| by Sierra Abukins

News Stories

Students in Colombia
Institute students went to Líbano, Colombia, for a 10-day immersive learning trip on sustainable coffee farming.

For one Middlebury Institute student, the seeds of his interest in the environment were planted—quite literally—on his family’s coffee farm in Colombia.

Jaime Gonzalez Canon, who will complete his degree in Environmental Policy degree in spring 2023, was raised in the small town of Líbano, home to 2,000 coffee farms and part of the “Coffee Triangle,” a Unesco World Heritage site.

Farmers in this region have seen the impacts of the changing climate firsthand—rivers that aren’t flowing anymore, erratic weather. Now a new collective of 10 local farmers called Norte Nativa is trying to go forward by going back—reviving integrating scientific knowledge about regenerative agriculture with traditional practices that once nourished both people and the land. 

“We need to connect experiences in the field with academia and academia with rural ways of knowing and living,” said Gonzalez Canon.

To forge those connections, 17 Middlebury Institute students and faculty went on a 10-day experiential learning trip to Líbano in March.

Conflict, Climate Change, and Colombian Coffee

Líbano was once the country’s coffee nerve center, but lost a lot of productive land during the five decades of armed conflict preceding the 2016 peace agreement. As a child, Gonzalez Canon couldn’t go out to his family’s farm because of the intense fighting between guerrillas and paramilitary forces in the area.

To rebuild, the government made a huge push for farmers to use “modern” methods introduced in the 1970s. The aim was to maximize quantity: grow as much coffee as possible, focusing on adding land, cutting down trees, using nitrogen fertilizers,  and planting with new hybrid seed varieties.

“A lot of the traditional knowledge was lost because farmers followed the technicians’ recommendations,” said Gonzalez Canon. “The ways we used to do it have been lost and we are trying to recuperate that.”

Coffee is sensitive to sun and used to be grown in the shade of the tree canopy. The hybrid seeds are resistant to sun so farmers could cut down the shade trees and plant more coffee. The result was widespread deforestation, water pollution,  and loss of biodiversity. 

“When you’re cutting the trees, you’re cutting the whole ecosystem—killing the insects and the birds,” said Gonzalez Canon.

Connecting across Languages and Disciplines

The spark for the immersive learning trip started with a friendship between Gonzalez Canon and Alex Christodoulou MAIEP ’23. Gonzalez Canon’s family farm, “Finca Pensar,” hosted Christodoulou to do research focusing on local development challenges and alternative crop drying strategies as a means of bolstering harvests.

The two connected with Professor Lyuba Zarsky with the International Environmental Policy program and Professor Gabriel Guillén, faculty in Language Studies, who led the trip.

The exchange kicked off last fall as faculty paired students virtually with language partners in Líbano. Eleanor Bent MAIEP ’24 got to meet her language partner, Alejandro Franco, the president of Norte Nativa, in person on the trip.

Eleanor Bent
Eleanor Bent MAIEP ’24 and Alejandro Franco, president of Norte Nativa. They were virtual exchange partners for Spanish in the Global Community course (fall 2022) and got to meet in person during the trip (spring 2023).
  (Credit: Gabriel Guillén )

Students connected their academic and professional interests with Norte Nativa members’ daily work, building relationships based on mutual interests. 

“For most people, coffee is all about consumption,” said Professor Lyuba Zarsky. “For sustainability-minded students to meet people who actually grow the coffee—and are doing it in ways that aim to regenerate the soil, restore ecosystems, and build a vibrant community—was more than eye-opening. It was inspirational.” 

They explored issues such as the importance of reforesting the coffee-growing landscape, the role of women in regenerative agriculture, and tensions in the relationship between small regenerative farmers and the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, a nongovernmental organization that supports the Colombian coffee industry and promotes it internationally. They also learned about alternatives to coffee growing, the potential of sustainable tourism for the region, the economic importance of paving trochas (dirt roads), the Paisa identity of Líbano, and how to preserve local oral knowledge around farming.

“This experience was transformative for all of us—faculty and students alike,” said Professor Gabriel Guillén. “Our hope is that this is just the start of a long-term collaboration between the Middlebury Institute and community organizations in Colombia like the Norte Nativa association.”

Farmers Experiment with Different Approaches

“Being a farmer is hard and complex and there are all these variables that you don’t control,” said Gonzalez Canon. “A lot of people inherit the farm through the generations, but don’t necessarily understand the business.”

Farmers with small to mid-size farms can’t compete on quantity. That’s why those with Norte Nativa are pursuing a different approach—growing specialty coffees and more diverse crops, working together to standardize practices and ensure quality, and pursuing certifications that will help increase their prices.

But perhaps the most critical part of the work the group is doing is building a structure to work together on common challenges and opportunities.

“We’re cultivating the idea that it’s better to be a collective doing something than just working individually,” said Gonzalez Canon. “We all want the best for Líbano.”