Will Coffee Be a Casualty of Climate Change?


It was nearly one year ago that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), government officials, and scientists from more than 100 countries, wrangled for weeks in Brussels as to whether global warming was a man-made or a natural phenomenon.

They argued over droughts, air circulation patterns, snowfall, ice caps, and a thousand other indicators of whether global warming was "likely" or "directly" our fault. In spite of the strong belief in the scientific community that all of our cars, factories, and other activities were speeding up global warming at an alarming rate, the politicians managed to get the official word to be "likely."

High in the Sierra Nevada (Snow-Capped Mountains) of Colombia, indigenous Arhuaco coffee farmer Javier Mestres had no such doubts.

He did not see things in parts per million. He had never heard of the global circulation model that tried to measure increments of change in the temperature of the ocean or dynamics of the atmosphere. He was unaware that the IPCC report stated that Colombia would heat up dramatically in the next twenty years and lose 90 percent of its glacial snowcaps by 2050.

Javier saw the results of a warming planet clearly in the premature flowering of his coffee plants on his four-acre family farm in the slopes above Nabusimake, the capital of the Arhuaco nation. He showed me the smaller, weaker berries that dotted the stems and wondered why the outside world wanted to harm these beautiful plants. Why were we changing the world?

Like many of his coffee-growing brothers and sisters around the world, with global warming has come a change in temperature that is affecting crop yields. And, if the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IPCC's predictions come true and we see global temperatures rise anywhere 2.6 F to 10 F, coffee could be harder to come by in many parts of the world, not just Columbia: Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania in Africa could become unsuitable for coffee growing, and many Southeast Asian islands could be wiped off the map by rising ocean levels.

Our world is out of balance, and it seems we may be the only ones who aren't noticing.

For centuries, the Arhuaco spiritual elders, the Mamos, known in their language as the "Elder Brothers," have carried out monthly rituals in sacred sites throughout the Sierra Nevada, which they call "the Heart of the World," to ensure that the planet is kept in a geo-spiritual balance.

But for the past two decades, the Mamos have been observing rapid changes in the Heart of the World. They have watched the snowcaps on their sacred peaks shrink over time and have seen the plant life change. They have felt the lower moisture levels in the air and soil and noted the changing migration patterns of the birds and butterflies. They have shared these observations with the tribe, and increasingly with the outside world, with us-the "Younger Brothers."

I asked the Mamo I met what changes he had noticed over his lifetime.

"The Younger Brothers have come here, to the Heart of the World, and are cutting out the Mother's heart. They dig out the gold that we need for our rituals. They cut down the trees that hold the earth in place and destroy these homes for the birds. The Younger Brothers pollute the water with chemicals from mining and are making drugs from the plants, from the sacred coca!" While he spoke, he rubbed the stick onto the poporo in a hypnotic rhythm, the pain and confusion caused by the foolish actions of the Younger Brothers etched in layers. "They have invaded our land. They destroy sacred sites to make mines and farms. They are making it difficult for us to do the work we must do to keep the world in balance. What would happen if we stopped keeping the world in balance? If we didn't make the payments, would the trees still grow?"

I was taken aback by this last comment. I agreed with the need to stop the destruction, but did he really believe that the world would stop if the Mamos weren't able to perform their rituals? Did they really believe that they held the world together? To my rational mind, it seemed a quaint and romantic notion.

But maybe it was true. Maybe there is a tipping point where the whole thing comes down. It certainly happens on the micro level, where localized ecosystems and plant and animal communities crash when the balance is disturbed beyond repair. Ecologists tell us about "trophic cascade," when the crash of one system leads to the crash of another, and then of many related systems. Is the critical point on Earth located here in the Sierra Nevada? Are the spiritual rituals the prime focus of energy, the "seams" that hold the world intact? The Mamos believe so.

"So what must be done to control this destruction?" I asked respectfully. The Mamo looked piercingly into my eyes.

"All the white men must leave the Sierra Nevada."

"Uh, I know that would be ideal, but what can be done practically?"

"I told you. All the white men must leave."

Maybe that was the most effective way to protect the sacred lands, and maybe that will ultimately be the solution-create a Heart of the World International Sacred Landscape. This is the underlying dynamic for the concept of totem or taboo, the recognition that there are places or actions that must be safeguarded for the benefit of the whole. Maybe we need to recognize and protect sacred spaces, beyond the multiple-use designations of national parks and forests, so that they can be accessed only by the ritual keepers. Whether or not the keepers actually hold the world together, their ritual activities keep the need for balance between the sacred and the profane within our collective psyche.

"But there is more," the Mamo continued. "Beyond the Heart of the World, the Younger Brothers are changing the whole earth. I don't know everything they are doing, but they are changing the whole earth."

"Are you talking about global warming?" I asked.

"I don't know what you call it, but yes, the Mother is getting warmer. The rain falls differently than before. It is later, but it falls harder. It is destructive sometimes when it should be nurturing. Many of the rivers are dry before they reach the sea. And the snows on the peaks that replenish the rivers are less each year. Even the bees are disappearing, and that affects the flowering of the coffee and all other plants."

I asked the Mamo how he knew there were fewer bees.

"I can hear them. Their sound has lessened," he replied. "It is all happening very quickly. First you took our gold. Then you took our land. Now you are taking the water and the air itself. The Younger Brothers are waging a war on the earth and it must stop!"


Valledupar sits like a supplicant at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. It is a friendly, clean town where the Arhuaco and the colonists mix freely.

There were a few Arhuaco men and women in the large courtyard as we entered. The men were scribing their thoughts on their poporos and the women were doing a similar action by drawing out long strands of cotton by hand into thread for weaving. It was a peaceful scene and nobody seemed to take notice of my entrance. Nelson, the Colombian indigenous rights lawyer traveling with me, introduced me to several people, but all I got were indifferent glances or limp hands to shake.

"Don't take it personally, Dean," Nelson offered kindly. "Remember that the Arhuaco think of all outsiders as the Younger Brothers. It's not that they think you are inferior or anything, but they think you don't know much."

And, they are right. At least as far as most Americans go in terms of coffee literacy and the impact of each cup they drink. In the hyper-caffeinated world of coffee marketing, it is very difficult to tell the truth from a load of beans. And, that's what most of us are being told in terms of climate change, and in terms of what coffee farmers are paid, the latter of which often has an impact on the former.

Fair Trade allows farmers to be paid meaningful prices for their labors, a way to realize cherished dreams of education for their kids and sufficient food on the table, and to be willing to then take better care of the crops and the land around them. That's what Fair Trade is all about, and it is the most tangible result to the work us Fair Traders do.

But let me be real. Only twenty percent of the coffee from Fair Trade-certified cooperatives gets sold as Fair Trade. The rest gets sold under conventional pricing, which even at the current higher level does not give a farmer much to feed his family, and certainly doesn't give the community enough to build a school, a well or a health clinic. This is not the farmer's fault. It is the same coffee grown in the same manner.

The problem is that most people in the coffee industry are not willing to recognize farmers as true partners in our businesses-they are often simply cheap wage slaves to whom we can give pennies while selling their coffee for inflated prices. It is not an economic issue-even at our higher-than-Fair-Trade-prices paid to farmers we make a very good living. It is not a quality issue-non-Fair Trade roasters are buying the same beans as we are from Oromia (Ethiopia), PPKGO (Sumatra), and Pangoa (Peru) to name a few, just not paying the sme Fair Trade price. Quality actually improves under Fair Trade because there is simply more money for technical training, new processing equipment (such as eco-friendly washing stations) and the farmers have an incentive to care for their crop better if it will bring higher returns.

It is not an availability issue-as an example, eighty percent of the Oromia crop is out there waiting. It is first and foremost an ethical issue, plain and simple.

So take a look deep into your coffee cup. Behind the aroma, the acidity, and the body lay the real lives of farmers and their families. The choices we make at the supermarket and the café have immediate and profound impacts on almost thirty million people around the globe, on their ability to drink clean water, to educate their kids, and to dream of better lives, as well as to keep the heat off the planet. Fair Trade works. Help make it happen.

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