Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations On Campus)

Partners in Coffee

Integrating international outreach into sustainability education.

This year, students at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, TN, will have the option of offsetting their carbon emissions from air travel by investing in Haitian coffee-based agroforestry systems. The program, known as Zanmi Kafe (Partners in Coffee), came to fruition in 2013 as a result of a partnership between Sewanee and the NGO Zanmi Agrikol (Partners in Agriculture) that began in 2007 with a trip to Haiti’s Central Plateau with Outreach Director Dixon Myers and Documentary Photography professor Pradip Malde. During a spring break trip last March, Sewanee students, alongside Haitian farmers and agronomy students, broke ground on a 16,000-seedling nursery in the mountain village of Bois Jolie. Comprised of coffee, mango and other native multipurpose tree seedlings, this nursery is the first of several to be established in the region to provide farmers with income-generating trees that reforest slopes and sequester carbon. The project also provides unique cross-cultural environmental problem-solving and sustainability educational opportunities for Sewanee and Haitian students.

We started the project to study the effectiveness of payment for ecosystem services (PES) as a mechanism to restore degraded lands and improve livelihoods in the poorest of countries. Less than two percent of Haiti’s original subtropical rainforests remain, leaving the mountainous land vulnerable to massive soil erosion that severely limits agricultural productivity and compromises water quality. Reforestation efforts are often hampered by the fact that resource-poor Haitian farmers must choose between growing annual crops for food or maintaining tree cover on their scarce land holdings. By paying Haitian farmers for the service of sequestering carbon, we hope that PES will help encourage the protection of tree seedlings while they are most vulnerable to fire, grazing and competing land uses. Once the trees start yielding coffee, fruits and other products, the agroforests will provide farmers with sources of income and improved nutrition. Coffee was chosen as a target crop for the project because Haitian farmers desired its reintroduction into mountainous regions where it once grew, and it encourages the planting of other trees as the coffee plants are most productive in a shaded understory. During the first years, while the systems are becoming established, farmers can plant other food crops, such as bananas and beans, between the rows of trees.

This project has been largely student-driven, both in Haiti and on campus. Last year’s spring break trip, which included 15 Sewanee students, was led by post baccalaureate fellow, Keri Bryan (C’2012), who helped initiate the program and develop the research methodology. Three students returned as summer interns to conduct surveys on remotely located Bois Jolie farms. We will return with 24 students over spring break this year to continue surveys and begin planning for tree-planting efforts that will occur during the upcoming rainy season (May through October). As the systems become established, students and faculty from diverse disciplines will continue to collaborate with Zanmi Agrikol to monitor carbon sequestration, improvements in agricultural resilience and biodiversity, as well as changes in household income and attitudes towards trees.

Launching the project and paying for it are two different things. A proposal was brought forth by the Student Government Alliance to use half of a student’s green fee ($7.50 per student) to support the project. Previously, the entire fee supported “green power” generation by the Tennessee Valley Authority. However, over the years, the green fee became embedded in the physical plant budget, and thus invisible to students and ineffective as an educational tool. Now students can opt to use the fee to offset emissions from air travel for outreach, study abroad and athletic trips. With campus-wide student-led promotion by the Office of Sustainability and Environmental Stewardship, the fee serves as a consciousness-raising tool about the impact of our lifestyles on climate and how sequestration activities can help reduce our carbon footprint. Totaling nearly $12,000 per year, the green fee will support Haitian tree planting and encourage the establishment of more ecologically sustainable agroecosystems that provide livelihood benefits to Haitian families.

Our goal is to have other colleges and universities join us on this project. Several other institutions have expressed interest in joining Sewanee to support tree planting and carbon sequestration in other villages. It is my hope that one day, shade-grown coffee production will help reforest the Central Plateau and support a Haitian cooperative that exports coffee to college campuses to the U.S. For now, however, Zanmi Kafe is providing Sewanee students with hands-on problem solving opportunities in sustainability education that will hopefully make a positive impact on the lives of Haitians and impart greater awareness about how we can contribute to climate change solutions.

If you’d like to join us in our endeavor or would like more information on the program, please email me at dmcgrath@sewanee.edu.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Deborah McGrath is associate professor and chairperson of the Biology Department at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, TN. She co-directs the Haiti Institute at Sewanee (http://haiti.sewanee.edu/sewanees-agroforestry-project-in-haiti).

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