Indigenous Farmers in Honduras Grow Ecologically Sustainable Coffee

In an important ecological buffer zone of northeastern Honduras, farmers are learning how to improve their coffee productivity while preserving the natural landscape. A TechnoServe program helped farmers raise productivity by 200% while still ensuring the environmental sustainability of the largest protected land in the country.

Man in Honduras raking coffee beans

In a remote community 200 miles northeast of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, coffee farmers like Nora Echeverría once faced a difficult decision: protect the environment or earn a good living from coffee farming?

The village of Subirana in Olancho Department, Honduras, is a community of Pech people, an ethnically indigenous group who live in the buffer zone – a protected zone around a critical ecological area – of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.

A Pech farmer working in a coffee drying facility as learns ecologically sustainable techniques
A Pech farmer working in a coffee drying facility as learns ecologically sustainable techniques

The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is a storied and historic place, known for legends about the white walls of a lost city looming over impassable jungle foliage. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1980 by UNESCO, the Reserve is the largest protected area in the country with 350,000 hectares of lush rainforest flourishing along the watershed of the Río Plátano River as it snakes to the Caribbean Sea. 

But the Pech community still needs to make a living, and Reserve ecological preservation requirements limit the productivity of smallholder coffee farmers in Subirana, where coffee is an essential source of income. 

Nora Echeverría, 36, is a mother of three and smallholder farmer who has lived in Subirana all her life. She depends on her coffee crop for income to send her children to school and fix her home. 

“Before the project I did not take care of my farm and my income was very low,” she says. 

How Can Ecologically Sustainable Farming Methods Protect the Environment and Benefit Farmers?

The Reserve area around Nora’s home hosts an extraordinary number of endangered animal species, more than 30 different ecosystems, and many rich archeological sites. This makes it a conservation priority for the Honduran government and the Pech people alike.

Faustino Escobar, a local farmer, examines his coffee as it dries in Subirana, Honduras
Faustino Escobar, a local farmer, examines his coffee as it dries in Subirana, Honduras

But the Reserve has long suffered from human activities such as drug trafficking and illegal resource extraction. The latter contributes to a deforestation rate of nearly 2% every year in Honduras.

Under ancestral customs and UNESCO requirements of the buffer zone, the people of Subirana help protect the forest from agricultural logging and cattle ranching – two of the main causes behind the Reserve’s “extreme threat of deforestation.” 

It can be challenging, however, to balance environmental protection with coffee production. Nora’s farm, which also has beans and corn, was neglected and she wasn’t placing much importance on its upkeep, leading to low production and sales – and affecting the income Nora’s family received. 

Before [the program], we did not give the necessary maintenance to our farms. We only mowed from time to time, we did not fertilize, and we did not control pests or diseases.”

– Nora Echeverría, coffee producer, Honduras

Coffee in Honduras constitutes 5% of the gross domestic product, making the country the largest coffee-producing country in Central America. But the upcoming 2021 coffee harvest in Honduras is expected to drop 12% – a result of the hurricanes that struck during the last harvest, the subsequent leaf rust fungus outbreak, and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Making Pech Coffee Ecologically Sustainable

In 2017, community trainers from TechnoServe’s Sustainable Agricultural Improvement (MAS 2.0) project visited Subirana. The program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and works with smallholder farmers in the coffee and bean value chains to increase farm productivity and facilitate access to better markets.

The TechnoServe trainers listened to the challenges the Pech farmers were facing growing coffee the traditional way. And they set to work helping the farmers apply a new set of climate-smart coffee practices:

  • Planting shade trees among the coffee crops, which reduced weed control costs by 30% and helped prevent soil erosion
  • Using coffee pulp as an organic fertilizer, which improved soil fertility
  • Natural pest control solutions, which reduced coffee spoilage

Knowing that any solutions needed to be sustainable for the local environment, TechnoServe helped the community procure 17 solar dryers through donations, which allow coffee cherries to be dried in any weather and protect the coffee from the elements. These dryers helped them further improve the quality of their coffee.

With the application of the agronomic practices learned in the training, the Pech community improved the amount of coffee they produced by 200%. They also improved the quality of their coffee cup to a score of 82, according to a Specialty Coffee Association scoring system.

“The preservation of the environment is a challenge we have as a community. We have managed very well the cultivation of coffee without destroying the forest,” adds Nora.

Take this quiz to find out what type of coffee fits you best, then learn more more about about how climate change is impacting the future of coffee:

Taking Ecologically Sustainable Coffee to Market

The community was also able to increase their coffee profits by 66% through a direct market connection. Prior to joining the program, farmers sold their coffee to a local middleman, who often paid low prices.

As a result of the improved coffee quality, TechnoServe was able to link farmers in Subirana to a major exporter, Molinos de Honduras, which paid higher, more reliable prices. The community has since worked with the exporter through two harvests. 

We noticed the difference between the prices of the middleman and Molinos de Honduras. Now we can say that they pay us for the effort we put into our work.”

– Faustino Escobar, coffee farmer, Honduras

In addition, by selling directly to the exporter, the farmers now keep a production record that helps them analyze crop sales and better organize marketing. 

A group of farmers from Subirana who have learned ecologically sustainable techniques in a TechnoServe program stand with their crops
A group of farmers from Subirana who have learned ecologically sustainable techniques in a TechnoServe program stand with their crops

And the training has benefited everyone: The new income covers many needs in the community, including school supplies, uniforms, better food, and improved healthcare.

For Nora, the extra income enabled her to improve her kitchen and convert her home from wood to mud-brick while still sending her children to school. 

“With the arrival of the project I am more involved in the Rural Community Bank and in my farm. With the proper assistance I can see the results. Thanks to the project I have changed my way of life,” says Nora. 

Now the farmers have set their sights on purchasing computers, coffee moisture testers, scales for accurate weighing, and improved communications technology to make their operations even more efficient. 

Learn more about how coffee farming can change lives.

Ecological Sustainability Enables Community-Building

The Pech community also knows that environmental sustainability will continue to be a priority, especially with climate-related challenges ahead. But they are dedicated to preserving the local environment – while still seeing their incomes rise. 

In this way, the Pech community – long subject to the trespasses and mythmaking of outsiders – is writing a new chapter of its own story.

“I did not believe that we would be able to reach Molinos and sell our product directly. I also did not believe that we would be able to obtain economic funds to be able to help our people with small loans,” says Valentin Hernandez, a local farmer. 

TechnoServe has shown us that only by being organized and fighting can we achieve our goals.”