Coffee in Cuba: A Journey Towards A Sustainable Future

13 Sep 2023

Coffee production in Cuba has a long and fascinating history, deeply rooted in the island’s cultural traditions. Its cultivation tells a story of culture, economic shifts, and a commitment to sustainability that has gained momentum over the years. This article takes us on a journey through the history of Cuban coffee: from its bountiful beginnings and steep decline right up to today’s recovery – where the fruits of the collaboration between Lavazza and Slow Food really come to bear.

Exploring Cuban Coffee’s Rich History and Its Journey to a Sustainable Future

Coffee production is woven tightly into the fabric of Cuban culture, and has survived to flourish within agroforestry systems despite a range of historical challenges. Its cultivation dates back to the 18th century, when French farmers fleeing the Haitian Revolution enlarged the territorial expanse of coffee plantations from the plains to the mountains.

Coffee production thrived in eastern Cuba between the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in the export of over 20,000 tons each year during the mid-1950s. But with the Cuban Revolution and the industry’s nationalization, the production of coffee decreased, reaching its lowest ebb during the Great Recession.

Once a vital component of Cuba’s exports, coffee now plays a marginal trading role. And yet Cuba is home to the world’s first UNESCO heritage coffee site, underscoring its immense cultural significance. The potential of Cuban coffee is indeed considerable: each year around 1.5 tons of Arabica coffee are exported globally, highlighting both its quality and enduring charm, with producers leading a resurgence in its production.

Driving this present transformation are entities like BioCubaCafé, a joint project by the Grupo Empresarial Agroforestal of Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture (GAF), the Lavazza Foundation and the International Agency for Cultural and Economic Exchange with Cuba (AICEC) promoting the integration of coffee cultivation into forest ecosystems, together with monitoring of specific conditions and full traceability of the coffee with blockchain technology.

Slow Food’s Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) also emerges as a catalyst, further empowering farmers in guaranteeing the quality of their products.

The Slow Food Coffee Coalition and Lavazza

The collaboration between Slow Food and Lavazza signifies a powerful partnership, promoting sustainable coffee production and consumption while preserving cultural heritage and fostering community development.

Coffee producer carrying bags of coffee to the processing facility

In 2021, they founded the Slow Food Coffee Coalition, in which Lavazza plays a pivotal role as one of the main partners. Lavazza contributes its expertise, resources, and a commitment to advancing sustainable and ethical coffee practices – all in line with the Coalition’s goals of promoting good, clean, and fair coffee for all.

The Lavazza Foundation has made a significant impact in Cuba’s Santiago and Granma plantations in particular. By preserving forests, it safeguards the region’s biodiversity.

By facilitating formal training courses, supporting the implementation of good agricultural practices and obtaining organic certification, it supports sustainability and the improvement of coffee quality and yield. And by empowering women and youth and shortening the supply chain, it fosters social equity.

BioCuba Cafè Frente Oriental Slow Food Community

In 2022, the eastern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba welcomed the establishment of the BioCuba Café Frente Oriental Slow Food Community, uniting 55 participants representing 170 producers engaged in organic coffee production within the region.

The creation of this community was the result of a collaborative effort involving various stakeholders, including the Lavazza Foundation, Slow Food Cuba, GAF (the Grupo Empresarial Agroforestal of Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture), AICEC (the International Agency for Cultural and Economic Exchange with Cuba), and MAS (the Sustainable Food Movement of the Cuban Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Environmental Respect, Cubasolar).

“Behind each coffee bean are plenty of producers,” explains Kenia Aguilar Suárez, an agronomist from GAF and one of the coordinators of the Community.

“And they really appreciate that these global movements acknowledge the work that we do here.”

Members of the Community with the visiting Slow Food and Lavazza’s teams

Cultivating Coffee within an Agroforestry System

Among the plantations of eastern Cuba’s 170 producers, coffee flourishes within an agroforestry setting. The conditions here are systematically monitored to check variables such as air temperature, rainwater accumulation, the direction and speed of wind, and soil humidity – contributing to the establishment of sustainable and adaptable food systems.

“Our dedication to maintaining the quality of our coffee remains steadfast,” says Rufino Mauriño Calzado, an organic coffee producer and farmer from the Community in Cuba’s Songo-La Maya municipality. “Even in the face of severe drought, we anticipate a substantial harvest this year.”

Rufino can expect a substantial harvest because agroforestry systems help mitigate the effects of climate change.

They avert water erosion, offer shading, and ensure a rich array of plant and animal species, aiding pest control. Agroforestry systems are ecologically beneficial—strengthening soil conservation and nutrient recycling and function as a carbon sink by storing carbon within trees and soil—and economically advantageous, diversifying farmers’ revenues through coffee-crop combinations.

“We, as Slow Food, promote the principles of agroecology and the consolidation of local agrifood systems. We believe that the farmer is the protagonist in shaping a sustainable ecosystem,” explains Madelaine Vázquez Gálvez, coordinator of Slow Food Cuba and consultant for the Coffee Coalition in Cuba.

Embracing the Slow Food Coffee Coalition’s Participatory Guarantee System

The BioCuba Café Frente Oriental Slow Food Community has embraced the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) (DA VERIFICARE) approach to certify their coffee as “good, clean, and fair,” thereby mirroring the standards set by other producers in the Coalition.

One of the first PGS trainings in the Community

Community leaders and members have taken part in training workshops across Songo-La Maya, Contramaestre, Guisa, as well as Segundo and Tercer Frente, tailored to incorporate Slow Food’s PGS methodology into the local context. “This experience represents an important step on the path towards making PGSs part of Cuba’s institutional framework, in accordance with the country’s Agroecology Policy,” underlines Leidy Casimiro Rodríguez, Slow Food International Councilor for the Caribbean and coordinator of the Coffee Coalition in Cuba.

Among the farmers involved in the PGS are the couple Wilber Sánchez Carbonell and Surmailis Guerra Biens. Speaking from La Carolina farm in Santiago de Cuba’s II Frente municipality, they highlighted the significance of the guarantee system in recognizing the efforts of producers and safeguarding ecosystems like theirs.

“It stimulates interest in coffee for the younger generations, advances gender equality in crop management, and strengthens our position in the global market. While still a new experience, it requires community exchanges and steadfast leadership. Nonetheless, the PGS brings distinct added value to our product,” they concluded.

Rubert Almenares Román, the Community’s spokesperson and coordinator of the PGS Ethical Committee, added: “The PGS thrives on mutual trust among members, fostering an amicable atmosphere that enhances the exchange of information.”

La Reserva de ¡Tierra! Cuba

The work of the Lavazza Foundation together with the local Community has culminated in “La Reserva de ¡Tierra! Cuba”, an organic blend dedicated to professional baristas composed of 65% washed Arabica, 25% washed Robusta and 10% fermented Robusta. A contemporary blend easy to drink thanks to use of up to 72 hours fermented Robusta obtained through a controlled process developed by Lavazza R&D and the Cuban research centers.

Thanks to a full traceability system implemented in the interests of transparency, La Reserva de ¡Tierra! Cuba utilizes integrated blockchain technology. Data is shared with growers, to improve agricultural practices, and consumers, allowing them access to comprehensive information about the product and supply chain – from plantation to cup.

Stay up to date on where and when the coffee from the Coalition will be available by joining the network here! (DA VERIFICARE)

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