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Pedra Preta, Brazil

  • Definition
    Devising project idea, defining the aim and main components
  • Design
    Specifying details such as time-frame, budget, target indicators, project partners and relevant steps to reach the project objectives
  • Financing
    Searching and securing funding and investment, setting up relevant financing partnerships, and discussing payment modalities
  • Implementation
    Execution of feasibility studies, context analysis, plot design, planting and setting up facilities and starting with potential capacity-building
  • Maintenance
    Operational phase (monitoring and evaluation, impact assessments and adjustments, execution of educational programmes and long-term capacity building)
  • Scaling Up
    Scaling up phase is when the project it has already shown success by obtaining impact as well as economic results and it's ready to become replicable.
The Model Farm by the beginning of the project in early 2019 (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

The Brazilian coffee company Tropicália (now re-branded Pedra Preta) has the goal to empower local coffee producers through a specific agroforestry design, which can be a world-wide alternative for the traditional monoculture paradox. More complex structures are capable of mitigating the agronomic, environmental and economic pressures that are the main hazards for coffee growers nowadays. Introducing specific crops with beneficial interactions in a mechanized system will result in short, medium and long-term gains regarding the farm’s economy and ecological value.

Coffee challenges in Minas Gerais 

Decades of coffee price deflation are highlighting the weakness of traditional production methods based on conventional one-crop approaches. The systems were created to produce maximum yields in suitable and predictable conditions. 

However, climate change is now exposing the vulnerability of these systems. In Minas Gerais, warmer temperatures and intensified dry periods massively impact the productivity of the coffea plants reducing yields. Coffee monocultures are not capable of cushioning such impacts.

A coffee monoculture plantation is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and pests (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

These systems are reliant on agrochemical inputs such as synthetic fertilizers which base on fossil fuels, thus, contributing to climate change. However, they cannot make of for the damage of global warming. The result is a collapse in coffee yields which – next to decreasing prices – threatens farmer livelihoods. 

A looming threat: Coffee rust

Another problem faced by coffee monocultures is the so-called coffee rust – a disease. It is a fungus – officially called Hemileia vastatrix – that is already plaguing coffee farmers for more than a century. In 2012, there was another major outbreak in Latin America driving coffee prices to an all time high.

Coffee rust was once responsible for wiping out Sri Lanka’s entire coffee industry (Source: Plant Village)

When affected by the fungus, the coffee plant’s leaves turn from green into a brown or yellow color. The shrub eventually loses its leaves and with them the ability to produce coffee beans.

Unfortunately, coffee rust is also prevalent in all Brazil hampering coffee production. Monocultures are particularly vulnerable to it as the systems have no biological pest control, for example through other living organisms who fight the fungus. The only cure is expensive fungicides which have to be reapplied on a regular basis increasing the costs for the farmer.

Unleashing the potential of coffee agroforestry

Together with Tropicália and agroforestry expert Ricardo Chacón Bosch, reNature has set up a pilot plot – our Model Farm – to show that coffee can be done in a different way. Located in a highly visible spot on the top of a hillside, it serves as an example for best practices showcasing the benefits of agroforestry for coffee cultivation. 

The Model Farm integrates coffea plants – visible as small bushes – in between banana trees (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

Farmers are educated to take on the new approach themselves and pass on the knowledge to surrounding farmers. The objective is to empower local coffee growers in Tropicália’s network by introducing the benefits of agroforestry into their production systems. On 1.2 ha, the project visualizes how agroforestry can improve yields, increase the system’s resilience, and reduce input costs. 

To increase impact and scale up the approach, reNature will initiate a Model School. This educational facility will enable capacity-building for the other farmers in the area. It will utilize the existing Model Farm to enable hands-on learning experiences – farmers learn best when they can visualize a system.

Our agroforestry system is designed under the objective of maximizing profitability over the long-term (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

This way, the project will reach out to the remaining 1,000 coffee farmers in the area. The idea is to provide sustainable economic opportunities not only for the current farming generation – their average age is 56 – but also for the youth. Young people increasingly leave to search for work in the cities as they lose faith in the profitability of farming.

Boosting farmer well-being

Tropicália’s new system is characterized by diversity. Instead of only growing coffee, farmers have planted a number of other plants providing them with additional edible or non-edible produce. 

agroforestry-machines
The Model Farm integrates coffea plants – visible as small bushes – in between banana trees (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

Next to the coffea plants – producing the favorable Arabica coffee beans – the system includes a banana variety, mahogany, macadamia as well as a variety of cover crop species protecting the soil. It will produce a number of commodities such as timber and valuable macadamia nuts which can be sold to local market or used for subsistence practices. 

This way, new markets are created locally benefiting people beyond the project boundaries. Food availability is increased, whilst farmers profit from diversified income streams. This also strengthens their economic resilience.

The proud presentation of the banana plant progress by project agronomist Ricardo Chacón in March 2019 (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

Despite the lower number of coffea plants, the farm is expected to yield more than an equivalent monoculture farm. Agroforestry has proven to have an astonishing effect on coffee productivity and can increase yields by to a 100%.

1,000

future beneficiaries

100%

increase in yields

1.2 ha

Model Farm

Environmental benefits

This project centers around an important but often neglected aspect in farming: biodiversity. A system was designed including five main components: soil covering species, fast growing shadow, coffee, and two shadow perennial species.

Ground cover – for instance through grasses surrounding the coffee plants – is important to maintain soil fertility and humidity (Source: Eduardo Sousa)

The combination of these species creates beneficial biological interactions that stimulate and preserves the presence of helpful microorganisms, insects, fungi, and animals. These enhance soil fertility, and structure and imply a natural pest control mechanism. 

Living organisms can keep harmful species, diseases, or fungi – such as the leaf rust disease – in check. Within coffee systems, bacteria such as Bacillus and Pseudomonas have shown to be effective in fighting leaf rust. They imply a low-cost solution that can be applied immediately.

Crop diversification also reduces the need for fossil-fuel-based agrochemicals while benefiting plant and animal life in the area. As the amount of biomass is increased in agroforestry systems, they can store carbon much better than conventional systems. Thus, they play an active role in the mitigation of climate change.

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