A Dispatch from Honduras about Cafe Imports’ Partnership with Trees, Water & People

Posted on December 27th, 2018

When you break down the work we do into three absolutely basic elements, what do you get? Trees, water, and people—right? After all, what is a coffee plant but a tree; water is necessary not only for growing and processing coffee but also brewing; and without people, well, need we say more?

Considering the incredible significance of this natural trilogy, it makes perfect sense that we have partnered with an organization called Trees, Water & People in order to maintain our carbon-neutral status and to attempt to “leave no trace” as a business in a resource-thirsty global industry.

While we release a more comprehensive report at the end of each calendar year to as a way of taking an honest assessment of our goals and success rates in our three main areas of focus (environmental, developmental, and social progress), we recently spent some time in the field with Trees, Water & People in Honduras and wanted to highlight some of the projects and initiatives that are already in place, as well as to share some of our hopes for future collaboration in the coffee lands.

About TWP

Trees, Water & People started in 1998, when two friends and former foresters came together with a simple goal in mind: Stop the deforestation of Central America. Of course, almost immediately it became obvious that their “simple” goal was anything but: While deforestation has been a huge and urgent danger for decades, especially in parts of the Americas south of the United States, TWP’s founders quickly came to realize that it’s also typically a symptom of larger, more social and systemic issues at play.

What are some of the contributing factors to deforestation? The need for lumber, the need for agricultural land, plant diseases and pests exacerbated by climate change, drought, lack of access other natural resources, and the daily stress and individualism that is caused by generalized lack of access to other necessities.

Over time, working closely with the communities in which they engaged, TWP identified a range main projects that they could develop with local populations in order to slowly and surely push back against the creep of the tractors and chainsaws. Today, their international work centers around a multi-stage program that includes replanting native and shade trees, installing cleaner cookstoves, and, in Honduras constructing rainwater cisterns for both family and community use.

Cafe Imports’ Carbon Neutrality (In Brief)

Note: Since we’ll go into full detail about our environmental efforts in our 2018 progress reports, we’ll simply give the abridged version of our carbon-neutral journey here.

Since 2005, Cafe Imports has been approaching carbon neutrality by offering financial support for establishing tree nurseries and planting efforts throughout Central America, and between 2005 and 2016 we were carbon neutral through the purchase of 80,000 trees with an organization called Trees for the Future. Also during that time, our company grew in several ways: We opened three international offices, more than tripled in size personnel-wise, and moved from warehouse and office facilities that were a combined 10,000 square feet to space that totals nearly 75,000 square feet in Minnesota alone. Interested in expanding the reach of our carbon offsets, we agreed to partner with TWP at least through the end of 2018, with the promise of an opportunity for someone from Cafe Imports to travel with program directors and inspect the projects on the ground in Central America. At the end of that cycle, we would reevaluate our contract and, hopefully, push on into the future.

In November of 2018, Cafe Imports’ managing editor Meister (who, by the way, is the person writing this report—hi there, thanks for reading!) spent just over a week visiting several communities in the Comayagua department of Honduras, which is an area where TWP has begun working in the past few years in association with a locally run organic-agricultural school called CEASO (Centro de Enseñanza Aprendizaje de Agricultura Sostenible El Socorro). Though the organization has had a presence in Honduras for many years, this area has shown itself to have high needs on account of water impoverishment, relative isolation, and rampant deforestation exacerbated by pine beetle infestations that are felling native pine forests throughout the region.

The trip was led by TWP’s international director Gemara Gifford, international consultant Valentina De Rooy, development director Patricia Flores White, and CEASO field coordinator (among a thousand other things) Gerardo Santos Mata. Meister was one of just two donors or partners who were involved in the tour, which meant there was a lot of time and energy to devote to discussing and unpacking a lot of the work and the needs of these communities.

The TWP Projects

Trees, Water & People wasn’t named by accident: Trees are still a major focus of the organization’s work, and many of its collaborations in communities start with the establishment of a tree nursery. Each nursey might contain 1,000 or so seedlings, many native varieties of tree that can be used for shade over other crops, or which produce fruit for sale or medicinal use. The young trees are raised communally and distributed to the community by the people’s decision and design; democracy and self-sustainability are significant elements of TWP’s partnership in a community.

The trees are often a first step for TWP, which uses the period during the seedling-to-sapling phase in order to display commitment and engagement with the community, meeting leaders, getting to know families, and asking after the most immediate needs of the folks there. Community members who participate in the tree project are then invited to consider replacing their stoves: Many houses in Central America utilize traditional open-format stoves, which are firewood-greedy and create deeply hazardous health conditions due to the amount of smoke that fills the house, where women and children are most likely to have prolonged exposure.

TWP has worked with local designers and builders to perfect a deceptively simple stove that not only reduces the amount of firewood necessary on a daily basis, but that also safely redirects the smoke and soot outside or out of breathing range for the family. Called “Justa Stoves” after the woman in whose house the pilot design was installed, the structures are a collaborative effort between the homeowner (who builds the base of the stove and is in charge of final touches like placement and decoration); a local community member who assists in the construction and ongoing maintenance of the stove; and TWP and CEASO, who contribute bricks, cement, and a stovepipe for diverting the smoke.

Meister “helped” build a Justa stove on the back patio at the house of Doña Norma, a tree-nursery participant and an advocate and leader within the community of La Tigra. (That is if you consider carrying some bricks and slapping on a bit of cement “helping.”) As the cement set and the first pieces of wood were fed into the flame, Doña Norma exclaimed that it was hot enough to make coffee already and ran inside to get her filter and a pot to brew in.

All of the women Meister met in the communities (because women are typically who use the stoves) said that their firewood needs cut by as much as half, and that cooking seemed faster and more efficient with the new stove. They also reported less irritation in their eyes and throats, and that their children didn’t catch colds as easily. Two women also mentioned problems they were having with the stove, which the TWP and community technicians troubleshot right away, either on the spot or by making a future appointment.

The last of the three projects TWP and CEASO introduce to the communities in Honduras are rainwater cisterns, or pilas, which allow a family or a community to collect and store rainwater for various uses including household cleaning and cooking, as well as for the nurseries and other crops during the increasingly erratic dry seasons. Many communities are isolated from a watershed or municipal water supply, and deforestation is one of the main culprits of pollution in springs, lakes, and other major water sources. The cisterns allow a family to stay close to home and to their crops, family, and other work, rather than having to make the sometimes several-hour trek to the nearest safe or usable water. The tanks are built from ferrocement with a chicken wire internal structure: Simple construction, simple materials, but only one not-so-simple step in assisting with some very complex problems.

The Takeaway

One of the reasons TWP is especially appealing to Cafe Imports as a partner is that the organization works very closely on a long-term basis with multiple coffee-producing communities, which allows us to bring a base of context to the needs and realities in the areas where the renewal efforts take place. While we don’t see coffee as a charitable enterprise, we do believe in sharing and creating access to technology and resources that can assist in creating more equity along the supply chain.

Meister was able to chat with several coffee growers over the course of the week to hear what their needs are, how the systems they use work or don’t work for them in their region, and what difficulties they face in creating and maintaining quality. Conversations like that—especially perhaps with farmers from whom we’re not sourcing coffee—are deeply valuable and provide new insights into the areas of the supply chain that are not being necessarily “fixed” by specialty coffee in the way that we might wish.

We’re pretty confident that by connecting with the growers in these areas through their relationships with TWP, we will be able to creatively brainstorm other ways to contribute to the growth and health of these communities through the work that we ourselves do best: Coffee.

Another big outcome from this trip was Meister’s reassurance that TWP and the projects they champion do not feel coercive, colonial, or forced in any way: In fact, they seem purely collaborative, and many of the community leaders have very clearly become close friends, even a kind of extended family, with TWP and its partners on the ground in Honduras. It felt like a truly organic partnership, with real give and take from both sides and the obvious benefit of long-term commitment and camaraderie in the hard, good fight for sustainability.

Trees, Water & People is a small but mighty organization—not unlike Cafe Imports or many of our customers. If you and your company are considering your carbon neutrality or offsets program, we suggest taking a look at the ways that you might partner with TWP and join us in the ongoing work of making the world—especially the coffee world—even stronger than it was before.

Visit treeswaterpeople.org/partners.html for more information about getting involved and doing more good, better.