The value of a coffee cup

14 de March de 2024

Farms in Vale da Grama, renowned for its high-quality coffee exports, have made forest restoration of the Atlantic Forest their market differentiator, aiming for productivity gains against climate change risks

By Sérgio Adeodato, from São Sebastião da Grama

Photos: Juan Pablo Ribeiro

Diogo Dias, a fourth-generation rural producer overseeing Recreio Farm in São Sebastião da Grama (São Paulo), collects several awards for the specialty coffees cultivated on his farm, for attributes that go beyond quality. In his tasting room, where global buyers gather, the farmer skillfully orchestrates a symphony of aromas and flavors, each note crafted with meticulous detail. What sets his coffee apart, he proudly asserts, is not discernible through taste, but only through the scenic landscape. Beyond the product, lies a commitment to the ongoing forest restoration of the coffee-rich region of Vale da Grama, straddling the border between São Paulo and Minas Gerais—a commitment that pays dividends for both the environment and crop yields.

The family's coffee legacy, dating back to the inaugural harvest in 1893, when the great-great-grandmother sought health treatments in the thermal waters of nearby Poços de Caldas (Minas Gerais), took a transformative turn in the 21st century when Diogo, a freshly minted agronomy graduate, assumed the reins of the farm. With an eye on the global market for specialty coffees, he ushered in innovative ideas and a renewed purpose. "Our strategy has revolved around adding value for buyers who have an eye for certain product characteristics such as quality, sustainability and origin," explains the farmer. 

Initiatives to replant trees followed the launch of international certification seals, which attest commitment to compliance with environmental laws governing the preservation of native vegetation, such as Legal Reserves (RL) and Permanent Protection Areas (APP). At Recreio Farm, 54.9 hectares of forest have taken root, largely in response to the demands of Nespresso—a company dedicated to specialty coffees and committed to socio-environmental protocols in sourcing its products. Its’ suppliers engage in tree planting activities as a way to comply with the company's carbon offsetting goals, part of its broader business strategy aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change. 

Special coffees incorporate socio-environmental actions.

Teaming up with the exporter Bourbon, the company invested in donating seedlings through the Forests of the Future program, run by the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation since 2004. The strategy brings together civil society, private enterprises, landowners, and the government in collaborative projects aimed at restoring forests. Both individuals and companies can contribute in two ways: through voluntarily participation or mandatory compensation in the state of São Paulo through the Environmental Recovery Commitment Agreement (TCRA).

The program facilitates collaboration between donors and rural landowners who need to restore areas to comply with the Native Vegetation Protection Law (12.651/12). Seedlings are strategically planted based on the mapping of priority areas for restoration in the biome. The NGO teams up with plant nurseries and service providers to diagnose areas, plant seedlings, ensure upkeep, and monitor progress. This effort boosts the restoration chain. 

Jaguars and Anteaters in the Coffee Fields

In Vale da Grama, thanks to the support of the NGO, 213 thousand seedlings have been planted across eight properties to date. This effort was made possible through the generous donations of companies committed to sustainability. Notably, 98 thousand seedlings—almost half of the total—have been supplied to Recreio Farm since 2020. The project involves planning for seedling planting, identifying areas in collaboration with rural producers, and providing technical support and monitoring for a five-year period. This initiative meets the socio-environmental requirements for certifications that enable market differentiation. 

The farmer has not only embraced this cause, but also wishes to restore an additional 26.3 hectares, transcending the realms of Legal Reserves (RL) or Permanent Preservation Areas (APP). "Our vision extends beyond legal obligations; we aspire to rebuild forests in areas that are unsuitable for traditional agriculture. Our strategy involves creating ecological corridors," shares Diogo. He points to the hills on the map where eucalyptus plantations will make way for native forests, bringing back biodiversity. The positive outcomes have fueled an even loftier ambition. Anteaters, deer, and even pumas—species once thought extinct—now freely roam the area, adding an extra layer of value to the experience of those who visit coffee shops. 

"We gave up 8 hectares of coffee fields to safeguard seven springs," reveals the producer. He reflects on a time when his grandfather received government incentives to clear land and plant, even in areas close to water sources. Vestiges of past practices, such as the old brickyard with its wood-fired ovens and a sawmill, stand as silent reminders of a bygone era. The present directive is clear—the focus is on restoring forests. "We've fenced off the springs and the area designated for natural regeneration, which has been enriched with native seedlings and other techniques, all in collaboration with SOS Mata Atlântica," Diogo explains. He underscores, "When we stop producing in these Permanent Protection Areas, it doesn't lead to losses; quite the opposite—it's a gain for all." 

Water security is a growing concern, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The farmer recounts a 30% crop loss in 2022 due to insufficient rainfall. "In addition to helping the microclimate and the quality and availability of water, which is crucial for drip irrigation across 35 hectares of our coffee fields, forest restoration plays a pivotal role in crop pollination and pest reduction, ultimately boosting productivity," adds Diogo. 

The producer's insights align seamlessly with recent scientific research in the region, which underscores that restoration not only leads to increased coffee production, but also offsets the costs associated with planting a forest—and potentially going beyond that, which can serve as an additional incentive for compliance with environmental laws. Published in the scientific journal One Earth, the study bears the signatures of Francisco d'Albertas, a PhD in Ecology from the University of São Paulo (USP); Gerd Sparovek, coordinator of Geolab (Esalq-USP); Luís Fernando Guedes Pinto, executive director of the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation; Camila Hohlenwerger, a PhD in Ecology from USP; and Jean-Paul Metzger, a professor in the Department of Ecology at USP.

Due to these positive outcomes, there is a growing openness to innovative ideas: a regenerative agriculture project, in collaboration with Nespresso, has introduced the use of organomineral fertilization through composting coffee straw.

Premanet Preservation Area is fenced and restored at Recreio Farm

At the same far, the coffee plantation coexists with native vegetation.

Initiative Sparked the Creation of a Municipal Plan 

The lessons learned from restoring the forests in Vale da Grama are now shaping a fresh, dynamic approach in a volcanic region blessed with the perfect soil and climate for growing coffee, situated at an altitude of 1,100 meters. By actively planting trees and adopting responsible practices, the cornerstone of the region's economy—specialty coffees—is not just thriving, but also becoming a catalyst for local policies with broader impacts.

In the wake of this transformative work, the municipality of São Sebastião da Grama crafted its own Municipal Atlantic Forest Plan, which includes a survey of native vegetation, sustainable use guidelines, and earmarked zones for conservation and rehabilitation. Given the nod in 2022 following local discussions, with the support of SOS Mata Atlântica, the instrument sets its sights on increasing forest coverage from 8.5% to 12% within the municipality over the next three years.  

Luiz Felipe Brasil, the municipal secretary of the environment, acknowledges, "We need to revive the Municipal Environmental Council, which includes rural producers, assess our commitments, and seek partnerships to reach the population. Keeping the initial momentum alive is paramount."

Municipal plans are integral to the execution of the Atlantic Forest Law (Law 11.428/2006), which protect the biome. Through them, actions are undertaken to enlighten local governments, empower technical teams, aid in document preparation, and set up public consultations for plan approvals. In São Sebastião da Grama, SOS Mata Atlântica has provided training in spring restoration and water quality monitoring, crucial elements to advance the plan in the coffee sector.

The Foundation played a key role in identifying areas primed for restoration and engaging with producers to share the importance of these initiatives. Baobá Farm received 8,000 seedlings, restored stream banks, and is now working to persuade neighbors to follow suit and form a larger forest fragment for the collective good.

At Pinhalzinho Farm, where the grass of old pastureland persists, springs were cordoned off to prevent cattle interference and allow native vegetation to regrow naturally. Nevertheless, challenges remain. Right next to the farm, a road project transported mud into the stream, burying recently planted seedlings. A roadside sign bluntly reads: "Government of São Paulo – Recovery of Vicinal Road SSG-326 – 13 km – R$ 27 million."

Confronted with the aftermath of this project, the SOS Mata Atlântica team recognizes the futility of restoring millions of hectares if such endeavors persist or if rural producers neglect proper soil conservation. While forest restoration undeniably contributes to water conservation and resilience, it is by no means a panacea.

The marriage between coffee and new forests is far from simple, but it seems like it's here for the long haul. Moreover, other agricultural players in the region, such as olive and macadamia, may well tread a similar path. At Recreio Farm, which spans 596 hectares and preserves 35% of its total area, coffee production reached 3,200 bags in 2023. "Our aim is to more than double that figure, reaching around 7,500 bags annually within four years," reveals Diogo. 

Besides coffee, the farm engages in a small-scale mix of activities, including cattle farming, eucalyptus cultivation, and the growing of grapes for wine and sparkling wine production. It plans to expand the menu. By embracing forest restoration, the experience garnered with specialty coffees, particularly the Arabica variety, typical of high-altitude areas, can benefit other products that also share the same landscape. However, as the producer keenly observes, "The market is yet to fully embrace and value sustainability as a differentiator. In the field, in a time of climate changes, sustainability is gaining traction, so connecting the dots is imperative."

"Forest Flavor" Exports

In Poços de Caldas (MG), which neighbors Vale da Grama in the state of Minas Gerais, Bourbon, a specialty coffee exporter, operates as an intelligence hub that selects the finest lots from farms and monitors market quotes for international sales. "Foreign trade regulations are becoming more stringent due to climate changes," says Marcelo Viviani, head of the local office, who assists producers in achieving quality standards and socio-environmental certifications, including those related to forest restoration. 

With six offices across the country, Bourbon exports 350,000 sacks of specialty coffees annually, mostly to Europe and Japan. Around 20% is earmarked for Nespresso, their primary client. "Brazil is the largest global coffee producer, commanding a 40% share in the global market and supplying significant quantities of the commodity, but not necessarily emphasizing quality," explains Viviani. Only 10% of Brazil's coffee production is classified as 'specialty,' catering to premium markets that demand good field practices and socio-environmental credentials. "With these characteristics, export value increases 5% to 30%, reaching around R$1,200 per 60-kilogram sack. This figure can soar even higher with awards and international recognition," states the Bourbon manager, a trader in the global Ecom group. 

In addition to international certifications like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, Bourbon sets its own standards for supplier approval. This includes, for example, origin traceability, controlled use of agrochemicals, and ensuring quality living conditions on the farms. The company aims to broaden its organic certification and has a promising project in the pipeline for a Vale da Grama origin seal. The initiative is seeking to promote sustainable rural development across 13 municipalities in the region.

Marcelo Viviani's map to incorporate value to the coffee with environmental gains.

Taste-tester Jamaica Ribeiro tries out flavours at the Bourbon lab.

In the Bourbon facilities in Poços de Caldas, screens connected to commodity exchanges support pricing for the sale of coffee to distributors worldwide, who then pass it on to retail. Display panels showcase their inventory control, while shelves flaunting award-winning labels beckon visitors to indulge in tastings. Next to the showroom, the testing laboratory assesses every aspect of hundreds of product samples, both physically and sensorially. "We need to stay focused, so we can't use perfume or any scent that might interfere with the analysis," says Jamaica Ribeiro, who has nearly two decades of experience in the craft. At home, the product is a rare delight: "Only in the mornings to wake up." 

As a woman, Ribeiro has faced resistance in a predominantly male profession, but now participates in renowned competitions that award the best coffees. Only a few are connected to the restoration of the Atlantic Forest, a small group of certified farms with proven compliance with environmental laws—a mere 1%, from Vale da Grama. "The ongoing challenge is to get more producers involved," emphasizes Marcelo, tirelessly dedicated to coordinating properties on this front.

He has been championing restoration efforts since 2002, when he led the planting of 120,000 native seedlings to safeguard 124 springs in a project by the Municipal Department of Water and Sewage, in Poços de Caldas. Two years later, he started working wit agricultural certification programs. Today, the goal is to replicate the lessons learned from the interaction between coffee and biodiversity in the Atlantic Forest in other coffee-producing and supplying regions. "Those who work with specialty coffees, especially the new generations, are more open to innovations, and word of mouth helps to break down resistance," analyzes Marcelo.

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