Supporting sustainable economic development
and direct trade in Guatemala

Conserving Water to be As Green As It Gets

scubaSan Miguel farmers use very little water to process their coffee. Pound for pound of coffee, they use less than 5% of the water used by large plantations. Just how are they different?

A large coffee plantation uses lots of water. The plantations are often located on a stream or river. Step one in building a processing plant is often “dam the river” for power and water, also destroying the natural flow of the river and preventing migration of the fauna.

The river flows into a series of holding tanks, often 30,000 liters or more each. Coffee fruit is dropped in these gargantuan tanks for sorting by density.

After sorting, the coffee is sluiced to the de-fruiting stage. Water pressure is used to transport the fruit. Imagine the water used to push 10,000 lbs of coffee fruit through a sluice every hour!

The de-fruiters, or pulperos, are then lubricated by water, each machine using several gallons per minute. After pulping, water is again used to transport the coffee beans in a sluice to their fermentation tanks.

After fermentation, the coffee is washed. This is typically accomplished by running coffee and water through an open channel while a dozen men scrub the coffee with rakes or brooms, using a gallon of water every few seconds.

The water is then returned to the river. This water is full of alcohol and fermenting fruit, which not only contaminates the river, but kills the microbes in the river, knocking out the base of the riparian food chain. In some cases it contains tons of organic matter, and in the process of decomposing, pulls dissolved oxygen out of the water and destroys the river’s natural biology.

All told, a typical plantation will use 40 liters of water for each kilogram of coffee produced. 1 That’s about 22 gallons of water per pound of processed coffee.

So, how are San Miguel farmers different?

  • Nobody has dammed a river. We just don’t have one.

  • Nobody uses a sluice or water for transportation. Coffee is moved by human muscles.

  • Nobody uses giant holding tanks. Coffee sorting is done in a 25 gallon barrel, and the same water is used for all the sorting the family will do that day.

  • All pulperos are waterless.

  • Coffee is washed using muscle power and a little water to fill the tanks. There is no continuous flow of water, simply a washing stage and a rinsing stage much like a clothes washer.

San Miguel farmers use less than a gallon of water per pound of coffee. All coffee fruit is removed from the water and used as natural fertilizer. As Arabica coffee farmers, they produce less alcohol than Robusta coffee farmers through shorter fermentation times. Today they are even experimenting with means of reclaiming that alcohol for use as fuel and in agriculture.