In northwest Honduras, COAGRICSAL, an UTZ and Rainforest Alliance certified cooperative of over 2,000 small coffee and cocoa producers, is working to spread sustainability and fight the practice of child labor across the region. Dedicated to this cause is 32 year-old Roberto Lopez, the sustainability manager at COAGRICSAL since 2016. We sat down with Roberto to learn more about the joys and challenges of his daily work to improve the livelihood of local communities and implement sustainable farming practices throughout Honduras.
What first brought you to coffee farming?
“My grandfather was a coffee farmer and I used to help him out on the farm, but I really got my start in the industry during an internship. It’s then when I fell in love with the coffee industry. It’s a huge world, and through my work, I can see all of the good things we can develop through it.“
As the Sustainability Manager for COAGRICSAL, what are your daily activities?
“My job centers around the farmer, because the better I know the farmer, the better I can develop activities to improve everything that surrounds and supports the farming. So that means I am in continuous communication with the farmers, helping them follow the standards of each certification. My other duties include developing training programs and searching for funding.”
COAGRICSAL has been UTZ certified since 2007 and currently has 355 active UTZ certified members. What were some of the reasons for certification?
“Without farmers, there wouldn’t be coffee or cocoa, so we need to take care of them and create long-term relationships and sustainable harvests in order to keep the whole industry healthy and improving. We were also hoping it would help open up new markets for us, which, in turn, enables us to secure better prices for our farmers.”
Were there any hurdles or challenges to certification you faced?
“Changing the mentality of people in our communities has been a challenge. We sometimes face closed minds when it comes to implementing certain social and environmental requirements of certification. Also, sometimes the costs are high, and we, as a cooperative, have to find ways to afford it in order to support our farmers.”
What has certification brought your cooperative?
“It’s enabled us to access better markets and get better prices for our product, to invest in measures that improve our productivity and to increase our process capacity. On the whole, it’s made our cooperative much more competitive. Certification also enabled us to create educational and health programs for our farmers and allowed them to have a say in the governance of the organization.”
On the role of companies in the supply chain
How do you view the role of companies further up the value chain in regards to sustainability?
“We all need to work together. This is an important worldwide chain, and we all have to do something. In the past, we’ve done projects with big companies that are open, which shows me that it’s possible to implement programs like these and work as a global community.”
What do you wish more companies would know or be aware of?
“That we, the small farmers, are growing and more concern about the market is needed. That coffee farming is not easy, which is why we need better prices and more sustainable programs.“
On the future of cocoa and coffee farming
What other issues is COAGRICSAL working on?
“We’re working on a lot of things, including; child labor, climate change, how to engage young people in coffee and cocoa farming, gender equality and education, to name a few. Climate change is, for now, something that we are still understanding but in time is going to become a bigger issue. Harvest times, growing altitudes and quality levels have already changed, and we really need to make a great effort to face it and develop a plan B.”
“Stopping child labor is also an important issue we are investing a lot of time and energy in, by raising awareness about the opportunities families have by sending their children to school. We also provide school supplies to children, build classrooms, offer scholarships and more.”
“Lastly, we are also working to engage young people in developing better practices and technological advancements for coffee farming, this way they feel more attracted to the industry. Cocoa is going very well so far, and we are currently building a new facility to produce chocolate like our ancestors, the Mayans, did.“
When you look at your work, what are you most proud of?
“Nothing can compare to the face of a small kid at school when they open their new book bag to find colored pencils and new notebooks. Coffee and cocoa are more than just a nice cup of a delicious beverage; it’s the dream and work of hundreds of families around the world, and I feel so proud to develop at least a small part of it. Improving the quality of life of those that produce these products is a great achievement to me.”