During our time in Pucara, we had the amazing opportunity to visit one of the more successful community economic development projects in the region – the Intag Coffee Cooperative. The Intag valley, a gorgeous mountain landscape northwest of Quito, is home to one of the most biodiverse zones in all of Ecuador (and all of the world – it’s said to be one of the 10 most biodiverse regions on the planet, due to its extreme elevation change – sea level to 11,000 ft in only a couple dozen miles). In addition to its one-of-a-kind forests, flora, and fauna, the region is also home to a wealth of valuable minerals and ores beneath its lush surface. A number of mining companies are in pursuit of digging rights, and many locals are tempted by the short-term financial returns promised by the mining companies. Without a financially viable alternative, the region is doomed to be exploited and destroyed by the mining industry.
Step in Asociacion Rio Intag, a group of coffee farmers and producers dedicated to preserving the Intag landscape through local and sustainable economic development. A fair-trade cooperative based out of Apuela, member farmers are producing organic coffee for distribution within and beyond Ecuadorian borders. The group of over 100 local farmers are very vocal about their mission – growing and manufacturing top-quality, organic, fair-trade coffee to support traditional and sustainable farming in the Intag region, providing economic benefits to local people while preventing the destruction of their landscape by proposed mining activities.
Our friend Peter Shear is one of the local growers, and is heavily involved in sustainable agriculture education (among many other things). He gave us a tour of the Cafe Rio Intag production facility, which was fascinating to say the least. The tour took us from the coffee plants in Peter’s farm, to the bean extraction, drying, sizing, sorting (did you know that every coffee bean you’ve ever consumed has been hand-sorted!?!), grinding, and tasting.
The Association also has a research division with university-trained agronomists who are testing all-natural pesticides in laboratories and in the field (a project funded by USAID).
The Co-op is thriving, with demand exceeding their current supply (50% of the coffee is currently purchased by 1 buyer in Japan, the remaining 50% is sold locally and in select markets in North America and Europe). Co-op members are looking to expand their capacity by adding additional farmers into the organization (in order to qualify, new farmers must undergo a detailed audit process, demonstrating their avoidance of banned chemicals and eventually resulting in certified organic status).
The Intag Valley (and most of rural Ecuador) is faced with a growing number of challenges in an increasingly globalized economy. With the majority of the younger working class fleeing traditional farming for greater financial opportunities in urban areas, Intag residents face an uncertain future. While the proposed mining project would bring short-term returns to these poor regions (local jobs, mining subsidies, etc), the long-term environmental impacts would be disastrous. The Intag Coffee Cooperative is one example of a successful alternative sustainable economic development model that could bring similar benefits to the local population. But it’s going to take a lot more than coffee to beat the mines.