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Reducing Erosion on Coffee Plantations to Protect Coral Reefs

On August 1, 2016, Protectores de Cuencas, Inc. and local researchers held a field demonstration and workshop in the Guánica watershed of western Puerto Rico to train farmers, teachers and natural resource agency personnel about erosion processes on coffee plantations and available alternatives to minimize its impact in the region.

The morning session featured field demonstrations of erosion processes on coffee farms and methods to control erosion on farm roads. Participants visited Finca Carlos Vega in Maricao, where workshop speakers Carlos Vega, Roberto Viqueira (Watershed Protectors Inc.), Yasiel Figueroa (UPR-Rio Piedras (RP) Dept. of Environmental Sciences) and Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón (University of Texas at Austin) spoke about their soil erosion research project.


Coffee hacienda owner, Carlos Vega, speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop
Coffee hacienda owner, Carlos Vega, speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop

(article translated from Salvemos El Café - Monday, August 22, 2016; Photos courtesy of Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón and Salvemos El Café)

Carlos Vega has spent more than 20 years bound to his coffee farm in Barrio Rubias in the town of Yauco. The veteran farmer knows his 27 acres of land like the back of his hand and knows the difficulties he faces to keep them in good condition. But what Vega did not know was the impacts that erosion from his coffee plantation had on the Rio Loco watershed, Lake Luchetti in Yauco and coral reefs in Guánica Bay.

It was through a project led by HICE PR (Human Impact to Coastal Ecosystems in Puerto Rico), funded by NASA, that allowed Mr. Vega to understand how what happens on the mountain has a direct effect on the coast below.

The initiative, carried out by the Departments of Environmental Studies and Geography of the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, studies human impacts on the Río Loco / Guánica watershed, originating in the mountains of Yauco where Mr. Vega’s farm is located.

“I knew about erosion and sedimentation, but I never thought the problem would be so great. Through this project, I have learned about how erosion and sedimentation occurs and I understand that it is a serious problem to address,” said Vega. His farm was used for a demonstration workshop in August to train farmers, teachers and natural resource agency personnel about erosion processes and available alternatives to minimize its impact on the region. The workshop was led by Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón, hydrogeomorphologist and professor at the University of Texas-Austin; Roberto Viqueira, Director and founder of Protectores de Cuencas; and UPR Environmental Sciences Student, Yasiel Figueroa, among others.

Roberto Viqueira, Protectores de Cuencas Director, speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop
Roberto Viqueira, Protectores de Cuencas Director, speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop

THE EFFECT ON COFFEE GROVES

However, the problems caused by land erosion are reflected not only in the sea. Coffee growers have to deal with it constantly, especially on roads built to access the farm.

I have to pass through with the machine (grader) three times a year, and it is costly. Sometimes cleaning costs $1,500 each time. Not only that, but it also damages vehicles,” farmer Vega said, who stressed the importance of maintaining roads in good condition to transport coffee off his farm to the processing plant ("beneficiado de café").

Coffee is one thing you have to take it fast (to the processor) so that it is fresh. If you take too many days, it begins to damage the product and you lose crop yields. Therefore, the most important thing on a farm are the roads,” he added.

Rainfall Simulator - generating runoff on Gravelled Road for Coffee Erosion Workshop-August 2016And it is precisely on roads where the biggest erosion problem on a coffee farm is found. To this end, part of the farm was used as an experiment to not only document and measure erosion, but to present alternatives to minimize it.

As part of the workshop, the presenters led an exercise in which they used a rainfall simulator on a portion of the bare ground, or road. After just over two minutes of “rain” runoff began (right). Professor Ramos-Scharrón collected water samples from the runoff to measure the sediment concentration levels and compared them with samples collected in other areas of the farm, such as coffee groves.

Although the samples would be taken to a laboratory for testing, the result could be seen at a glance: sedimentation was much higher in the water collected on roads through the coffee plantation areas.

One of the problems facing coral reefs in Guánica Bay comes from what happens on coffee plantations. Sediment is one of the sources of contamination. Many people think that pollution has to be from chemicals, but there are also physical pollutants and sediment is one of them,” Dr. Ramos-Scharrón added.

Insloped Road with V-shaped Check Dams to slow runoff and capture sediment-Coffee Erosion Workshop-August 2016
In-sloped Road with V-shaped Check Dams to slow runoff and capture sediment-Coffee Erosion Workshop-August 2016.

ALTERNATIVES TO THE PROBLEM

The study did not simply identify the source of erosion and its effects, but provided alternatives to try to minimize them. As part of the exercise, the farm became a laboratory to test solutions to the erosion problem.

Three practices were installed: a road was sloped to a ditch where a 'V' (check dam) was made with stones and vetiver grass to dissipate storm water runoff energy. Also, on some stretches of road gravel was placed to cover the bare soil, and sediment retention ponds were built at key points where a lot of water runs off,” said student Figueroa, describing the work done on the farm by Protectores de Cuencas, Inc. The result, according to the farm owner, was immediate.

Detention Basin to capture sediment-Coffee Erosion Workshop-August 2016
Detention Basin to capture sediment-Coffee Erosion Workshop-August 2016

The vetiver grass and stones slow down runoff water and the roads have remained in good condition for a longer time. By this time I had to hire a machine to start the harvest,” Vega said. “We reduced the amount of sediment into the lake, but it has also been beneficial for agriculture. I wish all farmers could have more resources for these type of projects,” he added.


The afternoon class session was held at Hacienda Indiera Fría where participants discussed the challenges and opportunities related to soil erosion in coffee plantations in the Río Grande de Añasco & Río Loco watersheds.

Maritza Barreto (UPR-RP Planning Graduate School), Jorge Ortiz (UPR-RP Environmental Science Dept.), Roberto Viqueira & Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón delivered presentations about challenges and opportunities in the Río Loco Watershed.  Ruperto Chaparro (UPR Sea Grant), Fernando Gilbes (Depto.-RUM), Wilfredo Ruiz (caficultor lndiera Fría) and Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón highlighted conditions in Río Grande de Añasco watershed.  The presenters then led a group discussion on programs and opportunities available to help farmers the install erosion control methods.

Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop
Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón speaks to participants at August 2016 Coffee Erosion Workshop.

Dr. Ramos-Scharrón hopes the initiative will inspire other projects aimed to improve agricultural conditions in the mountains and at the same time ensure water quality. “There is a mutual benefit. The farmer is concerned about the issue of erosion and we must seize the interest of the farmer to then help address resource conservation projects downstream on the coast, such as protecting coral reefs or maybe (creating) a hydroelectric plant,” said Ramos-Scharrón.

Perhaps we need an economist, but how much does it cost for us to keep the soil here on the coffee plantation, versus how much it will cost to clean the reservoir or if corals are damaged? I know that it is better to keep it here,” Dr. Ramos-Scharrón said.

More Information

  • Video: Dr. Carlos Ramos-Scharrón discusses how what happens in the mountains affects coastal habitats during the Coffee Erosion Workshop.
  • Ramos-Scharrón CE, Thomaz E. 2016. Runoff development and soil erosion in wet tropical montane setting under coffee cultivation. Land Degradation and Development, doi: 10.1002/ldr.2567.

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