From Ficus to Filter: Certification as Market-based Environmental Change
BY: Arshiya Bose (2013 Kinship Fellow)
How global certifications fall somewhat short of local biodiversity needs … and the need to innovate for locally relevant and democratic market-based solutions.
As a Kinship Conservation Fellow in 2013, I had strong opinions, but muddled ideas, about how to address biodiversity threats in coffee producing landscapes. As a conservationist and coffee addict, the knowledge that every cup of coffee destroys 3cm2 of rainforest, just doesn’t sit well. And 1.4 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. As an aspiring conscious consumer, what must I do? If I want to become aware of the ecological footprint of coffee, where can I access information? If I want to drink filter coffee with minimal environmental impact, can I find it? A little over a year later, I have put into motion the beginnings of a social enterprise that aims to use various market-based solutions to incentivize coffee producers, roasters, and retailers to grow and sell coffee grown under the shade of native-tree species. This project, going by the name of Gaia’s Cup, has taken its first steps on the ground.
The core idea for this enterprise model came from two well-researched facts in India. The first was that biodiversity threats from loss of shade cover were measurable and increasing. The second was that global certification schemes did not address these threats in truly transformative ways.
Measuring Biodiversity Threats
With respect to shade trees and biodiversity, the case of certification in India is quite unique. Coffee production in India began in the forests, amidst trees and alongside beasts.
All across the world in some of the most famous coffee locales, such as Columbia, Brazil, and Costa Rica, beans are most likely grown in areas where forests were almost totally clear-felled to plant coffee. In these regions, coffee plantations look like those of tea – endless rolling hills of coffee and one hilltop visible from the next. This method of ‘sun’ coffee is becoming increasingly preferred the world over for its booming productivity.
In India however, coffee is entirely shade-grown. It is one of the only countries in the world where 100% of its coffee is grown under the shade of forest trees. In most coffee growing regions in India, coffee plants compose the ‘undergrowth’ of a forest mosaic.
Coffee farms in India are also teeming with wildlife, especially if one looks closely underneath leaves or in the soil. Many threatened birds either nest in coffee farms or use these farms as safe flying pathways between forest fragments. Charismatic elephant giants are passé weekly visitors, often ignored, but sometimes shooed away for disrupting coffee picking activities. Leopards, however, are considered elusive celebrities!
At first glance, coffee growing in India sounds perfect. Coffee farms exist. So do trees and wildlife. In reality, however, like all coveted things, this harmony is fleeting. Coffee growing has intensified exponentially in the last three decades. Forests, paddy, and fallow lands have been brought under production. Shade trees on farms have been thinned out to allow in sunlight to boost yields. What used to be 100% shade-grown coffee is today less shade-grown and perhaps veering toward sun coffee.
So biodiversity threats have been clearly measured.
Sustainable Certifications Fall Short
Compared to elsewhere in the world, in India, the concepts of sustainable or shade-grown coffee are entirely new. In fact, most Indians don’t know what these terms mean. We therefore have a unique opportunity to discuss, debate, and find meaning in these terms for ourselves, and authenticate these beliefs with impacts on the ground. I think this makes us very lucky.
In the past, normative frameworks (i.e. ideas of good and bad) for social justice, environmental issues and business ethics were vocalised by governments, labour unions, and even religious organisations. However, in the current scenario of globalisation, ideas and cultures around social and environmental issues are ‘transnational’ rather than national. These norms are increasingly pushed for by non-government actors, such as NGOs, businesses, and public-private partnerships. Instead of laws and mandatory regulations, we see ‘voluntary regulations’ (less so in India but certainly elsewhere in the world).
The most prolific of these concepts are ‘sustainability certifications’, also called ‘eco-labelling’. Certifications work by ‘naming and shaming’ bad practices and creating incentives through certifying good practices. These extend beyond coffee of course (see FSC and MSC certifications).
The coffee industry has been one of the most active spaces for such certifications. A walk down the aisle of a supermarket presents a diversity of packages imprinted with images symbolic of the goals that they attempt to achieve – resplendent tropical birds, shade trees and faces of farmers. Intertwined with these images are the stamps of certification labels; Fair Trade, Organic, Bird-Friendly, Starbuck’s C.A.F.E. Practices, UTZ-Certified, and Rainforest Alliance.
Unfortunately, that’s the extent of most people’s experience. Knowledge about these certifications stops at the label. Most don’t know what environmental and social practices each of these certifications require from farmers. Most don’t know whether these certifications have positive impacts – whether they improve forest cover, increase populations of threatened species or secure livelihoods of farmers. More importantly, most haven’t a clue whether they have adverse impacts. We simply aren’t aware of the fine print.
However, most do know that certifications are global, meaning that certifications promote the same standards irrespective of the country or production system. For example, in Fair Trade certifications, farmers have to set up and run co-operatives and trade with buyers as per identical rules across different countries. Similarly, Rainforest Alliance certification requires coffee farms to maintain at least 12 tree species per hectare of farm area in India, Brazil, or wherever else.
Keeping all of this straight seems tricky.
With regard to shade-grown certifications, in India we find (courtesy of amazing scientists at the Coffee Agroforestry Network – CAFNET) that coffee farms can have up to approximately 54.34 species per acre. So while farmers in Brazil have to totally re-jig farming practices to meet biodiversity standards of certification schemes, coffee producers in India can sit back and practice business as usual? Pretty much – which is what I found while I was doing research on coffee certification in India. Despite clear evidence of biodiversity loss, Indian farmers were in compliance with the certification standards.
In addition to conservation problems, current coffee production also leaves social costs. Workers on plantations are often from highly marginalized communities, including landless adivasis (forest-dwelling indigenous peoples). We do not know whether employment on coffee plantations has been beneficial or exploitative of workers, but we do know that global certifications are unlikely to address the entire gamut of environmental and social problems that are peculiar to the Indian context.
So one size doesn’t fit all.
This situation causes me immense coffee-related indigestion – not wholly due to the increased consumption of chemical pesticides and fertilisers that go along with intensified farming. So I did what any sensible, strategic thinker would tell me not to do. I started a brand of coffee that wasn’t a business, but was a venture into the alternative. Gaia’s Cup is an experiment to reconcile coffee production with biodiversity conservation. We work on ways to support and incentivise coffee growers to conserve forest trees and wildlife species on their farms. We do this through a social enterprise setup – coffee from ‘conservation blocks’ on farms is sold and revenue is invested back into conservation activities. Or that’s the plan anyway! This started with developing a local farming philosophy for coffee. We have discussed and debated with coffee producers and gleaned the best of the global certification standards into a ‘coffee and conservation practice’ – currently piloted on seven farms in Kodagu district, India.
Gaia’s Cup is an experiment to reconcile coffee production with biodiversity conservation.
Venturing into a meaningful alternative isn’t straightforward. On the contrary, it is replete with dilemmas – ethical, moral and pragmatic. We may come out the other end with a project that is no alternative at all – a coffee company that trades ginormous volumes, imposes rigid rules on producers, but has little meaningful conservation or social impact. Or we could be too small, reaching only ten plantations in ten years. There is no ready prescription for the path we need to take, but the ball has been set rolling. As we roll, we will continue to reflect on our work and its contribution to the sustainable coffee movement. We’re hoping our iterative approach will help us define sustainable coffee for ourselves. For now, it would be fair to say that we’re just experimenting.
Arshiya Bose has been captivated by the natural world ever since her school years at Rishi Valley when they would shake scorpions out of their shoes each morning! In 2005, she completed an undergraduate degree in Biology and Creative Writing from Bryn Mawr College. Although, this was an unconventional combination of subjects and people tried to dissuade her, she was keen to explore interdisciplinary disciplines and experiment with creative ways of expressing biological phenomena. In 2005, she undertook an MPhil in Environment, Society and Development from the Department of Geography at Cambridge University and for the first time, learned about the complexity of protecting nature. She subsequently returned to India to work with Kalpavriksh, an environmental NGO doing policy advocacy on livelihood rights of forest-dwelling indigenous communities. With the desire to learn how to carry out research, she returned to Cambridge in 2009 for a PhD. During her PhD research, she felt very strongly that academic research was not enough to conserve the coffee landscape I had been studying and loved so dearly. Motivated by the desire to make a difference, she set up Gaia’s Cup, a small organization working on conservation in these landscapes. Through this work, she hopes to build partnerships with coffee growers to enhance sustainability by maintaining the forest elements of coffee plantations. This includes evaluating current market-based incentives such as certification and price premiums for eco-friendly coffee and proposing modifications or alternatives to these existing mechanisms.