Aroma Of Organic, The Gradual Greening Of Colombian Coffee

More and more coffee growers are going organic in Colombia. A boost for the environment, the trend is also improving lives, as producers in the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta can attest.

Picking coffee beans in La Tebaida, south of Bogota
Picking coffee beans in La Tebaida, south of Bogota
Tatiana Pardo Ibarra

BOGOTA â€" Aurora María Izquierdo, a 57-year-old native Colombian and founder of one of the country's organic coffee brands, thinks caring for nature should always takes precedent over money.

How, she wonders, can mining companies pollute the country's fresh water sources with mercury, rob native communities of their lands, and divert rivers and streams? How can large cattle ranches degrade soil and cut down down thousands of trees, just so that a few people can get rich? How, given everything we know about climatic change, can people still worry more about money than their own health?

As an Arhuaco Indian of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, near northern Colombia's Caribbean coast, Aurora was one of the first women of her community to leave the native reserve and enter higher education. She earned an agronomy degree from the National University, and from there set about creating her own coffee company â€" one of the greenest around.

The company is called Anei, meaning "delicious" in Iku (the Arhuaco language). And it makes only organic coffee, meaning no synthetic chemicals â€" fertilizers or pesticides â€"are used in the production process. The Anei project isn't just friendly to the environment: It also benefits 538 families from the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa and Kankuamo tribes, which now export the fruits of their labor to places like the United States, Japan, Canada and the EU.

The families work in 64 communities or settlements in the Sierra Nevada, using practices that follow the native view of the universe. They engage in rituals, offerings and dances like the zamuyuna to ensure a good quality harvest. They are always protective of seynekun (mother nature) and guided by mamos, spiritual leaders that send their energy toward the earth.

"Our way of thinking is reaffirmed in what we produce," says Aurora. "We support the communities so they can have things like solar panels. We boost their ideas and bring them together, and allow young people to empower themselves and take over different processes and generate new know-how."

Saving the soil

Coffee is a major industry in Colombia, where it supports more than 500,000 families. Overall, the country produces some 14.2 million sacks of coffee and exports to 44 countries, according 2015 figures from the National Federation of Coffee Farmers (FNC, in Spanish).

It is precisely because of the industry's size and impact, say people like Aurora, that standard growing and production practices ought to be reexamined. The Anei project, with its focus on the environment and community participation, is still the exception to the rule. But it's not the only one.

In the community of San Pedro de la Sierra, also in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, 48 plot holders came together to create Montesierra, which has been producing coffee since 2008 that is certified as organic by the influential UTZ and Rainforest Alliance seals. The latter wants to ensure farming will help preserve biodiversity and protect resources, while benefiting growers, workers and their families.

How? Rainforest Alliance works hard to train coffee growers in skills like protecting ecosystems, wildlife and water, creating good working conditions and processing waste. Some 1.2 million growers of a range of crops sport its seal worldwide.

"We don't use any components that can pollute crops, because using fertilizers erodes and cracks the soil and in time, makes it less profitable," Montesierra's general manager, Carlos Torres, explains. For fertilizer, the cooperative prefers coffee pulp. It has the added benefit, says Torres, of being cheaper than chemical products, which can cost between 19 and 25 euros per bag.

An Alliance study from 2014 showed that Colombian estates with its seal were not just surrounded by a more varied environment in terms of plants and animals, but enjoyed better quality water and more bankside vegetation, which helps prevent soil erosion and reduces fire risks.

Empowering women

Elsewhere in the mountain range, Sandra Palacios, explains how guerrilleros with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) murdered her father and brother, then burned the family home in the department of Magdalena. She was 18 at the time.

Her family then turned to farming coca and marijuana, as coffee and cocoa no longer seemed profitable. That was until 2007, when Sandra organized with 21 other peasant families to form the Cooagronevada cooperative (Coffee Growers and Farmers Cooperative of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta), which today has Fair Trade, organic and IWCA women's seals. The cooperative exports most of its coffee to the U.S. and EU.

The IWCA certificate seeks to empower women coffee workers by improving labor and living conditions and boosting their participation in leadership and decision-making roles.

"It is very important to recognize the role of women who previously did not even dare give their opinion," Sandra says. "Now they are leaders, empowered, trained, sure of themselves. They're independent and informed of their rights and the business."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!