The Climb for Coffee

Crop diversity could make your morning brew more sustainable.

By Zach Mortice

“Altitudes” reorients formerly disused ecologies for the production of local cash crops, organized vertically in the Selva Central region of Peru. Image courtesy Openfabric.

The coffee production industry is a “global economy with a local ecology,” says Francesco Garofalo of the landscape architecture studio Openfabric. The studio has a plan for a coffee-producing region of Peru that would align local cultivation practices with global distribution networks. Openfabric’s “Altitudes” plan steps back from coffee plantation monocultures to spread cash crop risk by encouraging production of a range of foodstuffs. The goal is to create more sustainable cycles of cultivation, production, and distribution.

The plan focuses on the Selva Central region of Peru, east of Lima, which straddles both the Andes and the Amazon River Basin. The local economy is intensely reliant on coffee production, but it’s a fragile and volatile market. Prices surge and plummet on a whim, vulnerable to small climatic shifts that can greatly affect yield. That makes life for the region’s coffee producers precarious.

And lately, temperatures in Selva Central have been rising because of climate change, causing growers to move their fields uphill for cooler temperatures. This shift leaves lower elevations vacant. “Downhill, it creates a new landscape which doesn’t respond anymore to the conditions [and] habitat needed for coffee,” says Garofalo. It’s a “new buffer zone that needs to be reimagined for other uses.”

Coffee huddles under taller cash crop trees. Image courtesy Openfabric.

The Altitudes plan repurposes these vacant fields for new cultivation (especially for cacao), offering additional shade with a new set of local cash crop trees: avocados, bananas, guavas, plantain, and inga trees, which yield the “ice cream bean.” Coffee shrubs planted farther up the hill would get the same treatment, giving local farmers another set of options in case coffee prices crater. With coffee and cacao planted as undergrowth and trees above swaying in the breeze and blocking some of the sun’s rays, “it’s a landscape that has to be understood vertically,” Garofalo says.

The Selva Central region of Peru. Photo by Jacopo Gennari Feslikenian.

Openfabric (which often studies the role of productive landscapes in rural development) has been working with local agronomists to select the best plants for this arrangement. Local farmers do use taller shade plants to shelter their coffee, but often select trees that are harmful to the ecosystem such as Eucalyptus, which consumes so much water that it depletes groundwater, increases erosion risk, and reduces soil fertility. Garofalo envisions that new canopies could also be a native mix of plants that don’t do much beyond providing shade, preserving native biodiversity, and anchoring soil that’s often washed away in flood-prone areas. These environmental services alone are worth the change in cultivation techniques. But productive fruit trees could be used to delineate individual fields across plantations. Throughout, Garofalo would like to see cradle-to-cradle sustainability practices spread out across the cultivation, harvesting, and distribution processes, as by-products are recycled and resources preserved.

Openfabric, based in Rotterdam and Milan, is working on the plan with the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (a public institution that’s part of the Ministry of Economic Affairs), the Dutch embassy in Lima, and the Dutch corporate and social responsibility network CSR Netherlands—all part of a Dutch agenda to increase business relationships with Peru. “We managed to convince them that an overarching landscape vision was needed in order to frame economic opportunities in the region,” Garofalo says.

Coffee production areas, overlaid with maps of tourist access to Selva Central. Image courtesy Openfabric.
Coffee producing hubs in Selva Central. Image courtesy Openfabric.

With a wider array of locally grown and native foods come new opportunities for food tourism. Garofalo anticipates visitors’ traveling to this remote part of the nation pitched between two of its signature ecosystems. They could wander along its beautiful rivers and picturesque hillside coffee plantations, munching some ice cream beans along the way, or stop for some more refined takes on Peruvian flora. But to develop this sort of tourism, Selva Central will first have to organize and map a network of attractions (work that Openfabric has begun) and develop basic infrastructure, such as accommodations and roads.

A diagram mapping the production, processing, and distribution of coffee across local, regional, national, and international scales. Image courtesy Openfabric.

The essential agricultural processes of these landscapes will have to remain undisturbed by tourists, but Garofalo would like these places to offer views into an industry that seems remote but that manages to stock nearly every kitchen across the western world.  “We want to put tourism within the whole processing chain,” he says.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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