Growing Coffee and Selling Carbon — a Promising Innovation in Mexico’s Sierra Madre de Chiapas

By Yessenia Soto

“Producing while conserving” is more than a catchy concept for farmers in 15 communities scattered along Mexico’s Sierra Madre de Chiapas. For them, the words describe a responsible business model that they’ve adopted with the help of conservationists.

The Sierra Madre de Chiapas stretches from southwest Mexico eastward into Guatemala, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras. Much of that mountain range’s upper slopes, once draped with cloud forests, are now covered with coffee farms. Dozens of farmers along the range in Mexico are producing coffee grown with minimal environmental impact, for which there is growing market demand. The farmers have also joined other landowners in the sale of environmental services, receiving payment for carbon sequestered through the restoration of deforested and degraded lands.

This innovative combination of activities has been promoted through an initiative called “Building a Model of Conservation Coffee and Carbon Credit in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas,” managed by Cooperativa AMBIO, a Mexican NGO dedicated to rural development through sound natural resources management. The project is supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

AMBIO researchers have worked with farmers in México for more than 10 years to create this marriage between agriculture and conservation. According to Adalberto Vargas, the project’s coordinator, the original idea was to build upon the varied uses that farmers already had for their land.

“We proposed something that they were already doing in their own way,” he said. “It was normal, for example, for coffee farmers to have a few fruit trees, next to which they might grow another product, and they might also have a few cows,” he explains.

From this perspective, sustainable coffee farming and the sale of environmental services through carbon sequestration seemed to be a natural fit. It was also an experiment that had been successful in other regions. So after two years of research, AMBIO staff gave the project a green light and set out to convince some of the region’s farmers to join the project. It turns out that was no easy task.

Community members had trouble accepting the proposal to reforest and conserve their land in order to receive payment for the environmental services that the trees provide by mitigating climate change. “It was hard. Some of them didn’t understand what carbon sequestration was, and when we explained that the trees they were planting should not be cut down, the farmers became distrustful and began to suspect that our project was a trick to steal their land,” notes Vargas.

The project staff estimates that it takes trees 20 years to mature and reach their full carbon-sequestration potential. This projection stopped or delayed some coffee farmers from participating in the project.

In order to convince farmers, AMBIO staff stressed the economic and environmental benefits that participants would gain. They could not promise much in terms of money, but the proceeds from the sale of carbon credits, increased economic value of their trees by the end of the project, and improvements to soil quality (such as reduced erosion) were arguments that eventually persuaded the first communities to participate in the project.

Training - Photo by AMBIOIn 1997, AMBIO, in collaboration with the academic institutions El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) and the University of Edinburgh, launched a carbon sequestration program called “Scolel te,” a program to formally manage the sale of carbon credits. Later, the association enlisted the participation of farmers in five communities and captured the attention of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, a global car racing organization that saw this project as a way to offset its carbon emissions. The FIA then purchased bonds for the equivalent of 5,000 tons of carbon at a rate of $10 per ton.

Since then the project has grown to the point where 58 communities are now dedicated to carbon sequestration and have reforested approximately 24,700 acres (10,000 hectares) in an effort to mitigate climate damage caused by human activities.

In the original project design AMBIO made a miscalculation, though luckily it created an opportunity. It turned out that planting trees was not attractive to many coffee farmers, as the majority of the coffee in Chiapas was already being grown under full shade.

After another session at the drawing board, AMBIO’s directors teamed up with the organization Aires de Cambio and returned to the communities with a proposal for “conservation coffee” that would involve adopting environmentally friendly farming practices.

Vargas says this posed another challenge for AMBIO, because they had focused primarily on carbon sequestration, not coffee production. However, the team set out to learn about best practices for coffee farms, and they also incorporated their knowledge of carbon sequestration. Participating communities could become dedicated to carbon sales, others to “conservation coffee” production, and some have taken advantage of both green markets — eco-friendly coffee plus carbon bonds.

Judging by the results of this experiment, it was a success. Farmers in the eight communities participating in the project have planted 141 acres (57 hectares) of agroforestry systems that represent a potential to sequestrate roughly 1,678 tons of carbon at a rate of $10 per ton. With the production of conservation coffee, the project has completed various studies and management plans and has verified the best practices implemented on 159 plots belonging to 143 farmers.

Vargas points out that the distribution of the conservation coffee farms and reforested lots has had a positive impact on the region’s biodiversity. The activity has become a sort of seedbed for biological corridors, which are connecting coffee forests, areas dedicated to conservation, and plots reforested for the carbon market. This could continue to expand thanks to collaboration with the Natural Areas Fund of the Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, which has financed the project’s expansion into seven communities in the La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve.

Coffee Cherries - Photo by Rainforest AllianceThe initiative has also had a positive social impact, strengthening the sense of responsibility and organizational capacity of farmers in participating communities, where they have formed groups to manage project activities. It has also raised awareness about climate change and other environmental problems.

“The great strength of this project is that it has demonstrated to the communities that it is possible to produce at the same time that you conserve, and it has given them good results on the economic, ecological, and social fronts,” observes Lorena Soto, a researcher with ECOSUR.

Soto and ECOSUR are working on an extension of this project, which will document the initiative’s experiences, information, and results in order to develop an official coffee-carbon model and apply it in other parts of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

According to Soto, the arduous task of transplanting the model to new communities lies ahead. Other pending challenges include creating agreements with government institutions, other NGOs and academic institutions; obtaining funding and promoting the program; dealing with a weak carbon market due to the global financial crisis; and enlisting farmers in new communities to commit to the marriage between carbon and coffee and agriculture and conservation.

Contacts: Adalberto Vargas Guillén, Cooperativa Ambio, Chiapas, México. Tel:+52/967-678-8409; fax: +52/967-678-8409,, Lorena Soto, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Chiapas, México. Tel: +52/967-674-9000.,

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