Seeing The Forest For The Trees

The Mexican Rainforest Is Disappearing, And The Coffee You Drink Has A Lot To Do With It. One Former Tucsonan Is Brewing Change.

DANIEL FOURWINDS, OWNER of Capulin Coffee and Cream of the Tropics Dream Fruit, looks around as we drive in an old Toyota pickup up and down a twisted Mexican road. The road between Tepic, the capital of the Mexican state of Nayarit, and San Blas is said to have more than 60 curves in 35 miles. It drops from Tepic's elevation of 8,500 feet to sea level at the Gulf of California seaside town of San Blas. Along the way, thae rainforest grows right up to the road. In some places, it hangs over the road like something out of Tarzan.

Fourwinds talks in awe: "There's over 1,304 different shades of green." He smiles, and his eyes sparkle.

My eyes widen with shock. The plants touch each other, overlap side by side. From the camouflaged forest floor to the canopy top there is startling color, every color, colors I did not know existed, colors I cannot name. I see neon-glow greens and shiny waxy greens and dull dark greens and pale greens. I see yellows the color of tigers' eyes and the color of dandelions and grass skirts and summer squash. Every once in a while, I see flowers in whites and reds and purples.

The forms of the leaves suck me in. Many are heart-shaped; some of these are tiny leaves making the plant a multitude of little hearts, and others are huge heart-shaped leaves the size of outdoor garbage buckets. Some are round and smooth or round and rippled like potato chips or round and spotted. Some are long and lean, ending like a knifepoint; or long and lean but appearing wide because all the leaves branch out the sides from a perfect midline; or long and lean and striped down the middle.

I miss much more than I see. I guess that's why they call rainforests the most diverse places on Earth. In fact, 50 to 90 percent of all species inhabit rainforest, making it invaluable to global biodiversity.

From this mountain, we look across at hundreds of canopied bluffs dotted with abrupt barren spots.

"You think this is paradise because you've seen nothing like this before," Fourwinds says. I watch him to see if he's grinning, but he looks like his heart is weeping. "But this is all ruin. This is destruction. All those barren places once were filled with trees. Now they're cut and burned. It used to be that you would see patches of destruction--now, it's almost getting to the point where all you see is patches of forest."

I somber up as Fourwinds continues: "This isn't jungle. This is Mother Nature trying to protect herself. Most of the big trees are gone. These trees should be at least 40 feet tall."

It is a common misperception that the only rainforest in Mexico is the Lacandon, the rainforest that stretches from Chiapas down into Guatemala and Belize. But between the Gulf of California and the Sierras, in the San Blas region of the state of Nayarit, 1,100 miles south of the border, 100 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, is a strip of tropical rainforest ignored by the world.

The Lacandon is often in the headlines, and international alliances step in and attempt to protect what is left of the old-growth forests and bird haven of the threatened Sonoran Sierra Madre range. But the San Blas Rainforest is in dire need of protection, too. Unfortunately, attention and resources are limited to Fourwinds' company, the only one in the world bringing the region's native fruit to the U.S.

RYAN, DANIEL'S SON and partner, is telling me fruit stories. The fruit is miraculous. Take the pineapple. If a pineapple falls over, it will begin growing another plant in that spot. In fact, these pineapples are the definition of "live fruit." They live off their own sugars, and, cut with just a few inches of stem left, will grow another plant in the right climate and right soil.

Bananas grow on stalks 10 or 12 or 15 feet high, the stalk thick like a tree trunk. The bananas hang down from flowers in huge bunches. Machete too much of the stalk and the top crashes down and bruises the fruit. So after the initial machete chops, the stalk is shaken and the bananas are caught as the stalk comes down.

Over 150 species of bananas grow in the world. Twelve species grow in this part of the rainforest. Only one species makes it to the grocery stores.

Mangos and papayas and coffee all grow intermingled among the fruits of the jungle. That makes it creolla, natural, wildcrafted. Whereas organics are linked to the healing of damaged land, wildcrafting stewards what wants to grow, chemically free. It is beyond organic, before organic.

The San Blas Rainforest is a unique ecosystem, made by the moisture from the Gulf of California rising up and hitting the Sierras and coming back into the forest-covered bluffs in the form of dew and rain. In a healthy rainforest, you can stand under a banana tree, shake it, and shower anytime of the year. Without the giant trees, nothing can grow because the trees protect other plants from the sun and make a humidity blanket.

Overall, according to the Worldwide Watch Institute, Mexico is ranked eighth of all the nations in the world in biodiversity within its forests, third in terms of overall biodiversity. Its forests average over 9,000 plant species.

Cutting rainforests apart into patches is called fragmentation. A study by the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy and Center for Population Biology (at the University of California, Davis) indicates that one of the disastrous effects of fragmentation is that seeds planted in fragments are less likely to germinate. Fourwinds doesn't need a study to tell him that.

Fourwinds prophesies disaster. "I've watched it. I've watched radical destruction in just 12 years," he says.

Mexican Senator Aldolfo Aguillar Zinser says each year Mexico loses an average of 2,300 square miles of forest. At the current rate of destruction, Mexico has but 54 years of forest resources left.

The social and economical environment of the villages makes the rainforest ripe for raping by powerful people who want to line their pockets. The villagers are broke. They sell off their resources because what else can they do? The Mexican government directly contributes to the destruction by encouraging the slashing and burning of the rainforest in order to grow mono-crops. Furthermore, the government provides the pesticides.

Mono-cropping saves times and money. However, the consequences of mono-cropping include stripping the soil of essential nutrients; intensively employing chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers; and producing food for ease of handling without considering flavor. And that requires more chemicals just to maintain the same level of output.

The mono-crops (usually mangos in this area) are grown in rows on hillsides. The chemicals wash down into the sea, polluting millions of gallons of water. The rich volcanic topsoil washes away forever.

Forests are the lungs of the earth, storing approximately 433 billion tons of carbon, more than all the carbon that will be released from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture over the next 69 years. Mono-cropping and other agricultural policies are cutting away the planet's lungs, a prospect that should leave us all gasping.

The implications haunt us as we stand on the bottom of one of the bluffs that has been cut and burned and planted in mangos. From the top of the mountains, a patch like this looks tiny, but from here, it goes on and on all across the massive bluff. Fourwinds estimates it to be 5,000 acres and says, "The mango trees used to be 20 feet tall here, when they grew under the giants." These mango trees are at most 8 feet tall.

As if this weren't bad enough, the outlook gets worse--crops grown on rows on hillsides cannot be harvested by machine. These farmers will not even be able to compete with the giant mango farms in the deserts. And then what?

I PONDER THAT, and try to forget it that night in the small village of Tecuatita, where Fourwinds lives with his family. They tell me there are about 40 homes here. The rainforest grows into the village, filling the yards with fruit trees and nurturing the flowers that grow between the stones that make the road leading up to the Fourwinds' and up the mountain further into the rainforest.

I expected the rainforest to be beautiful, but as I sit outside that night watching plants become shapes and shadows in the moonlight, I am awestruck by the enormous power around me. I am smallness among vastness, but this was like nothing I have ever experienced in any of the wilds I have been, not the rim of the Grand Canyon or the foot of the Rockies. It is so much more.

And I now understand what skin breathing is. For the first time in my life, all my pores are purified, and all my pores breathe; the air opens them and pushes in and out. I feel replenished and enlivened. Everything around me is life--even the air tingles with energy.

Daniel says this all started--that is, his life down here--with a sip of coffee. Over 12 years ago he was privileged to taste coffee hand-processed from the plants of this area. And indeed, the coffee is amazing. It doesn't hang on the tongue or in the mouth. It even tastes as good as it smells. But tonight, I am beginning to understand why Fourwinds came back to this place to fight for its life. It is for so much more than coffee. It is for so much more than beauty.

The next day Fourwinds takes me out to a river. He wants to show me forest so tropical I can swing my way through it. The middle of the river is a dark green, the color of the rivers on the Discovery channel. But where we begin walking, the river runs into a small waterfall of two feet. There the water is absolutely clear. We walk along, parting plants. Vines hang over our heads. But Fourwinds is frowning.

"I can't believe how much has been destroyed since I've been here last," he says.

FOURWINDS TAKES ME up a rocky, bumpy road; it tries the four-wheel-drive truck. We rev forward and fall back and rev forward and fall back in a rocking motion all the way up the hillside. The dirt road is barely cut out of the forest; plants of all greens with bold, bright flowers grow right up into the road. The only thing missing is giant trees and vines hanging from one giant to another.

On the top of the plateau is the patio. It is the size of an Olympic basketball court.

Fourwinds designed it and foremanned its construction. He angled it to take full advantage of sunlight. It is ideal for processing Capulin's coffee.

In its effort to preserve the ecosystem and support the local village, Capulin processes coffee today much like it was done 50 years ago.

First the men go out and pick the ripe coffee beans, but only the ripe ones, and they are careful in how they pick the fruit. Snap off the blossom with the bean and another fruit will not grow.

Each man wears a burlap bag on his back and a basket strapped at his waist in front. When they pick, they drop the beans into the basket that hangs in front of them. Their hands get sticky with the sugary sap that runs from the absent blossoms, and dirt paints them black, along with their clothes. Their faces run with sweat, dirty and sticky. They fill the basket, tip it forward into the burlap sack, sling the sack unto their backs, pick until the sacks are filled with 40 to 70 kilos of coffee beans, then head to wherever they have left the pickup or burro.

There they empty the beans into large buckets with tops. That is to protect the beans in the transportation down the hillsides, to stop them from being crushed or bruised.

They pick in wave after wave, for days, from before dawn to sunset.

The beans are brought to the patio. Men come and wait as their beans are weighed and gather in groups, women in other groups. Children run around and slide across the patio on carts that look like Palo jacks.

The beans are sun-dried. Men with shovels turn them again and again all during the day. At night, they cover them with large tarps against the dew. As the beans dry, they turn from bright red to purple to burnt to black. The green beans stay green, and must be separated out.

The men beat the beans with huge sticks to separate the seed from chaff. Then it is all winnowed like wheat and shoveled into piles.

At the miller, first the coffee is put into a separator, sorting the beans by mass, routing them through three different chutes. Leftover chaff and other waste is shot out one side. On the other side are a huge pile of clean coffee and a pile of broken seeds and other waste material.

The coffee is then put through screens that sort it further, by size and material content. All the fluff is shoveled out and away.

Women sit at long tables, cleaning coffee. In the middle of the tables is a big pile to be sorted. Women place smaller piles in front of them and work through them bean by bean, pulling aside the whole beans that were too small to be separated out before this point, the broken beans, the waste. The women talk while they work. Kids run around, and some kids sit at the tables and clean coffee. The women sew up the handmade and embroidered bags of Capulin coffee.

Last year, Capulin processed 15,000 pounds of coffee. Maybe paying the women to clean coffee only brought an additional $1,500 to the village, but that's more income than would result from any other system; modern coffee processing eliminates all the steps after the men bring the coffee to be weighed and sold.

Hand processing employs men to tend to the coffee before it goes to the miller, and women at the mill. It avoids chemicals--fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and the gassing standard in the coffee industry. And it produces premium coffee, from the very beginning. Daniel's son Ryan says, "Just think of it. Think of it. Every little grain goes through so many hands. I bet each grain has been touched 50 times by the time it's picked and packed and unpacked and moved and turned and beaten and moved and sorted and moved and separated and moved and cleaned and packed. ... That is amazing quality control."

And it is a process that employs a village, something virtually unknown in the water-bathing process standard in the coffee industry.

The coffee industry is big business. Per capita coffee consumption in the United States is 9.3 pounds per person. In 1997, world production of coffee was 6 million metric tons.

Yet coffee is more than just commerce; it's critical to the environment. Fourwinds says, "Coffee is the key. Sixty to 80 percent of the forest exists because of coffee."

ONE OF CAPULIN'S greatest successes is the economic improvement of the village of Tecuatita. Other villages in the pineapple and banana regions of Nayarit have also benefited economically, which translates into a protection of their natural resources. Capulin has earned the respect of the village leaders, and because of that can make big orders.

Fourwinds battles Mexican politics as an alternative buyer--he competes with the state-supported big-money beneficio, and often comes out with the advantage. Yet despite the fact that it makes economic sense in the long run and even in the three-year short term to reject the soil-depleting practice of mono-cropping, Fourwinds is competing against a huge, ingrained commercial system.

Business' bottom line is profit. Adapting nature to the business cycle to make products predictable, uniform and consistently available contributes to the biodiversity crisis. When we pile melons and lettuce in our grocery cart in midwinter, or acorn squash and cabbage in midsummer, we encourage farmers and food retailers to override nature in deference to our gustatory desires.

"There's no market for native fruit," says Fourwinds. "People want the Chiquita massive. They don't even know anything else. We have to get away from hybrids, plants engineered to grow in the sun, picked too early, gassed, and altered for a long shelf life. This," he says, gesturing to the barren hillsides, "is what it does."