Here at Bewley’s, we believe in the power of community, and embrace the opportunity to develop long-term sustainable relationships that are strong, genuine and based on respect and mutual understanding.
We regularly visit our farmers to reestablish old friendships or create new ones. This can take us to far-flung destinations along the coffee belt, where high-quality Arabica coffee flourishes.
Our most recent trip was to Central America where we visited Comisuyl, a progressive coffee collective of small coffee farmers.
Brendan McDonnell, one of the team members on the trip, documented his visit for us:
Bewley’s and Comisuyl
Any time I have had the opportunity to travel to our coffee partners at origin it is obvious to me that communities in the developing world are on the front line when it comes to climate change impacts.
Whilst we muse about our weather almost as a way to make daily conversation, for the farming communities of Central America that work with Bewley’s, changing weather patterns are of huge concern and a constant theme when speaking to coffee growers large and small. So, when I first encountered Comisuyl in Honduras in 2013, after Paul (our Master Roaster) had visited in 2008, like him I was overwhelmed by the vision and ambition of this small Co-Op (about 120 members) and, in particular, the sheer doggedness of its primary leaders Maira Manzanares and Augustine Acosta. Together with their Co-Operative committee members, and the support of NGOs from the US – in particular, the Mesoamerican Development Institute – the group managed to secure sufficient funding and access to $500k borrowing. This enabled the establishment of Central America’s first working Dry Mill powered by clean energy, using only solar panels, biomass and biofuel, both of which are produced locally.
The Challenges facing our Growing Partners
Back in 2013, sitting in the tiny front room of their Subriana office, Maira Manzanares, a quietly determined small Finca (farm) owner cum Co-Op general manager, told us of the skirmishes and heated debates their governing committee had when she and Augustin laid out their ambitions for their innovative clean mill, first with their fellow members and then with the banks.
In the intervening period since that meeting, tough times have been visited on the community. Leaf rust, an airborne fungal disease specific to coffee, have had the most devastating impact on the health of coffee trees and yields. This resulted in the cancellation of exports and the loss of vital income. Up to 40% of the trees have been lost, causing massive income destruction and the requirement for increased investment to replace the dead trees.
This double calamity has meant that the original debt of $500k has had to be re-phased at eye-watering interest rates, meaning progress has stalled, for example on education and women’s support programs.
Progress in the face of Adversity
Despite these setbacks, Maira, Agustin and current President Fidel Bullino have remained steadfast in holding on to their dream. Now they are becoming part of another wider initiative aimed at the protection of the local forest. The “Nerc2arbon” program, announced in 2016 by the Mesoamerican Development Institute and in collaboration with National Autonomous University of Honduras, has been designed specifically to provide incentives for the adoption of Integrated Open Canopies (IOC) to address the environmental damage caused by increasing coffee production. The program aims to boost forest regeneration and preserve areas that serve as carbon sinks. At the same time the IOC initiative is expected to increase yields, encourage the use of Comisuyl’s clean processing and assist in the battle against the spread of airborne leaf rust. The initiative will also increase the opportunity of new revenue streams from the sale of carbon credits of the form undertaken by Bewley’s.
How Bewley’s Supports our Farmers
The amazing, quality coffee being produced by these individual small holders and the unique sustainable context of their backstory inspired us at Bewley’s to become more actively involved. And so, it was in this context that Howard, our Coffee Programme Manager, and I travelled to meet them, bringing with us, on behalf of Bewley’s, some welcome financial support, and more importantly a solid commitment to substantially increase our purchases of coffee from Comisuyl.
It was my privilege, on behalf of Bewley’s, to present the group with a cheque for $32,000 to Fidel Bullino, the current President of the Co-Op, which will be utilised to employ two field-based agronomists to assist in the development of educational coffee programs helping farmers improve quality and yields. The money represents Bewley’s on-going commitment to dispersing our carbon credit offset purchases amongst smaller Co-Ops who need such funding most, and where sustainable initiatives are being undertaken, in their case the adoption of the Nerc2arbon program. Our belief is that this represents the first payment of carbon credits by any coffee roaster made to a Fairtrade Co-Op in Central America. (Bewley’s previous purchases were made to CepiCafé in Peru).
However, this wasn’t the only good news we were bringing. We announced, with the signing of a memorandum of intent, that we will be more than doubling our purchases from the Co-Op.
This has been a journey of ambition kick-started by Maira and Augustin to lift Subriana’s coffee growers out of poverty to prosperity, from an environmentally damaged terrain to a sustainable, productive coffee collective. In my coffee travels, I have seen how this can happen, from Ramacafe and Soppexcca in Nicaragua to Capucas in Honduras, where education, environmental and community development programs are flourishing as yields, quality and professional management combine to enhance the lives of everyone attached to coffee growing.
What a transformative outcome there will be for Comisuyl and we each have a part to play. Paul O’Toole, my friend and colleague from Bewley’s, is fond of saying “find the quality, and the story will follow, not the other way round.” With the on-going dedication of the farmers to quality, the direction of the surplus income from our carbon purchases and increased coffee buying, I believe in years to come this visit will mark a significant milestone towards this goal. I certainly hope so.
Having a farewell coffee in Maira’s casa before leaving, Don Augustin eloquently summed up his emotions. Whilst he was overjoyed with the funding and commitment, he was also bursting with pride at the sense of validation and vindication of their vision and efforts of the last 10 years. It’s clearly been a tough and challenging journey thus far. Hopefully, now they will finally begin to see the benefit.
I will drink to that and can’t wait to see their progress in the coming years.