Many who survived last year's Hurricane Mitch believed they were witnesses to the end of the world. In less than a week in October 1998, the hurricane dumped 5 feet of rain on Central America. Water quickly rose above riverbanks and around people's feet and then their waists. Then, like something out of the Koran, the mountains came to the people: rivers of fast-flowing mud poured down the hillsides, snapping trees and demolishing buildings the water hadn't already swept away. At least 9,000 people died.
If you're a conservative, you might see Hurricane Mitch and its deadly aftermath as further evidence that Shit Happens. If you're a liberal, chances are you believe that the rain was a result of El Nio, which is in turn a product of global warming.
But there's ample reason to believe that coffee was the killer. Pushed by the world's escalating, unquenchable thirst for coffee and pressured by their own dictatorial governments to increase production to relieve poverty, thousands of farmers from Mexico to Colombia have switched to agro-industrial practices to produce more, bigger and faster crops. Since the '60s and '70s, hybrid seeds, chemical sprays and "sun plantations" have replaced traditional groves of coffee trees, which are relatively intolerant to direct sunlight and require the filtering effect of shade trees to prevent their leaves from burning. Half of Central America's traditional shaded coffee groves have been replaced with sun plantations, which is where most coffee on our supermarket shelves is grown.
Because of their forest-like nature, traditional coffee fields require less water, little or no fertilizer, and no pesticides. Most important, as Hurricane Mitch proved, properly terraced, shade-tree farms-forests, really-minimize the effects of soil erosion.
"There's no question that the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch, including thousands of lost lives and tens of thousands left homeless, were amplified by deforestation," maintains Diane Jukofsky, director of the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance's Conservation Media Center in Costa Rica. For years, hillsides have been denuded by coffee farmers, loggers and fires started by farmers to increase their coffee acreage. "Many coffee farms in Central America . . . are full sun, and [coffee plants] are usually planted on hillsides, sometimes on quite steep slopes," Jukofsky said. "Coffee plants alone don't do much to hold the soil against fierce rains. But coffee grown the traditional way, under the shade of tropical trees, stands a much better chance."
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Mudslides, at least, kill quickly. The normal routines of industrial plantations-long hours, low pay, brutal conditions and chemicals-tend to kill more slowly. Orange County coffee roaster Tony Wilson learned about those facts from business associates who traveled throughout Central America. "They came back with stories about the horrific conditions faced by workers who were occasionally sprayed with chemicals," said Wilson, who has been roasting coffee here since 1984 and owns Wilson Coffee Roasting Co. "Often, entire families, including pregnant women, work the fields. If they all fall sick due to chemical poisoning, there will be no money to put food on the table."
Four years ago, Wilson found Royal Coffee, a Bay Area distributor of unroasted, organic, shade-tree farmed whole beans. He has been buying from Royal ever since. "I was still importing some [non-organic beans] for a while," he said. "Then I thought that was a cop-out, that I'd go totally organic." Royal buys solely from ASOBAGRI, a small but growing cooperative of 662 coffee growers scattered throughout Huehuetenango, Guatemala, including roughly 100 certified organic growers.
Among the coffeehouses that brew and sell Wilson's beans are Alta Coffee in Newport Beach and the Gypsy Den in the Lab in Costa Mesa and coming soon to Santa Ana.
"When I tell people the coffee was grown without the use of pesticides, they get very excited," Wilson said. "My biggest desire is to see Starbucks carry organic coffee. Then maybe everyone will stop using pesticides."