Selva Negra is the farm adjacent to Finca Las Brisas and is unique in its sustainability practices. Sally imparts some of the greatest impressions it made on her in the third piece of our From the Farm: Nicaragua series (Part 1 and Part 2).
In my life outside the coffee shop, I am also an advocate for food justice. I have worked in and helped establish food pantries and community gardens here in the Triangle. I believe everyone has the right to culturally-appropriate, affordable, nourishing food because I’ve seen what happens to a person or a family’s well-being under the strain of not being able to get what they need to both sustain the body and the spirit. At the end of the day, food and agriculture are a lens through which I understand people and the world. During our time in Nicaragua, I was witness to the incredible potential for sustainability within the food system, where coffee not only does not harm but plays an essential, beneficial role.
At Selva Negra, everything has a second life (and beyond). Here in the United States, we think very little of tossing something into a trash can or recycling bin. Everything is fairly replaceable and thus, easily forgettable. In a remote mountainous area like Selva Negra, however, there’s no escaping the collective impact of waste. It cannot be easily carried away by a sanitation truck. Burning trash causes pollution. Piles could be dangerous vectors of disease. To address the issue, Selva Negra looks for unique ways of repurposing anything and everything past its initial use on the property. Tires stripped by rough mountain roads become stairs on a hiking trail or garden sculpture. Glass and plastic bottles form borders for garden beds or methods of pest control. Most importantly, though, is how the potential pollutants from coffee pulp and water from the wet mill are safely reintegrated into the ecosystem of Selva Negra. Nicaragua is among the poorest countries in Latin America. About 29% of households live in poverty, but in rural areas that number jumps to 50%.
Extreme poverty goes hand-in-hand with chronic malnutrition. Selva Negra puts its coffee pulp to work addressing the problem of malnutrition with the “pulp to protein” program. According to our guide at the farm, this program first developed in African countries as a response to the compound issues of hunger and the potential for pollution with washed coffees, and its success has led to its spread to other regions. Coffee pulp, when not reintroduced into the soil in a safe manner or used for another purpose, becomes a pollutant to rivers and groundwater. The nutrients in coffee pulp, however, are an excellent medium for growing mushrooms. These mushrooms are high in certain vitamins and minerals that may otherwise be missing in a diet based on staple foods of corn and beans. In addition, once the growing medium is spent, it can be used to supplement feed for cattle and other animals. Well-fed animals not only provide meat and dairy; they produce manure that can be used for fertilizer on many crops.
Sustainability at Selva Negra can be defined not only by environmental stewardship. Humans are a key part of the ecosystem on a farm, and their well-being is an integral part to the success of Selva Negra. In addition to paying fair wages and providing housing, Selva Negra provides meals for their workers. The elementary school on property provides free meals for enrolled children, both helping them focus on learning and incentivizing parents to keep children in class rather than at home. Providing adequate nutrition for children is critical in the region as chronic undernutrition affects 40% of children under the age of five. There is also an on-site free clinic for workers, addressing acute health problems and providing preventative care and family planning. Powering all these parts of the community, from the lodge down the hill to the workers’ kitchen, requires abundant clean energy. Selva Negra uses a combination of hydroelectricity, solar power, and methane produced through microbial breakdown of farm wastewater. According to our guide, Selva Negra frequently is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative, which is a tremendous achievement for a farm of its scale.
During my time at the farm, I found myself questioning how much of their biodynamic design was born out of the necessity of scarce resources. I came to realize though that this thinking required a reframing of how I approach the world. In the United States, in a coffee shop, we are protected from an understanding of the actual labor and resources that go into producing a beautiful cup of coffee. Yet we are part of a series of interconnected relationships that ultimately cycles back to the bean. We may not directly see an immediate impact on the environment, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Our culture of disposability and planned obsolescence in the United States helps create the challenging conditions of climate change which affect farms like Selva Negra everyday. We must begin to learn from Selva Negra’s model of respecting both the environment and the people around us, developing a philosophy that not only considers what is best in the now but also considering the world we want our grandchildren to see.