30 dump truck loads of coffee pulp help restore a Costa Rican rainforest

Rakan “Zak” Zahawi is the executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Galápagos, Ecuador. He and his collaborator, Rebecca Cole, partnered with a coffee processing plant to repurpose farm waste and help restore a rainforest. Read more about the project in an open access article in Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

From the very first time I saw the results of the orange peel project on the ground back in 2004 I was sold! What a brilliant idea I thought – use the waste products generated from the production of orange juice (and any related citrus products) to regenerate degraded habitats where expansive dry forests were once found. The idea was Dan Janzen’s, an ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked in northern Costa Rica for the better part of 50 years. At the time I was working for the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and given that I work as an ecologist in forest restoration, a colleague thought I might be interested.

One of thirty dump truck loads of coffee pulp, locally called brosa, spread on former farmland to restore rainforest in southern Costa Rica. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.

The idea is simple, take truckloads of agricultural waste (in this case orange peels) and spread them in a layer ~0.5 m thick across hectares of extremely degraded land dominated by forage grasses. Under the tropical sun this layer generates an enormous amount of heat, and in the process of ‘cooking’ down it asphyxiates and kills the forage grass that is notoriously difficult to eradicate. At the same time, birds and other seed dispersers visit the site, attracted by the abundant larvae helping to decompose the material. The net result is a lot of organic material and nutrients and many seeds dispersed combining to help jump-start the recovery of a degraded habitat and return it to a forested state.

I never forgot that visit and over the years that I worked in southern Costa Rica as Director of the Las Cruces Biological Station (a field station run by OTS) I always thought of trying the study there. The difference was that there was no orange production in the region but another agricultural byproduct was widely available – coffee pulp waste! I wondered – could the results of the orange project be replicated with another agricultural waste product? While the idea was always on my mind, it took more than a decade for me to actually test it after Rebecca Cole, a long-term research colleague who was based at the University of Hawaii expressed interest in collaborating.

Before: a former cattle pasture in southern Costa Rica. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.
During: coffee pulp piled half a meter high over the experimental plot. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.
After: the area piled high with coffee pulp rapidly grew into a secondary forest (left) while the control area remained covered in pasture grass, as it has been for decades (right). Photo credit: Rebecca Cole.

With funds secured from the March Conservation Fund, we setup a modest pilot study with a 35 × 45 m plot buried half a meter deep. That’s 30 dump trucks – or 360 m3 of material! As with the orange peel study, this land was primarily degraded pasture and would have been slow to recover on its own. We monitored this and an adjacent similar-sized plot for 2 years and the results were nothing short of spectacular. While the control treatment languished with overgrown grasses with a few shrubs, the coffee waste plot was completely transformed. The grass was smothered and in its place a patch of young trees. All species were pioneers but they are nonetheless critical to the recovery process – and the fact that they dominated the entire plot was really promising. With time it is hoped that more mature forest species will come into this system and establish – and with a young canopy of pioneers providing a little shade, the conditions are perfect for this to happen!

Drone image showing the area where coffee pulp was dumped (left) and the control plot (right) after two years. Photo credit: Rakan Zahawi.

This study is a small pilot project, but the results speak for themselves. So does the coffee industry! Every year, millions of tons of coffee pulp waste are generated and finding a way to not only dispose of this waste in an ecologically sound manner, but also use it for habitat recovery is a win-win for everybody. It is exceedingly rare for industry to be able to pair up so seamlessly with conservation and restoration that it is hard to believe. Of course, there are hurdles – such as governmental regulations that manage such waste products, but the potential here is enormous.  And the next challenge before us is to see if we can bring this idea to scale and test the methodology across big areas of degraded habitat in the tropics. We will keep you posted!

Read more about this project in a recent open-access article published in Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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