Sustainable cocoa and coffee

In southern Ecuador, alliance set up field schools for sustainable coffee production

February 21, 2024
Luciana Aliaga
Communications Consultant

What if you could source coffee that not only tastes good, but also contributes to a better future for coffee-growing communities and has less impact on the environment? In southern Ecuador, farmers are using research data, academic and technical support, putting the ‘data into action’ by gathering around 'farmer field schools' on their own plots or with their neighbours.  Find out more in this article.

Photographer: José Quintana.

Building knowledge through collaboration

Farmer Field Schools are one way to professionalise the production practices of farming families. This methodology allows them to continue learning from those they admire most: their neighbours. That is what happened to twenty-five of the best producers in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, in the canton of Palanda, Ecuador.

The Farmer Field Schools were organised by Rikolto and the Consortium of Autonomous Provincial Governments of Ecuador (GONGOPE) as part of the "More coffee and less CO2" (COCO2) project, co-funded by the G-STIC Climate Action Programme of the Flemish Government. The initiative sought to provide a starting point in the Southern Andean region of Ecuador and Peru for the development of strategies and policies to enable neutral coffee, in accordance with international standards and certifications for environmentally friendly practices.

In recent years, southern Ecuador has gained recognition for its award-winning coffee at festivals. Today, it is gaining even more recognition thanks to the country's first deforestation-free coffee export to Europe. This is the result of a partnership between the Asociación Agroartesanal de Productores Ecológicos de Palanda (APECAP) and ProAmazonía (led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition of Ecuador). COCO2 builds a way forward over that success.

"With the COCO2 project, we worked along the same lines, which is to achieve sustainable production by carrying out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study in the coffee plots," emphasises Rikolto's project coordinator, Ricardo Garcés. "Imagine comparing two types of coffee: one may require more water and fertiliser to grow, while the other may have to travel further to be transported. An LCA study will show which one has a bigger environmental footprint."

"Imagine comparing two types of coffee: one may require more water and fertiliser to grow, while the other may have to travel further to be transported. An LCA study will show which one has a bigger environmental footprint."

Ricardo Garcés - Cocoa and coffee project coordinator, Rikolto.

Data-driven solutions for sustainable coffee

As part of the COCO2 project, the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL) conducted a field study using Life Cycle Assessments on nine local farms in Ecuador to inform the development of the Farmer Field Schools training programme. Supported by research from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), the project analysed the environmental impacts, vulnerabilities, greenhouse gas reduction mechanisms, and carbon sequestration potential of the coffee chain.

This data-driven approach supported the training programme developed by CONGOPE and validated by agricultural experts. Farmers and technicians learned key topics such as Life Cycle Assessment and agroforestry system planning, as well as new coffee production techniques and diversification methods for crops such as plantain, cassava, and maize. This is strengthening the adoption of agroecological management in the Palanda area.

One of the study's conclusions is that carbon footprints can vary widely within a single production area. This underlines the need for tailored solutions, in this case for organic coffee production. Although there is no regional standard, the study is consistent with similar studies in the region - and with wider trends - in identifying main sources of degradable nitrous oxide from organic fertiliser (biol, organic matter and fossil fuels) and pest control as the main source of emissions.

Farmers' field school in Palanda, Ecuador.

Beyond profits, strengthening community bonds

From October to December 2023, for 40 days, the Farmer Field Schools became spaces of empowerment. Workshops were held where coffee producers, including some winners of national competitions like the Golden Cup, experimented in the field using the "learning by doing" method. As a result, participants were able to improve their bean yields and replicate their success in the area, with their families' involvement in the workshops.

Local and group-based training was used to implement the schools. Technical knowledge was developed on designing agroforestry farms, agroforestry and carbon neutrality, bioinputs, diversifying organic crops, and animal management. These are all practices for conserving forests and adding value to the product. The experience of the producers allows them to adopt concrete and simple practices, with low economic and infrastructural costs, but with excellent yield results for the leading cereal in the area. Examples include pruning and calculating the quantities needed for applying organic inputs like bocashi and biols in coffee plantations. Additionally, records are kept of the practices and work carried out on the farm.

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The farmers are highly motivated and receptive to the Farmer Field Schools. They gain new knowledge, learn about environmental practices, and experiment with their own products for sale in the coffee market, as well as taking part in competitions. "I have learnt the importance of reforestation in the coffee process to ensure the product and its quality to position it," says Diana Merino, a producer from APECAP. "It has been a wonderful experience to get to know the farms of other producers."

"The Field Schools propose an experiential exchange between producers, in this case participants, winners of different specialty coffee events who shared their experiences in farms and productive spaces. Adults and young people learned about urgent issues for the profitability of their crops, according to their demands and needs in a very participatory and practical format," said Diego Bermeo, the facilitator of the first edition of the schools.

Finally, the exchange and dialogue between producers have not only strengthened their knowledge of good and new practices, but also the trust and friendship between them, which is the reason behind the experiential methodology. "Each colleague has his or her own way of working, even I have always worked in a more traditional way," explains Harvey Merino, President of APECAP. "With my colleagues and the guide we have all learned from each other."

More coffee and less CO2 key results:

  • In Peru and Ecuador, 35 technicians and producer leaders have been trained to provide technical assistance and guidance on life cycle analysis and sustainable agroforestry systems.
  • In Peru, multi-stakeholder spaces such as the Cajamarca Coffee Multi-stakeholder Platform and the Amazon Coffee Technical Roundtable are being consolidated to promote carbon sequestration solutions.
  • In Ecuador, Farmer Field Schools have been developed as a training programme, validated by the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) and the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL), to provide producers and technicians in the coffee sector with training on key topics such as the Life Cycle Approach and agroforestry system management. 25 people were trained and have improved skills in production and planning.
  • In Peru, 44 technicians and producers in Cajamarca were certified in the use of Life Cycle Analysis with the support of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP).

Would you like to know more? Contact our colleague Ricardo Garces (Cocoa and coffee project coordinator - Rikolto)

Editors of this English version: Natalia Palomino (Communications in Latin America - Rikolto), Selene Casanova (International Communications - Rikolto).

Photographer: José Quintana.

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