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Leaders in Coffee Industry Saluted - 2003-05-15

In New York this week, the non-profit Rainforest Alliance saluted coffee industry leaders, from small Latin-American coffee growers to large retailers like Starbucks, for their environmentally and socially responsible business practices. The Rainforest Alliance has been the driving force behind convincing industry leaders that producing and selling coffee that doesn't destroy forests, endanger wildlife or exploit laborers is good for business. Persuading coffee lovers to pay more for a higher quality bean may be the toughest challenge ahead.

If a coffee grower is certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance, it means a seal of approval has been given to its business practices. Among other things, coffee is grown on tree-shaded plantations, which creates a natural protective buffer for wildlife and prevents depletion of the soil. Once a grower is certified, the Alliance connects the farmer with distributors who will help him reach consumers on a large scale.

Martin Keller is a fourth-generation coffee grower in Pueblo Nuevo Vinas, Guatemala. His family has harvested coffee for more than 100 years in mineral-rich soil near the Tecuamburro Volcano, 1,067 meters above sea-level. Mr. Keller works with his brother and 75-year-old father planting and fertilizing the 405-hectare farm from May through September. He harvests his rare, hard coffee beans from November to February. He wants to secure the future of his farm for the family's fifth generation -- his 11-month-old son Nicholas. He says adopting these practices has helped him reach new customers. It has not necessarily fattened his wallet. "As a grower it gave us new doors to merchandise and new ways of doing things a little bit better," says Mr. Keller. "The reason the family has chosen this for many years now is that you become a better farmer, and at the end of the day, you are at peace with yourself and nature that you're doing things right."

Coffee sustainability is a conservation tool that encourages coffee farmers to install water and waste filtration systems, as well as using silent-operating machinery. Traditionally, coffee has been grown on large tracts of deforested land by chemically intensive growers. Mr. Keller says sustainable growers can expect smaller, more reliable crops.

"In a way you get smaller yields, but you get more even yields, and have a steady crop from year to year. Whereas if you grow [coffee trees] directly into the sunlight, you'll have maybe one, two, or three good yields and then if you don't do it right, you'll start running into problems," says Mr. Keller. "You'll get bad yields or the coffee trees will even die from being exploited so hard."

Market prices of coffee have dropped dramatically in recent years, putting many smaller coffee growers from developing countries out of business. Mr. Keller says part of the industry's problem is that consumers don't really understand the difference between cheaper, mass-produced, chemically treated coffee and the higher quality, organically grown coffee bean. He says consumers may not be ready to pay higher prices for a better quality coffee bean.

Tania Hyatt is spokesperson for Folger's Coffee, which is owned by consumer products giant Procter and Gamble. She agrees that sustainable coffee is tied to higher quality coffee, but its only value is if consumers will buy them. "As one of the coffee roasters, our main job to assess consumer needs and unmet needs, and fill those needs with products they are looking for," she says. "If they desire sustainable coffees, then we will sell them. If they don't have a desire for them, then there's a low likelihood that we would sell them."

Ms. Hyatt says the Alliance's certification program has helped improve the quality of coffee beans. "The Rainforest Alliance has a set of criteria that is ecological, economic and social. Those are the three pillars of sustainability," she says. "To be able to buy from a farm that is doing that and balancing those criteria, that allows the farmer to produce a better quality product for the high-quality needs that we have as a company."

Sabrina Vigilante coordinates the coffee sustainability program for the Rainforest Alliance. "We have a tool that has helped farmers get higher prices but more important we see farmers having better access to markets with the certification. That's why they seek it," she says. "There's a tremendous demand from coffee farmers for our program. One thing we've been real careful to do is not to develop supply before we have demand in the market place."

The Inter-American Development Bank in early May awarded a $3 million grant to support higher quality coffee producers in five Central Amerian Countries, matched by $1.6 million in funding from TechnoServe, a non-profit organization that focuses on small-business development.

Liam Brody oversees the coffee program for Oxfam America, a humanitarian aid organization. Mr. Brody says the Alliance's certification program gives coffee growers in developing countries a lifeline to keep a roof over their heads, food in their families' bellies and a chance to keep their kids in school, and at the same time, helps growers produce higher quality coffee.