excellent Embassy team who are keen to continue blogging about their work and experiences in Guatemala.