Green Monopolists: Starbucks and Conservation International in Chiapas

Starbucks “Carbon-Neutral” Coffee

by Dawn Paley | Watershed Sentinel

The afternoon scene at the Jaime Sabinas sports complex in Jaltenango, a town in southern Mexico, is about the farthest thing imaginable from a bustling Seattle coffee shop. I’ve come to this mountainous region, hours by gravel road off the tourist track, to get a first hand look at what life is like for the people who grow the coffee we’re told is fair trade. After a drive through Jaltenango, a medium-sized, coffee growing town with prominent coffee warehouses decorated with Starbucks logos, I arrived at the stadium to meet a group of people displaced from their homes and plantations in September.

Over 100 people have been living in these close, cramped quarters since December. Most of the community left their lands after heavy rains caused mudslides in September, and now they sleep side by side on mats on the floor in a concrete auditorium. They’ve lived through an epidemic of lice, an outbreak of skin disease, and a series of respiratory infections.

The parking lot is the makeshift central park in this temporary village, which resembles a refugee camp. White, plastic roofed tents with blankets for walls serve as school and the kitchen. “It’s a disaster,” said one woman, one of the few who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. “In that damn stadium we have to sleep all squished together.”

The people living in the sports stadium seemed afraid of speaking to foreign journalists, as if the entire future of this community, known as Nuevo Colombia, depended on the kindness of the state government. They were promised permanent houses in a model village style housing block known as the Sustainable Rural City of Jaltenango. This new village, one of five of its kind in Chiapas, was supposed to be ready in February, but by July, not a single house had been constructed.

Most mornings, the men return to their small plots of land to care for their coffee plants. They sell their beans to a variety of organizations, including Mexico’s largest coffee buyer and exporter, United Agroindustrialists of Mexico (AMSA). Day to day life is precarious. Before long, I was escorted off the gated premises of the sports complex by police and private security. My first taste of what life is like for coffee growers displaced by an extreme climate event was about as pleasant as a day old cuppa joe. And it was just the beginning.

Green Monopolists: Starbucks and Conservation International

Over the past 20 years, Starbucks Coffee has come to shape the way people around the world drink their coffee: tall or venti, extra hot or frappuchinoed, and most importantly, no-whip, which is to say, without guilt. Beyond the coffee, recyclable cups and  fair trade beans connect the Starbucks brand to a feel-good experience for consumers.

But far away from the familiar buzz of the grinder and the staccato of a barista cleaning the espresso machine, there’s growing concern about the goals of the world’s largest gourmet coffee company. Not only is Starbucks failing to live up to its current rhetoric, say other local growers and fair trade proponents, but the company’s plans for the future are cause for concern.

Dressed in a collared shirt, posed on a rock beside a stream that cuts through his family’s coffee farm, Efraín Orantes Abadía talks to a filmmaker working for Starbucks and Conservation International. He describes the measures his family takes to ensure that their coffee is grown in an ecological way, and in the final cut, gentle piano music plays in the background.

The next scene in the video, a promotional tool for Starbucks’s Shared Planet brand, is inside a Starbucks coffee shop. A barista is offering up organic, shade grown Mexican coffee, and as the camera pans along a bag of beans from Chiapas, a customer expresses their taste for coffee that protects birds. The video then takes viewers back to the Orantes’ harmonious plantation, which is known as Finca Arroyo Negro.

The reality on the ground is a little different. Small scale coffee growers are among the most precarious labourers in the region, as I’d already seen in Jaltenango. By the time I met Orantes two years after the promotional video was shot, the story shifted even more.

“Shared Planet, the program of CAFE Practices, after we worked on their documentary they promised lots of things to support us in our efforts to look after Triunfo [biosphere reserve], they promised us equipment and assistance, and we haven’t received anything,” he said.

Finca Arroyo Negro has since stopped selling their coffee to Starbucks, having realized there’s better money elsewhere. They’re not the only ones. At least four well established growers’ cooperatives in Mexico broke ranks with Starbucks and Conservation International  after the introduction of CAFE Practices in 2004. Many of these growers sought out smaller buyers with a strong commitment to the principles of fair trade.

CAFE Practices is a self-regulated “farmer equity” certification program designed by Starbucks and Conservation International. “Unlike Fair Trade, their standards do not include a guaranteed minimum price to the producer,” according to Marie-Christine Renard, a sociologist from the University of Chapingo in Mexico State.

Together with Conservation International, Starbucks has undermined the strength of smaller coffee cooperatives, writes Renard, who points out that AMSA plays an intermediary role in the CAFE Practices program.

“They want to monopolize the production and cultivation of coffee,” said Jordan Orantes Balbuena, Efraín’s father and the owner of Finca Arroyo Negro, referring to AMSA. “They monopolize production, and they pay producers the price they want.”

From “Farmer Equity” to Carbon Neutrality?

Conservation International is certainly no stranger to controversy. With annual revenues upwards of $77 million last year, you could say that CI is to environmentalism as Starbucks is to coffee: a green machine.

In their  2010 annual report, Conservation International calls the results of their partnership with Starbucks in Chiapas “one of the first and most notable corporate engagements to address climate change.”  But outside the feel good gloss of annual reports and promotional videos, the relationship between CI and Starbucks isn’t quite so transparent.

The air conditioning blasted cool relief as I stepped through the front entrance of the sprawling Camino Real hotel in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. The occasion was the presentation of the coffee growing sector’s strategy with regards to climate change in Chiapas, an event hosted by the Government of Chiapas and Conservation International .

Under the bright lights of the chandeliers in the hotel ballroom, over 100 coffee farmers were broken into four groups, each sitting around a facilitator with a flipchart. I joined in the back of one of the groups, our facilitator was a representative from the UN. He was coaxing the men to participate, asking them to give some feedback; when that failed he tossed around a plastic ball, and whoever got stuck with it when he called out “time up” would be required to read from an 87 page document prepared before the meeting started.

This, I realized, was part of what Conservation International and the government of Chiapas would later call a consultation process with peasant farmers. Risk management, related to erosion and extreme weather events was the top priority for these coffee farmers, who tend to between 0.5 and three hectares of shade grown coffee plantations. Many of these events are connected to climate change, though CI presented climate change as an altogether separate phenomenon, for which it proposed a novel solution: a new climate law, and the invisible hand of the carbon market.

“The project on actions to mitigate climate change, which is forest carbon capture in coffee growing communities in the Sierra Madre, started three years ago, in 2008,” said Monica Morales, the technical coordinator of Conservation International. Morales and I spoke after the session had wrapped up for the day.

Although their logo didn’t appear on event materials, Morales told me Starbucks was the main financier of the meeting.

The final document from the meetings in Tuxtla recommended that Chiapas implement the Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Law, which was passed by the state congress in December 2010.

One of specific outcomes of the new law is to encourage the adoption of the State of Chiapas Climate Change Action Plan (PACCCH), which Conservation International had a hand in developing. The PACCCH calls for baseline studies towards the implementation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, (REDD), the United Nations’ plan to integrate forests into the carbon market.

Carbon trading schemes have invited intense criticism over the past years. In the case of small coffee farmers in Chiapas, entering the carbon market will involve selling carbon credits from trees on their shade grown plantations, as well as planting new trees. The buyers of carbon credits, be they  corporations or  governments, would thus offset their emissions. Groups like Conservation International will act as intermediaries between transnational corporations and the people selling the carbon credits. According to the emerging logic of the carbon market, this would neutralize the carbon output of those who buy the credits.

On the surface, it appears that everybody wins. Farmers will receive small annual payments for the trees that are already on their land, or new trees they’ve planted. The governments of Mexico and Chiapas will green their image, Conservation International will create a new revenue stream managing their credits, and Starbucks’  growers will  receive subsidies through third parties. The whole exercise will be branded as a response to climate change .

The reality may well prove to be otherwise. A pilot project for carbon neutral coffee carried out in 2008 failed to deliver on its stated goals when small scale coffee farmers didn’t show interest in planting trees on their properties. One of the key reasons farmers didn’t participate was because they received less than $10 a month in the first year for planting new trees.  But more importantly, the trees that provide shade on small plantations in Chiapas already absorb carbon. Integrating them into the carbon market changes little in terms of actually counteracting climate change. Instead, it creates a new market around them, and further obscures and complicates what real action against climate change requires.

The science of climate change and the impacts it causes is something that organizers and activists in Chiapas are just starting to understand, says Gustavo Castro Soto, an organizer with Otros Mundos in San Cristobal de las Casas. “When it comes to the market mechanisms, which are complicated… Those are left to specialists and environmentalists, even though we should all understand them,” he said. “And if you criticize them, [organizations like Conservation International] come after you saying you’re against development, that you’re against fighting climate change,” said Castro.

Carbon Laboratory

For the world’s largest coffee company, Chiapas, Mexico is a key laboratory to test the possibilities of hooking the farmers at the base of their supply chain into the carbon market.

Why would Starbucks want to promote a law specifically dealing with climate change, when there’s already other environmental laws? That’s precisely the question Efrain Orantes has been asking himself.

“I think that together, Starbucks, AMSA and CI are creating… a new standard, to say that it is carbon neutral coffee,” he said. Conservation International has already run one project in Chiapas modeling the possibility of café sin carbono, or coffee without carbon.  Starbucks refused to answer questions about this issue before this story went to press.

While executives in Seattle and Washington draw up plans to take advantage of the carbon market, it is small farmers in Chiapas who continue to bear the direct burden of climate change. “I don’t  think anyone is denying the climate crisis and climate change,” said Castro. “But [business, industry and large NGOs] are proposing solutions that won’t work, false solutions to climate change, and they’re making money off of  this crisis,” he said.

Erratic rains and unexpected droughts are just part of how the climate is changing. The strongest impacts are without a doubt the weather events that lead to disasters like the mudslides that displaced the community of Nuevo Colombia last year. The complicated logic of the carbon market might give pause to conscientious North Americans with the means to sip coffee at Starbucks. But it does little to decrease the vulnerability of farming families in Chiapas, who will continue to suffer the most dramatic consequences of the climate crisis.


Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist in Vancouver.

[From Watershed Sentinel, Sept.Oct 2011 issue]


  • tenzin on Oct 07, 2015

    Please write me issue, recommendation and solution on starbucks and conservation international
    Send me right now only

  • tenzin on Oct 07, 2015

    What lesson could be learned from the chiapas Project??
    Was the approach replicable???
    What should the ongoing strategy be for mexican shade grown coffee???

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