Planting trees for sustainable coffee

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On a coffee farm in Surigao del Sur, farmers with their backs bent against the mid-morning sun are shifting dirt and digging holes in the fields. Wearing caps or bandanas to ward off glare and heat, they are preparing to place seedlings alongside their mature, bean-bearing crops.   

 

Although it seems like a typical scene at a coffee farm, one detail provides the essential difference. Apart from Robusta seedlings, the coffee variety grown in the region, the farmers are planting other types of trees—falcata, mahogany and even fruit-bearing ones such as lanzones, mangosteen and rambutan.

This is agroforestry at work. A farming system that involves growing trees among high-value crops, agroforestry is an age-old concept that has received renewed interest as a sustainable alternative to traditional methods, especially among small scale growers. It is, in fact, at the heart of a project that aims to revitalize Philippine coffee production while benefitting the industry’s various stakeholders, including small-scale producers and the environment.

Benefitting Small Farmers

“Agroforestry is the future of agriculture,” announces Pur Projet Founder Tristan Lecomte, who adds that it is already being practiced by local farmers. His Paris-based organization, which assists companies in incorporating climate issues into their businesses, has been working with Nestlé Philippines to further encourage adoption of the method, providing training on its plantation and maintenance techniques.

Three Mindanao farmer cooperatives have been identified as the program’s pioneer communities based on their stability, size and previous working relationship with Nestlé—Bayanihan Millennium Multipurpose Cooperative in Pangantukan, Bukidnon; Mabuhay Kahayagan Coffee Growers Association in Tagbina, Surigao del Sur; and Hilom Coffee Farmers Association in Talaingod, Davao del Norte. Each also represents unique microclimates: highland, lowland and midland, respectively. 

The three pioneer communities are set to receive the economic benefits of agroforestry, both in the short- and long-term. In the short-term, farmers can harvest the fruit trees as a food source for their members and their families. They can also earn from planting and selling green coffee. In the long-term, hardwood trees like falcata and mahogany can eventually be harvested by the farmers as timber. Apart from further providing farmers with additional income through the intercropping of hardwood and fruit bearing trees, Pur Projet also offers them incentives based on the success of the cultivation of these trees’ seedlings.

After the initial planting, Pur Projet—through its local affiliate Alter Trade—will visit the areas after three months to monitor the development of the hardwood and fruit tree seedlings and the upkeep of their parcels. For every tree passing these set standards, its farmer-caretaker will receive a corresponding compensation in the form of cash and organic fertilizer. Another inspection, to be conducted six to nine months after this, presents an added opportunity to receive a second round of incentives.

“This is an add-on that allows the farmers to immediately benefit from the initiative,” comments Lecomte. “It offers them additional encouragement to fully commit to the project,” he adds.

Improving Coffee Production

According to Lecomte, agroforestry’s impact on coffee plantation is multitude, especially on the quality and quantity of harvest.

The most obvious benefit is that the shade provided by the trees’ canopy provides the ideal growing condition for most coffee varieties, including Robusta, resulting in premium beans with a higher aroma complexity and a well-balanced acidity. Furthermore, it makes the crop less susceptible to the typhoons and storms by offering protection and making the field more adaptive to climate change. 

“Planting trees regenerates the soil, helping improve the volume of the harvests,” says Lecomte, sharing that falcatas—the most numerous of the seedlings planted—have nitrogen-fixing properties that provide nutrients and act as a fertilizer as long as trees are maintained in the parcel. “Trees are the best investment one can make to help improve coffee production,” he informs.

According to Edith de Leon, senior vice president and head of Corporate Affairs, Nestlé Philippines, it is precisely this potential benefit that makes agroforestry a key component in helping respond to the pressing issues facing the coffee sector, which includes declining output. “We at Nestlé believe that preserving the ecosystem through sustainable farming is one way of growing the industry and securing our long-term supply of coffee,” de Leon says, sharing that these agroforestry efforts are part of the local implementation of the Nescafé Plan, Nestlé’s global commitment to responsible farming, production, supply and consumption of coffee. “It’s an excellent example of creating shared value for the various stakeholders involved—the smallholder farmers, the environment and Nestlé.”

Future Plans

Although the initial roll-out of the project is presently limited to the three towns, its influence and implications are potentially wide-reaching. As part of various partnerships between Nestlé and Pur Projet, spanning five countries, local efforts contribute to the promotion of agroforestry. Lecomte shares that Nestlé and Pur Projet aim to plant 50,000 trees in the country this year alone and potentially two million on 4,000 hectares in the next five years.

“Nestlé is quite advanced with its relationship with local small-scale farmers. Their previous experience distributing coffee seedlings helps us in doling out the tree seedlings,” Lecomte says. Partnership with other companies and entities, he adds, are also something for which they are constantly on the look-out. Lecomte cites a recent donation from Sofitel Philippine Plaza as an example of building a network of agroforestry supporters.

Moreover, if the pilot communities prove to be successful, they can provide a production model for other coffee regions in the Philippines and, perhaps eventually, other countries. However, Lecomte is quick to point out that whatever the future may hold, both Nestlé and Pur Projet remain focused on the three Mindanao towns.

“We will ultimately measure our efforts based on three things: how the trees grow, its impact on the coffee yield and the revenue of the farmers,” he says, citing the project’s main indicators. “However, it is a long-term commitment, one that, if successful and becomes bigger, can see us follow up for up to 40 years.” (Manila Bulletin)