• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Greening Black Coffee

Air Date: Week of

In Veracruz State in Mexico, some coffee growers are trying out alternative methods to the otherwise water polluting ones used throughout Latin America. Jana Schroeder reports from the fields.


CURWOOD: You make take it with caffeine or perhaps you prefer it without. Before you pour in the milk or cream or stir in that spoonful of sugar, pause for a moment to consider just what it takes to bring you that delicious beverage. That wonderful aroma of fresh-brewed coffee has a price, and not just the one you pay at the cafe counter. Harvested beans must pass through an elaborate process before they're ready for roasting and brewing, and the methods traditionally used in this process are blamed for the contamination of many of the waterways in Latin America. Coffee in fact is considered by some to be one of the world's most environmentally hostile agro-industries. But not necessarily in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Some coffee processors are experimenting with alternative technologies that, as Jana Schroeder reports, go easier on the earth.

(People milling, children laughing)

SCHROEDER: All the families living in this remote Veracruz village called Limones are involved in coffee production in one way or another. The lush hillsides surrounding the town at the end of a long dirt road are covered with coffee fields. Residents say there's no other work here, so their small savings from each year's harvest has to get them through the year. But despite their economic dependence on the crop, during the last harvest this community closed down the coffee processing plant located just up the stream that runs through the town. Residents like 16-year-old Maria Garcia complain the plant dumps contaminated water and coffee waste into the stream.

GARCIA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: First of all it smells really bad. And second of all it leaves us with dirty water that's not good for anything, not even for bathing.

SCHROEDER: Communities throughout coffee growing regions in Mexico have the same experience. Processing plants need lots of water and are almost always located next to rivers or streams. The water is used to soak the beans to help remove first the pulp and then another gelatin-like layer. That exposes the coffee bean itself which will later be dried and roasted. The processors even use water to move the beans from one place to another.

(Footfalls down a hallway)

SCHROEDER: Chemist Gesela Veles works with Mexico's National Water Commission. She says when processing plants return all this water to local streams it's highly acidic and murky, which kills aquatic plants dependent on sunlight.

VELES: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: On top of that the solid waste consumes the water's oxygen, depleting the oxygen available for plants and animals that live in the water.

SCHROEDER: Waste from coffee processing isn't the only nor the most serious problem for these rivers. They're also polluted by human sewage and industrial waste. But coffee processing is contributing to the deterioration of a region once blessed with plentiful fresh water. Most coffee processors admit, at least privately, that it's a big problem, but they don't see many solutions. Mexico has strict laws to protect the waterways. But if they were enforced, most if not all plants would have to close down.

(Bird calls and running water)

SCHROEDER: What's needed, according to Eduardo Aranda, a biologist at the Institute of Ecology in Veracruz, is new technology.

ARANDA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: These are industrial plants that were mostly designed in the early part of this century. They're huge operations that require lots of water and leave behind lots of waste.

SCHROEDER: But the new technology to upgrade those plants is expensive. Most processors don't have the capital. They're just recuperating after 5 years of low coffee prices. A few large processors, though, are making the investment. Mario Fernandez is repairing and upgrading his plant for the next harvest. His plant in Coatapec has one of the most advanced systems in the state.

FERNANDEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We use Colombian systems of removing the pulp from coffee beans that don't require any water at all, and we have a very efficient system for washing the beans that uses only a small amount of water. And by recycling the water that is used, this plant uses 20 times less water than traditional plants.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Fernandez has resolved a big part of the problem by using less water, but he still has only a minimal system modeled after a sewage treatment plant for treating the water he does contaminate.

(Sounds of the open road or field, birds)

SCHROEDER: But just an hour and a half down the road in Huatusco, there are some growers trying to solve that problem, too. Chemical engineer Neftali Nagel runs the water treatment system at a plant owned by a growers' cooperative.

NAGEL: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Some processors aren't investing in water treatment because they don't think they're going to get anything out of it. But we found it's possible to benefit both economically and ecologically.

SCHROEDER: In their system the solids are first filtered out. Then the water passes through a sophisticated anaerobic digester containing microorganisms that feed off the remaining contaminants. The process produces a bio gas that can be used as fuel to run part of the plant. Ultimately these growers hope turning their waste into fuel will save them a lot of money.

(Flowing water)

SCHROEDER: The idea of using waste as a resource has also inspired biologist Eduardo Aranda at the Institute of Ecology. His front yard is covered with troughs of decomposing coffee pulp, which look like piles of mud in the heavy rain. The pulp makes up 40% of the total weight of a coffee bean, and after it's removed most processors just dump it wherever they can, sometimes nearby or directly in local streams. But biologist Aranda has developed a composting system.

ARANDA: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Earthworms transform the waste very efficiently. They turn it into a very rich fertilizer that's perfect for coffee plants and for improving soil fertility. It can even be sold for a good price.

SCHROEDER: Mr. Aranda has set up a small business to sell the compost to coffee growers and other farmers. He's trying to convince coffee processors that they can do the same. Some innovative processors in Veracruz are hooking up with progressive coffee importers in the United States and elsewhere to try to sell their coffee as environmentally friendly. They hope to create new markets and show other processors that ecologically sound practices can bring economic benefits. That could help the rivers of Veracruz and other coffee growing regions run a bit clearer. For Living on Earth, I'm Jana Schroeder in Veracruz, Mexico.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth