November 21, 2014

A Story of Coffee, Conservation and Livelihoods in the Pico Duarte Region of the Dominican Republic

Lee Gross, EcoAgriculture Partners

The Pico Duarte Coffee Region and surrounding Madres de Las Aguas (Mother of Waters) Conservation Area are areas of critical ecological, economic, and social importance to the people of the Dominican Republic. During the 2000s, much attention was paid to the establishment of protected areas in this Caribbean island nation for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Despite these efforts, protected areas represent less than 5% of this working agricultural landscape traditionally in shade coffee. Shade coffee polycultures have for three generations played an essential role in conserving water resources, providing habitat for birds, and providing consumptive resources to households. Farmers recognize the role of their shade coffee in maintaining these types of services, but have struggled to maintain their farms.

The Yaque Del Norte River Valley near its headwaters at Pico Duarte, Dominican Republic (Meet the region’s farmers in this short video

The Yaque Del Norte River Valley near its headwaters at Pico Duarte, Dominican Republic. Meet the region’s farmers in this short video

As across much of the tropics, most Dominican coffee farmers are smallholders, managing only 1–3 hectares of land. Farmers generally depend on family members for labor, lack access to secure land tenure, and live in constant poverty. Falling coffee prices, trade liberalization, and rising input costs have made life more difficult for these small farmers. Since 2002, these increased economic pressures have led to significant changes in the landscape. More than half of small coffee farms have agglomerated into larger farms of monoculture crops, such as chayote squash and beans and pasture for cattle. These landscape changes have caused environmental degradation, threatening the ability of this working ecosystem to maintain natural functions and provide services at local, national, and international levels. A new approach was needed, one that integrates strategies to conserve ecosystem services and improve farmer livelihoods in agricultural landscapes.

From 2009 to 2010, a participatory action research project was carried out by University of Vermont researchers with a Vermont coffee company and a local farmers’ coffee association in Jarabacoa, DR to examine the social and ecological processes that contribute to farmer household livelihoods in the region. Baseline information on livelihoods, food security, and agroecological management was collected through household surveys, community focus groups, and ecological sampling in nine communities. Findings reinforced farmers’ commitment to best practices in coffee production, which contributed to the conservation of native tree and fruit species and important watershed service functions (e.g. soil protection and the delivery of clean water). Farmers’ abilities to maintain farm diversity was however, constrained by livelihood challenges in food security and lack of financial capital, technical assistance, and education. Household data were integrated into higher levels of the decision-making process via local agricultural associations, companies purchasing coffee, and national and international development organizations to encourage greater environmental stewardship in a variety of ways:

1) Price incentives were used to support best management practices. Farmers, it turned out, received little to no price premiums for shade grown, organic, or other resource-conserving techniques that require additional labor. Based on these findings, a new agreement was brokered between the farmers’ associations and Vermont Coffee Company (VCC) for increases in the amount of shade organic coffee purchased at an appropriate price to support farmer’s transition to organic and to maintain existing production. VCC’s strong story telling through marketing that “coffee tastes better when birds sing over it” would support the company’s financial commitment to farmers.

2) Information flows were increased. Researchers utilized a capital-assets approach to household well-being for reporting to both development partners and coffee companies. Along with economic data, data collection by researchers offered a baseline on biophysical characteristics such as farm biodiversity and soil erosion (natural capital) as well as education, health, and job skills (human capital), employment and household income (financial capital), and infrastructure (built capital) for future monitoring.

3) Livelihoods and consumption were diversified. More sources of income and consumption were introduced through agricultural diversification to increase resilience of the landscape and livelihoods. Development plans were advanced with partners to strengthen local farmers’ markets, fruit tree nurseries, and eco-tourism operations to create more forms of off-farm, but farm-supporting, employment. In addition, a payment for watershed services scheme was identified as another potential mechanism to further support diversification of household income, while rewarding for conservation practices.

4) Social capital was expanded. A Dominican nonprofit was established to work with coffee growing communities and associations locally to address social needs in education, health, extension, and micro-finance. Both Dominican experts and United States foreign exchange students would make up the staff. The foundation receives its primary funding from a percentage of all coffee sold under this single-origin brand in addition to private philanthropy and academic scholarships.

5) Ecosystem services modeling was used to target investments. The ARIES (Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services) web application was used to determine how shade coffee farms and other food production schemes provide critical sources and sinks of ecosystem services across the landscape. This tool offers companies, conservation organizations, and government agencies the necessary information to make coordinated decisions that improve overall landscape functionality with minimum levels of investment.

This integrated approach offered a blend of market and non-market approaches, informed by interdisciplinary science and a long-term commitment among stakeholders to shared goals. Recognizing the interconnection between sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems may help reverse the current trajectory and enhance the resilience of the Pico Duarte region over the years to come.

Lee Gross is Senior Manager for Agricultural Markets and Biodiversity at EcoAgriculture Partners. 
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This work was recently published in the Journal of Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.  The authors would be interested to learn about other, more recent, efforts in the region since this project was undertaken. Contact Lee Gross ( for more information.

*This entry was adapted from an earlier version published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, entitled “Planetary Stewardship and Coffee: A case study from the Dominican Republic.”

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