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The mountains of western Honduras have the perfect climate and elevation for growing coffee, and the flavorful bean is now the country’s most important crop, accounting for more than one-third of its agricultural output. 

Of the country’s 298 municipalities, 210 have some level of coffee production, making coffee the main source of income for many Hondurans. But these small-scale farmers who are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s coffee production are hungry and struggling to survive.

Worldwide demand, however, doesn’t consider their predicament. Some 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. It’s one of the largest commodities in the world, coming second only to oil.

But coffee prices are almost half of what they were last year. Unpredictable weather patterns, making plants more susceptible to disease, coupled with la roya—or coffee rust—are contributing to the crisis. Official estimates are conservative, citing a 25 percent loss for growers during the 2012-2013 season; but producers estimate that their actual loss is closer to 60 percent. The reality is that right now, coffee producers earn less than 5 percent of the cost of a cup of coffee.

Rust, a fungus that affects coffee plants, has more than 5,000 spores per spot, and a dry day with a little bit of wind is all that is needed to spread the spores to other plants. Unfortunately, even if the rust is gone next year, production will continue to drop as the infected crops recover from being severely cut back in order to help them survive the fungus.

With the crisis in coffee creating unstable prices in the global market, coffee farmers must also deal with los meses flacos or “the thin months.” This phenomenon occurs between May and October, the time of the year when most families’ income from that year’s coffee harvest is gone and the prices for basic grains are at the highest, as those crops are not harvested until the fall. To cope, these families eat less expensive and less nutritious food or borrow money from lenders with high interest rates, putting them further in debt.

In response, Heifer Honduras is working to connect these families to four local coffee cooperatives. Cooperatives help farmers achieve fair market prices for their product, as individual farmers cannot make it in the market by themselves. Heifer, realizing that income generation alone is not the answer, will help farmers and their families survive the thin months through training and gifts of livestock and plants for family vegetable gardens, helping farmers in diversifying their income and food supply.

Local coffee cooperatives provide farmers access to technical training and infrastructure to help process the coffee. Co-ops help secure fair prices for their crops, too. Without co-ops, farmers are at the mercy of the “coyotes” or middlemen who pay extremely low prices—$6 for a 100-pound bag of coffee. A co-op can help farmers sell their coffee for at least $118 per 100-pound bag and can get close to $175 per 100-pound bag for specialty coffee.

In March 2013, Heifer International President and CEO Pierre Ferrari, Vice President of the Americas Oscar Castaneda and Heifer Honduras staff visited Capucas Coffee Cooperative, one of the four participating co-ops.

Founded in 1999, Capucas has 410 members, 32 of them women, working on nearly 1,700 acres of land for coffee production. Approximately 5,000 people benefit from this co-op, covering 21 communities in three municipalities in Copan.

At the heart of the Capucas mission is to achieve better prices for the coffee that is produced. To this end, they have received three environmental certifications: Organic Coffee Cultivation; Sustainable Agriculture (from the NGO Rainforest Alliance, for the protection of the rainforests) and a Fair Trade Certification. These certifications have allowed them to plan and implement activities in renewable resource management, sustainable coffee production, organic coffee production and establishing a wet and dry milling system.

A third of their 1.5 million pounds of gold coffee produced per season can be classified as Certified Organic and/or Rainforest Alliance. All of their coffee is fair trade. 

While Heifer coffee projects are still in the early stages, farmers here are hopeful about what cooperatives like Capucas can do for them. In 2010, Capucas helped repair the local hospital and worked with a Peace Corps project to install more than 100 improved cooking stoves and 30 garbage cans throughout the community.

They are currently working with 200 members to develop organic vegetable gardens. And many co-ops work to increase opportunities for education not only for its members but also for children living in the communities. Capucas used a portion of the Fair Trade Premium to build a community library, providing a place for both children and adults to learn and attend classes.

“Together, we dream and plan for coffee communities where everybody has the best quality food all year round; by sharing gifts of animals, seeds and training, smallholder coffee farmers can keep building strong and sustainable coffee communities,” said Castaneda.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of World Ark magazine.  

Author

Falguni Vyas

Falguni (sounds like "balcony") Vyas is from Atlanta, Georgia and began working with Heifer International in Little Rock as a copywriter in 2011. She received her master's degree at Istituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy and her bachelor's degree at Franklin College Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland. She does not like writing about herself in the third person.