It’s hard to overstate what coffee means to Puerto Rico. Just ask Erica Reyes, whose family has been growing coffee in the region for generations.
“If you talk with any Puerto Rican, the first thing they’ll tell you about is our coffee. It is our culture, our passion.”
So when Hurricane Maria tracked toward the island in September 2017, it threatened not only lives, but a way of life.
Officially the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, Maria claimed an estimated 3,000 lives, caused an estimated $90 billion in damage, and demolished vital infrastructure, including the electrical grid, which has only recently been repaired to the point where all residents have access to power again.
The storm also devastated local industries, with coffee among the hardest hit. Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the United States where coffee is grown, so its significance to the island’s culture and livelihood are ingrained in daily life. As Reyes took stock of her family farm once the storm passed, the loss was clear: 90% of her crop and 100% of her parents’ had been destroyed.
Reyes was raised by coffee farmers using traditional farming techniques that have been passed on for generations, but she realized early on that for Puerto Rico’s coffee industry to thrive, it couldn’t be averse to modernization.
“Before Maria, my father and I would talk about the future of growing coffee — more efficiency, more sustainability, increased production. He thought I was crazy.”
After the storm, Reyes realized that future, while not lost, might be significantly delayed. How does anyone rebuild after such a catastrophe?
“That’s when Virginia called,” Reyes remembers.
Virginia Rivera, a Puerto Rican with a long history in coffee like Reyes, has been a Starbucks Puerto Rico partner (employee) for over a decade. Having worked together for years, Rivera called Reyes to see how she might be able help local farmers in any way. At the time, neither would’ve imagined that this offer of help would result in a blueprint for the very future Reyes had envisioned.
Rivera proposed forming a task force with representatives from every part of the industry—farmers, entrepreneurs, baristas, nursery owners, even government officials—who’d gather to discuss the best, most cooperative way to move forward. For the last year, Starbucks has worked with this group to align on recovery and replanting efforts to build a more sustainable future for coffee.
In response, Starbucks is donating two million coffee seeds to Puerto Rican farmers, and the Starbucks Foundation and Fonalledas Foundation are partnering with World Coffee Research to improve coffee seed quality and create a more sustainable future for Puerto Rican coffee farmers. The climate-resilient Marsellesa seeds will help lay the groundwork for a more consistent, sustainable product, giving local farmers across the island renewed optimism for the future.
“There is a feeling now that every part of this industry is important, that companies like Starbucks and smaller nurseries need to work together,” Reyes says.
“The future we dreamed about before the storm now seems like a reality.”
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