Course:CONS200/2020/The social and environmental costs of coffee farming in Brazil

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The dynamics of the Brazilian coffee industry have seen significant changes over time, specifically in terms of government regulation, economic strategies, and the geographic distribution of coffee producers. [1] Brazil is currently the world's largest producer of coffee and in 2018 exported over 44 million 60kg bags of product.[2]

With these changes has come the rapid expansion of Brazil’s coffee industry, with a 112% increase in coffee production, corresponding with only a 12% increase in the area where coffee is grown, suggesting that the areas have been intensively farmed[3][4]. There have been effects ecological due to this economic growth, including threats to ecosystem diversity, soil health, and certain beneficial soil macrofauna.[5] Furthermore, coffee production in Brazil is subject to the harmful emissions produced during mechanical cultivation and importers of Brazilian coffee leverage the “ecological carrying capacity” of the country to avoid emissions in their own countries.[6]


Coffee plants grown under full sun conditions

Coffee Production in Brazil

Following its legendary discovery in the plains of Ethiopia, the cultivation and consumption of coffee spread to the Arabian Peninsula in the 13th century, where it was modified and gained growing popularity for its use as a natural stimulant [7] [8]. It wasn't until the the early 1600's that knowledge of the beans and growing methods reached mainland Europe, from which point coffee estates were quickly launched in Asian and South American colonies[7] [9].

Coffee production began to take root in Brazil at the beginning of the 18th century, first establishing in the northern region-state of Para, before expanding into neighboring states of Serra da Matiqueira, Santos, and most recently to Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, Parana and Rondônia. [10]

Brazil is divided into 26 of these region-states, which are further comprised of 5507 counties [11]. Due to the large topographic and climatic variability in Brazil [11], coffee production is found to be largely heterogeneous in terms of the varieties cultivated and growing techniques utilized [10]. Today there are approximately 90 micro-regions within Brazil that specialize in coffee production [10].

Socio-Economic Context

Government Intervention

With the expansion of the Brazilian coffee sector there became a tight coupling between the coffee production and the Brazilian economy, which led to stiff government regulation in the form of the Brazilian Coffee Institute (IBC) [10]. The IBC was in place to regulate and control the supply chain, providing incentive policies to promote production and maintain constant bean prices for Brazilian producers [10].

However, with the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, regulation and control from the IBC was disbanded and the Brazilian coffee industry was exposed to free markets on the global scale.The breakdown of the IBC lead to the end of government intervention in the coffee sector, and signaled a period of structural changes for producers [10]. Following the dissolution of the Brazilian Coffee Institute (IBC) in 1990 the Brazilian coffee sector had to adapt quickly to perform in a free market, creating lasting changes in overall efficiency, aesthetics, and spatial distribution [10]. To cope with changing demands, systems within the coffee sector were modernized, costs were cut through heightened efficiency, and producers competed to differentiate and match evolving consumer preferences [10] [12].

Economic Strategies

Brazil Specialty Coffee Association seal of approval

One such growing consumer preference was that for certification of quality and geographic location [12]. Seals of approval include those from the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA), the Seal of Purity and Quality Program (PQC), Sustainable Coffees of Brazil Program, and the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C) [10].

Due to the large variability among producers, adaptations to the changing markets took many different forms. Producers had to make strategic choices to appeal their product to specific consumer bases and enhance their product quality while remaining efficient [12].

Larger producers, such as the Coffee Growers Regional Cooperative (Cooxupe) in Minas Gerais, found success through eliminating intermediaries, creating platforms for higher bargaining power, and standardizing their product quality [12].

Product quality was enhanced as a form of distinction and competition

Producers were also seen to respond to incentive introduced by consumers, as seen with the competition model of Illycafe in the 1990s. Noting a drop in quality following the disbanding of the IBC, Italian espresso brand Illycafe created an award and certification for high quality producers, which in turn motivated a large competition among producers to distinguish their bean quality [12].

There have also been many examples of smaller family farms and municipalities finding ways to compete on the global scale while maintaining their livelihoods and tradition. One such example is of the Municipality of Poco Fundo, located in the south of Minas Gerais. A municipality heavily dependent on coffee production, following the 1990s crises they were motivated to create the Poco Fundo Family Farmers Cooperative in 1993, which worked to enhance negotiating powers of members and secure their future through investing a portion of all revenue directly back into the community.[12]


Over time, Brazil has experienced major shifts in the spatial distribution of coffee producers [10]. Parana and Sao Paulo, which were historically major contributors to the Brazilian coffee sector, only accounted for about 12% of national production in 2015. In a similar vein, other regions have experienced dramatic growth in coffee production, such as Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo. The states of Bahia and Rondonia also grew to be important contributors to coffee production [10].

From Kruger (2007): Percent of region dedicated to coffee production

The micro-regions of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, Bahia, and Rondonia currently account for 82% of the country's total production [10].

Ecology of Major Coffee Producing Regions

The majority of Brazil's coffee plantation's today are concentrated in the southeastern portions of the country, with the state of Minas Gerais alone accounting for approximately 1.22 million hectares of land dedicated for coffee cultivation.[13] The southeastern regions of Brazil are particularly well suited to coffee production, as the area generally has cooler temperatures, heavy precipitation, and also has a distinct dry season that is conducive to coffee cultivation.[14] These relatively ecological mildness of these areas is what makes coffee considered a "goldilocks crop", as it cannot thrive under conditions too hot, too cold, too dry, or too wet; rather it prospers under a complex medium of the aforementioned factors.[15]

Social Costs


Coffee growing regions in Brazil

Coffee production in Brazil is largely concentrated in rural regions with approximately 220,000 coffee farms present across the country. [16] Farmers in these regions rely heavily on the income received from their involvement in the industry. Many Brazilian coffee farmers are unable to sustain themselves, nor their businesses as demand for inexpensive coffee increases.[17] This causes farmers to cease independent production, and instead work for major international corporations.[18]

North-South Divide

Importers of Brazilian coffee use the “ecological carrying capacity” of the country to lower the domestic ecological footprint of the coffee consumption[19], and rising prices for Arabica beans are placing a significant strain on Brazilian farmers - necessitating government intervention in the form of a price floor.[20] There is a clear and increasing danger of inequality that impacts coffee producers, and particularly impacts Brazilian producers. Middle- and high-income countries frequently wield their wealth as a method to continually subjugate low-income countries to unfair trade relationships.[21] Sociologist Kelly Austin found that the relationship "produces unique and especially harmful patterns [of] deforestation, hunger and schooling in poor nations in comparison to other forms of agricultural production".[22]

Wealth Disparities

Farmers in Brazil largely rely on income generated from selling their crops to large trans-national corporations. Given the costs and difficulty associated with roasting, exporting and marketing coffee, farmers often have no choice but to sell their goods to these corporations. Notwithstanding the fact that the entire coffee production lifecycle relies on cultivation by individual farmers, they only receive around 10 cents of every coffee dollar spent. [22] Farmers become trapped in an economic relationship that exists simply to profit off their hard work, and are often forced to accept unfair compensation for their product so that they may receive some compensation.[23]

Impacts on Education

Given that coffee often represents the sole income source for individuals in coffee producing regions, it is often the case that parents opt to send their children to work instead of to school. This decision is driven largely by the global demand and supply of coffee and can vary on a yearly basis. Research shows that parents are likely to enrol their children in school when incomes are high, and similarly to remove them from school when incomes are low.[11] Furthermore, middle-income households are particularly impacted by shocks to the market for coffee. Middle income households are typically in a position to send their children to school instead of requiring them to work, but in times of market contraction are forced to withdraw children from school in order to work. Finally, male children and the youngest child in particular are impacted by market shocks wherein they are more likely to be removed from school.

Poverty Cycle

Farmers in most regions of Brazil engaged in coffee cultivation do not make significant sums of money. They are unable to afford to send their children to school, which significantly hinders the capacity for children to access higher paying jobs and bring their family out of poverty. Uneducated adults with children also engaged in cultivation activity perpetuates the cycle of poverty wherein each family makes just enough to survive but not enough to escape poverty. [11]

Environmental Costs

Much of the environmental impact of coffee production is through its major influence on increasing deforestation, habitat fragmentation, land degradation, soil erosion, and the frequency of climate-related disturbances, through the various environmentally erroneous methods used in the cultivation and processing of Coffee[24]. It is also worth noting that many of the countries that are considered leaders in coffee production and export (Brazil, Honduras, Vietnam, India, etc.) are also currently the most vulnerable to climate change impacts; impacts which are in of themselves, resultant of land-use changes undertaken for the conversion of natural ecosystems into coffee plantations. These effects range from climate change as a result of increased deforestation, to increases in land slides resulting from increased soil compaction from agriculture.[25]


Modern cultivation practices frequently entail the complete removal of the forest canopy, creating a monoculture to maximize coffee production[26], which often causes environmental consequences such as biodiversity loss, reductions in microbial communities, and altering soil chemical properties[27][28]. There is a spectrum of shade availability on coffee plantations, ranging from the lowest-intensity growing underneath a developed forest canopy, all the way to commercial monoculture, where coffee is the only planted species[26]. While monoculture is most common today, there is a trade-off between production quantity and the quality/growth of the crop, as coffee trees grow better underneath a forest canopy[26]. Furthermore, long-term viability of monocultural production has also come into question due to negative effects on biodiversity and soil conditions, including pollinator abundance[29][27].


A simple timeline of the coffee bean.

The processing of coffee usually entails the removal of the outer hull, pulp, and mucilage surrounding the coffee bean, followed by a period of drying in order to yield a final green coffee bean with a low moisture content.[30] There are two major methods used for the primary processing of coffee: the first being the wet method, and the second being the dry method.[31] The wet method of coffee processing involves the physical removal of the hull and pulp, followed by the microbial fermentation of the coffee beans in a large tank of water, which aims at removing the outer mucilage through enzymatic activity.[30] In the dry processing method, the whole coffee cherry is left out to dry in the sun, wherein the process of fermentation takes place.[30] The 'wet' method generally has a larger environmental impact, as it requires large amounts of water; and depending on whether toxic chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides had been used in the crop, the wastewater resulting from wet processing can be devastating to the overall health of the local ecosystem.[24] The vast majority of coffee processing done in Brazil is via the dry method.[32] There are also secondary and tertiary levels of coffee processing, where the former (secondary processing) generally has a small environmental footprint, and the latter (tertiary processing) often has large deleterious effects on the environment.[24] Tertiary processing entails the processing of coffee powders in order to yield different variations of products, such as instant coffee or decaffeinated coffee.[24] The tertiary processing of instant coffee produces a large amount of high-temperature wastewater, that has a high particulate concentration.[24] Brazil is currently the leading exporter of instant coffee globally, exporting between 3.25 and 6.5 million bags of coffee in 2014.[33][34]

Climate Change Dynamics

Coffee farm in mountain forest

Climate change is currently a large threat looming over the coffee production sector. Analytical studies, combining climate projections with the ecological range and characteristics associated with coffee production, suggests a global decline of area suitable for coffee production of approximately 50%.[35] The changing climate has already resulted in major shifts in geographical areas in Brazil appropriate for coffee cultivation.[36] Low altitudinal areas once suited to coffee production are now being abandoned as temperatures rise and weather becomes increasingly variable[35]. The coffee cultivation in Brazil has therefore been forced upwards in elevation, expanding into high-altitudinal areas which are often some of the last intact reserves of biodiversity in these mountainous areas of coffee production.[36] The ecological and economic loss that Brazil has faced regarding climate changes impact on its coffee sector cannot be overstated; examples such as the unprecedented 2014 drought, wherein Brazil lost almost one-fifth of its coffee crop, seems merely to be a sign of times to come.[15] Climate change has also greatly increased the disturbance regimes of pests, particularly the coffee berry borer, which has seen a surge of occurence and pervasiveness throughout Brazil and the rest of the Bean Belt.[37] Coffee berry borer's have been shown to thrive in warmer areas and at lower altitudes, which in turn offers another driving force that is shifting coffee cultivation into ecologically sensitive, high-altitudinal mountainous areas.[38] Deforestation currently accounts for approximately 44% of Brazil's carbon emissions,[39] and amplifying factors such as an increased rate of tree mortality from the heightened prevalence of pests will only serve to further exacerbate this problem.[40]

The Homogenization of Coffea genus

The high concentration of cultivation for two species of coffee in particular (Arabica and Robusta) has led to a substantial homogenization of the coffea genus.[41] Though there are 124 species of coffee known in existence today, there has been very little effort in conserving species outside of Coffea arabica (Arabica) and Coffea conephora (Robusta).[42] An expansive study, conducted by Davis et al. applied the IUCN Red List framework onto every known species of coffee, and in doing so highlighted the increasing threat that our cultivation practices have had on the Caffea genus overall[41]. In their study, Davis et al. found that: around 60% of the currently known coffee species are threatened by extinction; about 45% are not being preserved in any sort of germplasm or seed bank; and around 28% are not currently found in protected areas.[41] The increased homogenization of the coffea genus has coffee biologists and producers alike nervous in regards to future of coffee. The anthropogenically induced climatic trends of increasing monthly average temperatures (MAT) seem to be correlated with massive declines in the health, quality, and crop yields of Arabica and Robusta beans.[43] The preservation of wild coffee species is now an area of increasing interest, as many biologists have reported notable traits (including increased drought, disease, and pest tolerance) that would be conducive to cultivation in both our current and projected climate regime.[41]

The Impacts on Soil Health

Current research has found that the water holding capacity of soil decreases under both conventional and organic farming systems; however, there is also evidence showing that the impacts on the water holding capacity of soil is much lower in organic farming systems compared to conventional systems [44].There was also found to be higher soil respiration and fluorescein activity in organic coffee farming systems[44]. In areas where coffee farming was implemented, the pH of the soil was found to decrease significantly, whereas conventional farming systems seem to increase the pH slightly[44]. Even minor changes in the pH of the soil can cause major shifts in the biological and chemical processes that take place in the soil community[45].The soils of organic coffee farming systems were found to have, on average, higher levels of soil macrofauna and microflora then conventional farming systems[44].

Agroforestry systems have been implemented in some areas in hopes of creating a more sustainable agricultural production model in Brazil. Research has found that the agrosilvopastoral and silvopastoral agroforestry systems have both been effective in reducing water erosion and was recommended as a highly advantageous farming strategy in many areas throughout Brazil[46].


Coffee production has had, and is continuing to have, a profound impact on Brazil, both in a terms of its ecology, economy and society.[19][41] Brazil's production of coffee has inarguably resulted in massive economic growth in both past and recent years.[34] However, the massive social injustices and atrocities committed, in both past and present, must not be overlooked[47]; and many point to Brazil's labor practices in coffee production as a major contributor to the extreme polarization of societal and economic status in Brazil.[48] The coffee production has also put significant strain on Brazilian ecology and biodiversity. [42][30] Multiple facets of the coffee production process put significant strain on the surrounding ecosystem,[24] and the production of only two species of coffee (Arabica and Robusta) has led to a massive homogenization of the Coffea genus, which in turn greatly reduces the resilience of the coffee sector to the ever-present issues surrounding climate change.[41] Though it may seem challenging to find actions that seem effective in creating change in such a globalized economic sector, many scholars have stressed that consumers were purchasing more ecologically sustainable, fair-trade coffee, could be a major avenue for improving the ecological and societal condtions of coffee production.[36]


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