February 2003

Good to the Last Grain

What makes the coffee growers of Mulungu so special is their
history of resistance to conventional wisdom. Their coffee is
grown ecologically in a show that environmentally
friendly enterprise is making inroads in Brazil.

Phillip Wagner

Lúcio frequently took his eyes from the road as he recounted his personal history, and intermittently assured us that the coffee fazenda we were searching for really did exist. We stopped briefly at the village of Redemption, where the first Africans had been freed following Princess Isabel's 1888 decree abolishing slavery. A short while later, we stopped at a nearby monastery, which offered a spectacular view of the 120 kilometers we'd covered since leaving the coastal city of Fortaleza.

The cool temperature, even at this elevation, seemed improbable given our proximity to the equator. But the climate was ideally suited for growing coffee. In Fortaleza, Lúcio had indicated that Brazilians were employing a revolutionary approach to produce a high quality coffee in these mountains. My then translator, now wife, Danielle, who had studied agronomy with a special interest in ecology, became excited.

Brazil generates nearly a third of the world's coffee harvest, but virtually all of it is low grade "filler", and virtually none of it is grown so far from the southern coffee capitals of São Paulo and Paraná states. We decided to hire Lúcio for the day, and my visit to Brazil assumed the character of a treasure hunt. We only learned after leaving the monastery—already more than a hundred kilometers from Fortaleza—that Lúcio had no idea where these Brazilians could be found. But good fortune smiled on us and we soon stumbled onto them in the village of Mulungu.

What makes the coffee growers of Mulungu so special is their history of resistance to conventional wisdom. For decades the governments of Brazil and the state of Ceará withheld funds from farmers who refused to clear the Atlantic Forest to maximize production, and generously funded those who did. Middlemen, and the owners of large southern coffee estates, allied with the government in an effort to undermine the solidarity of Mulungu's loose confederation. But in these mountains almost everyone is inter-related.

The children of families have been dispersed, over time, to be raised by aunts, uncles and grandparents. The practice may have originated in a time when families received a monetary incentive from the government for producing more children, when a larger population was considered necessary to provide a critical mass of necessary labor. Whether labor shortages actually ever existed, or whether landowners simply refused to put former slave labor to work, following emancipation in Brazil is debatable.

But labor shortages were perceived and incentives rendered. Over time, the incentives became devalued by virtue of inflation and the absence of an index to trigger increases consistent with the cost of living. The incentives were never reformed because employers lost interest in them as mechanization took hold. But the population swelled and available labor increased to an excess because the tradition of having large families remained strong in these remote poor communities where a man who sires many children is considered masculine.

Eventually, so many poor men were producing large families that many of them were unable to provide for all their children. Lending children out to be raised by extended family members, which had once facilitated having more children to provide more labor, now became a way to accommodate simply having too many children. One result of this serendipitous history is that the community of Mulungu projects an exceptional cohesiveness, consistent with its collective commitment to `enlightened' agricultural practices.

The Swedish Found It

In 1996, the high quality of Mulungu's coffee harvest was discovered by the Swedish enterprise "Arvid Nordquist", which has more than a hundred years experience roasting premium grade coffee beans. Although Nordquist would only agree to purchase 300 bags of Mulungu beans annually, their requirements for quality, and the manner in which the coffee it imports is grown, forced the Brazilian government to reconsider its demands for maximizing yield. The growers responded by forming the Association of Ecological Producers of Maciço of Baturité, or APEMB. Maciço is the geological name for a mountain range and Baturité is both the name of a city and the common name of the mountain range where Mulungu is found.

APEMB capitalized on its newly attained status by securing more influence to obtain a better price; and the premium quality of APEMB's product has assured that the price they receive is a good one. Of APEMB's 138 members, 75 had, by the time of our visit, already received a certificate issued by the Brazilian Instituto Biodinâmico (IBD), certifying that their coffee is grown ecologically. Ecological cultivation naturally produces a more valuable product, and is an extension of organic growing practices.

It avoids the need to apply chemical fertilizers, and relies on the maintenance of bio-diversity as a means of protection from infestations and plagues to which monoculture is most susceptible. The growers of APEMB cultivate individual coffee plants among bananas, mangos, tangerines, cashews, sugar cane, carnaúba palms, pau brasil, aloe vera, jaca and eucalyptus in the Atlantic forest. They recognize that each of these plants plays a role by creating shade and windbreaks, preventing erosion, maintaining nutrient balances and providing barriers of protection from pests and diseases.

The association's then treasurer, 23 year old Marcos José de Arruda Garcia, instructs environmental education to 5th through 8th grade students at the village school. He wants to ensure that Mulungu's tradition of ecological agriculture will be maintained. Mulungu has fewer than 8,000 residents. But thanks to the fact that the military dictatorship of the 1960s tried to unify Brazil by constructing an unprecedented communications network, it also boasts several large satellite dishes. Marcos has seen to it that programs focusing on ecology are featured in the school auditorium, where white resin chairs face an impressive large screen television and VCR.

APEMB has, up to this point, relied almost exclusively on a variety of Arabica bean they call Catuaí. Each grower in the APEMB cooperative is only responsible for one hectare, about two and a half acres, of production. The growers of Mulungu produce about 20,000 bags of coffee annually, the vast majority of which is now consumed in northeastern Brazil. Mulungu's coffee is dried in the open air, and then shipped to the port city of Belém, in the state of Pará, for roasting.

APEMB has been experimenting with cuttings of other varieties of coffee imported from the south, which Marcos is growing alongside his house in Mulungu. Ushering us inside, Marcos began to describe an Agriforest Management of Baturité program that APEMB launched. He hopes it will encourage more producers to adopt their approach. "We want to maintain the integrity of producing higher quality product on a smaller scale," he says. Marcos believes that coffee production in Brazil may never realize its full potential. "Growers and the government need to understand," he asserted, "that even the largest volumes of low quality product yield a poor return." "And the best quality product," he added, "is produced when agriculture works with nature, rather than against it". As we entered the living room a young woman appeared with a serving tray. We were about to discover that the coffee of Mulungu, like Marcos's advice, was uncommonly good.

Special note Danielle noted that the form of agriculture practiced by APEMB is considered by many in Brazil to be the more truly conventional form of Brazilian agriculture. In recent Brazilian history, all small growers would plant that way. "It was orthodox from the perspective of the growers of Mulungu. They didn't want to change". Generally speaking, the original primary incentive for small growers in Brazil to farm this way was their lack of capital to purchase new technology. But Mulungu's coffee growers have come to resist committing to practices reliant on new technology and monoculture based strategies promoting quantity over quality in favor of care for the environment.

In Brazil, coffee plants were first introduced in the northern Brazilian state of Pará in 1727, and Brazil exported its first 13 bags of coffee in 1800. That volume increased to 6 million bags in 1881, and nearly 45 million bags in 1959. As recently as 1961 nearly a million square miles of Brazil were hosting almost 5 billion coffee trees (reference Coffee and Tea by Elin McCoy and John Frederick Walker).

Phillip Wagner has contributed several articles covering many topics to Brazzil over the past several years, and can be reached at Phillip invites you to visit his web site at  

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