July 24, 2008

Gourmet Coffee Puts Forests At Risk

Gourmet coffee growers in Panama are starting to clear land illegally and plant in one of the country's few protected highland forest, due to a strong demand for the country's prized flavors.

Panama's Environmental Protection Agency discovered 40 acres of clandestine coffee trees nestled deep in the Volcan Baru National Park, last month.  This sparked fears that more forest could be cleared as prices rise.

The country's "geisha" beans, which are known for their jasmine-like taste, are being sought after by boutique roasters from North America, Europe and Japan.

Sky-high prices for geisha beans have lured some growers well inside the park's boundaries.

"There is a grave threat to the park. People do not respect laws and the (government) has not done its part to ensure compliance," said Ezequiel Miranda, head of an environmental group in the western Boquete region near Costa Rica.

A world record price of $130 a pound was reached last year by the famed coffee on an international online auction.

While the coffee planted now only takes up a tiny fraction of Volcan Baru's thousands of acres, the invasion could disrupt the wildlife living around Panama's only volcano, including pumas, quetzal birds and rare orchids, environmentalists say.

"It was designated a national park to retain the biodiversity of the area. People know perfectly well where the limits of the park are," said Harmodio Santamaria, an official from the government environment agency.

Specialty coffee producers decry the practice of encroaching on park land, saying a few rogue growers are giving the geisha business a bad name.

Established growers have built up reputations for running environmentally and socially responsible farms.

Ricardo Koyner, president of the Panamanian Specialty Coffee Association, said, "This is certainly not what our organization or members are about. We really take care of the environment."

"Production is growing, but it is growing very cautiously to ensure that quality is retained," he said.

The Esmeralda Estate, run by Daniel Peterson, has coffee that consistently wins the highest auction prices, while being certified by the conservation group Rainforest Alliance as environmentally friendly.

High-altitude land is becoming scarcer in traditional centers of geisha production, but expansion does not have to affect the national park.

"Around Boquete you might have difficulty expanding because of real estate developments (which have pushed up prices), but there is still a lot of suitable land between Volcan and the border," said Peterson.