San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sustainability Brews in World Coffee Market

GUANACASTE – Byron Pérez and Dimas Rojas walk visitors through the Coopepilangosta coffee farm in Guanacaste, explaining each step in the production and distribution of coffee beans as they go.

Pérez explains how the seed is  planted and cultivated free of chemicals, how each row of coffee plants is grown beneath the shadow of overhanging trees and the careful manner in which each bean is picked.

At the end the tour, Pérez points to two large, moss-covered lagoons that, he says, are loaded with beans that didn’t make the cut for consumption. After lime is added to the lagoons, the beans ferment and are then distributed as compost and organic fertilizer to other Guanacaste area farmers.

What Pérez has just explained is the process of sustainability.

“There are many different types of environmental practices that determine whether or not a coffee producer is sustainable,” said Ronald Peters, executive director of the Costa Rica Coffee Institute (ICafé). “Some of the key sustainable requirements are the percentage of shade they use, for example, in how they grow the plants. The treatment of wastes, both liquids and solids, is important as to how they are managed and reused. Farms also have to make sure they are not contaminating the water supply or rivers and, if they use chemicals, that they are applied properly and that they affect no other elements of the ecosystem.”

There is also a social and human element to sustainable practices.

“Labor practices also determine sustainability,” Peters said. “Employees have to be safe, practice safe picking and production ethods. They must be provided with adequate training and a fair – at least minimum wage – salary.”

At Coopepilangosta, all of these practices are evident – from the care given to the environment to the care offered to the employees. The farm has been considered sustainable for 10 years and is certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO) under standards 9000 and 14000, which assure quality management and environmental practices, respectively.

 Coopepilangosta, begun in 1962, was long-since ahead of the curve in its practices, as the push for the “sustainable” certification has only lately become a popular trend in Costa Rican and international coffee markets.

The Certifying Organizations

At the Sintercafé conference in Guancaste last weekend, some of the biggest names, producers and buyers in the world of coffee met to discuss the nature of their industry at the Paradisus Playa Conchal resort on the Pacific coast. Of the many presentations over the course of weekend, almost every speaker alluded to, or emphasized, the continued development of sustainable coffee producing practices, and the benefits of obtaining official “sustainable” certification. Whenever the topic of certification was mentioned, three names typically followed: Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and UTZ.

These three organizations are the primary certification bodies in the coffee world and, once  a farm or producer receives their stamp of approval, the business often receives a boost in both business and reputation.

“We have seen that consumers in the North and South American markets are more conscious of their purchases and demand more information regarding the origin of their products,” said Arnoldo Leiva, president of Sintercafé. “They want to know that their product was produced in a way that respects the environment as well as social aspects.

The certification provides the opportunity for producers to guarantee the(origin) of the products. This is a niche that is growing quickly all over the world, and not only in coffee, but in many products.”

The Rainforest Alliance, with an office in San José since 1989, U.S.-based Fair Trade and UTZ, headquartered in Guatemala and Holland, have established extensive requisites that must be met before certification is granted. Once certified, each producer is then monitored on an annual basis to ensure that they have complied with the organization’s sustainability standards.

In the coffee industry, the certification of a producer by one of these organizations is a point of pride that demonstrates concern for environment, communities and employees, as well as a valuable business accreditation.

Certification by the Rainforest Alliance, for example, shows that the producer is environmentally and socially conscious, and the market has tended to show an increase in demand for it. And as demand increases, price usually follows, meaning the companies that have committed themselves to sustainable practices are being rewarded for their efforts.

“One of the reasons businesses look for (our) certification is for price,” said Rosella Valladares, a customer service coordinator at the Rainforest Alliance’s office in San José.

“The market tends to pay more for those who are certified. And, the other is that, at Rainforest, we don’t set a fixed price, as some other organizations do. We try to establish a direct relationship between the producer and the consumer.”

Fair Trade, the U.S. organization that certifies sustainable practices and standards, annually  sets a minimum price that must be paid to the producers of the products it certifies.

Café Britt, one of the biggest coffee distributors and exporters in Costa Rica, is certified by Fair Trade. Also, according to Pablo Vargas, general manager of Café Britt, 90 percent of all producers that supply coffee to Café Britt have been certified as sustainable.

Sustainable Production

Trend on the Rise

As more companies learn of the business advantages that accompany designation and certification of their products as sustainable, more producers are improving practices to earn the distinction.

According to Rainforest Alliance, more than 2,000 companies are seeking certification  from the organization, including producersof coffee and various other products.

“It is the growing trend in the world coffee market,” said Peters of Icafé. “It is an encouraging trend because it demonstrates that producers and concerned with environmentally safe practices and that they are improving the entire production process. And when they do, they are recognized for doing so.”


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