Coffee perks up Brazil’s migratory birds

You might be tempted to think that any attempt to link coffee with sustainability, would be a marketing stunt that’s “strictly for the birds.”

You’d be wrong – and this is a sustainability story playing itself out on one highly innovative coffee plantation in the agribusiness heartland of São Paulo state. Birds themselves have become the potent carriers of an exciting new organic brand built on social entrepreneurship.

There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil – and an awful lot of birds too, forced to share this continent–sized land with an agribusiness sector committed to scale, efficiency, and monocultures that some fear are already changing the regional climate.

The bird in question is the Bob-o-Link, an American blackbird that makes an astonishing yearly migration of 12,000 miles from the Illinois countryside around Chicago, to Brazil’s southern states and back. Once common, the Bob-o-Link is under threat; surveys in Vermont found a 75% decline in the last decade.

Nobody can prove exactly why the birds are declining, but Marcos Croce – who with his partner Silvia Barretto owns the Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza near Mococa in the north of São Paulo state – points his finger at the sugar cane monoculture around his farm. Massive deforestation has made way for the ethanol biofuel industry driving Brazil’s cars – and driving away the birds too. Some of the last tiny scraps of the once-mighty Atlantic seaboard cloud-forest that sheltered the birds can still be found here.

Marcos has chosen a uniquely personal way of doing something about this problem – and his social entrepreneurship approach is starting to inspire business leaders to seek deeper and more meaningful definitions of sustainability than the now-familiar “astroturfing” and “greenwashing” besetting the corporate world.

Marcos Croce and cooperative partner review their coffee crop

The Brazilian couple used to live in Chicago. Just like the Bob-o-Links, they made the migratory journey at least a couple of times a year. When an inheritance led them to a run-down Brazilian farm dating from 1850, Silvia says they realised that “the Bob-o-Links became a metaphor for our own lives.” Amazingly, too, the street they lived on in the Chicago suburbs was called Bob-o-Link Road. As Brazil’s new economic summer progressively outshone the economic gloom of America, they moved back south for good.

They set to work transforming the 700 hectare plantation into an organic farm, taking a truly innovative approach not just to coffee planting, but the building of an agrarian community and a new business model.

It’s a virtuous circle: the greater the demand for  Brazil’s organic coffee grown the the shade, the more forest needs to be planted. And the more habitat is then created for  migratory birds.

While Brazil is by far the world’s largest coffee producer, it is hardly known for the quality of its product. Meanwhile, state organisations like the Instituto Brasileiro de Café and Embrapa, the agroscience corporation, have steered traditional growers down the road of high-yield coffee varieties needing fertilizers and pesticides.

The few organic coffee farms in Brazil have struggled to replicate the status quo of intensive planting – but without chemicals. Marcos changed all that. Inspired by João Neto, a neighbour and veteran coffee planter, he has pioneered the concept of “passive” organic coffee planting in conjunction with reforestation. At Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza there are still rows of old coffee bushes striding over the soft hillsides. But the real business goes on hidden inside the secondary forest. There, coffee bushes scattered between the trees benefit from shade and natural protection against predators.

Coffee trees growing naturally in forest glades, helping create bird habitat

There’s no fertiliser used – even organic manure – and the healthy trees take care of themselves. And the forest takes care of the birds. A survey of the region by researchers from the Smithsonian Institution found a startling variety of species – and the Bob-o-Links are making a comeback. Together with a local NGO (SOS Mata Atlantica), Marcos has been replanting rainforest whose under-storey he hopes will eventually shade new coffee plantations as well as shelter birds.

Meanwhile, the Bob-o-Links have lent their names to a blended coffee brand. Using his marketing skills, Marcos is carving a niche in the high-end world of speciality coffee exports, with a natural focus on the market in his old hometown of Chicago. Every coffee sack he exports bears the label “Bird Friendly” and people are getting the message that these birds link consumers with farmers who grow quality coffee in harmony with nature.

The farm also exports tiny quantities of premium single estate organic coffees that command rates of three of four times the world price. Buyers in Scandinavia, the UK, Australia and Japan are prepared to pay more because Marcos has been uncompromising about quality. His coffee is even featured at Noma in Copenhagen, voted the world’s best restaurant. To boost the volume of exportable coffee and the habitat for more birds, he’s persuaded a group of local farmers to “go organic” and pool resources in a marketing cooperative.

Some of the brands originating from Fortaleza plantation

In Brazil and elsewhere, the multinational-led status quo means that growers play almost no role in marketing their own product, and have little or no objective information about its quality.  Marcos challenged this by sending his own son to train as a coffee “cupper” and internationally accredited judge who has been winning prizes in the US. Now he can set prices online and deal direct with Europe’s micro-roasters. A second son has cashed out of a high-flying management consultancy to join the family team.

Inevitably, perhaps, multinational buyers are trying to tempt local farmers away from the cooperative. They may be too late: coffee mavens from Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US are lining up to visit the farm.

It’s not just about coffee. Although the farm is home to just a fraction of the 50 families who once lived there, there’s a range of micro-agricultural activity going on there that resembles nothing so much as a low-tech incubator or an IT cluster in reverse. Marcos provides the land and marketing skills, while locals run their own animal husbandry, organic market gardening and other commercial operations.

International volunteers known as “Wwoofers” (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are on hand, and there’s a steady stream of corporate and leadership types visiting both from overseas and from Brazil’s industrial heartland. Social and cultural study programs from Chicago’s Art Institute and other faculties help out in the local urban community.

So it’s not just about agriculture—the true product of the farm is people. People are searching for meaningful and deep models of sustainability that aren’t driven by bien-pensant charity handouts to NGOs, or to PR-driven CO2 mitigation tactics by heavy industry. This is about planting trees because they support sound and sustainable high-value agriculture that in turn sustains communities – not the often-uncomfortable sense of doing some “green for good.”

Something really interesting is going on. Why else would Russell Reynolds – one of the world’s hard-core corporate headhunters – send a delegation of CEO clients from Europe and the US on a learning trip here? Likewise, the Open World Foundation led by the social entrepreneur Christer Soderberg has been running courses on “Transformational Leadership & Sustainability” at the farm.

The key to this is a new approach to sustainability that Marcos isn’t scared about repeating endlessly. Sustainability isn’t about separating out the tin cans in your trash, driving a Prius, or ticking a box to buy a tree whenever you get an airplane ticket – all just to make you feel better.

Just as business now talks about the “triple bottom line,” so sustainability’s own bottom-line must also be social, economic and ecological.  The chain of responsibility stretches from individual to family, to business and then to society as a whole. Sustainability starts with the individual asking: “what am I putting in my mouth?” It then embraces family and community relations, culture, and finally collective economic behaviour.

So, if it takes a long-haul migration by the courageous little Bob-o-Link to remind us all that birds help make good and sustainable business in Brazil, let’s raise a mug of coffee to that.

Organic beans: well worth the time and trouble as US and European micro-roasters get the habit.


Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more