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Dahlia Casancho is leading the Mayni in their eco-friendly coffee-growing endeavours. Photograph: Greg Campher/Easy José Coffee

The Mayni people are harvesting shade-grown coffee from under the canopy of mature trees, with huge benefits for wildlife and the community
Deep within the Peruvian cloud forests, a six-hour drive from the town of Satipo, the remote Mayni community is busy growing organic coffee beneath the canopy of the native forest in order to preserve the rich mosaic of life there.
Most of the forest is kept intact, with just a little undergrowth cleared to plant Coffea arabica trees. Dahlia Casancho, who is leading the Mayni in their eco-friendly coffee-growing endeavours, sees shade-grown coffee farming as a positive development for the community, who traditionally believe in a forest god and river god. “Nature is our home. Nature gives us water, feeds us and also allows us to grow our coffee,” she says. “That’s why we take great care of our forest and we want it to be sustainable so that our children can also enjoy it.
“As a community, this is our only hope,” says Casancho. “That’s why we teach our children that they must take care of the forest and we also ask other communities to follow the natural path.”
Peru is the second-largest producer of organic coffee by area and the largest organic coffee supplier to Europe. Shade-grown coffee from around the world is providing a viable alternative to the sun-tolerant coffee plants that have been developed since the Casancho and her tribe handpick the coffee cherry fruits and take them in large handwoven baskets to the washing station at the top of the mountain where most of the beans are de-pulped, soaked and then dried before being bagged for transportation to Satipo for final processing.
Separately, Casancho uses a slower and more laborious “honey” process on a fraction of the harvest to make a micro-lot. Named after the stickiness of the sugary-sweet pulp left on the coffee beans, this method involves de-pulping and laying out the sticky beans on beds, and turning them every few hours as they dry naturally in the sun.
Thanks to the Mayni’s agroforestry methods, the transition from the “montane” ecosystem, or cloud forest, to coffee plantation is somewhat difficult to distinguish, even for Oliver Whaley, a rainforest biodiversity scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
1970s, which require clearing land for vast plantations that deplete the soil over time.
The Mayni produce shade-grown coffee, which helps preserve biodiversity. Photograph: Greg Campher/Easy José Coffee
“When shade-grown coffee is well-managed with forest conservation, it’s the most amazing crop for biodiversity and you’ll hardly know that you’ve walked into a coffee-growing area,” he says. “There won’t be much change in birdsong because the canopy remains full of life, with everything from huge morpho butterflies and moths to monkeys, toucans and anacondas.”
The canopy continuity between conserved montane forest is crucial for birds and monkeys that will not travel across gaps due to risk of predation. “Coffee provides this nice, smooth movement possibility,” says Whaley, who explains that this fragile ecosystem relies on some highly intricate relationships. “There might be a single type of bee that pollinates a specific orchid that provides the vital nectar food for one particular hummingbird. If you lose that one bee, all those relationships collapse.”
Peru’s coffee-growing regions have some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, with about 300 tree species in just one hectare, according to Whaley. “If I took 20 insects from the canopy, half could be new species,” he says. “So much has not yet been recorded.”
Crucially, coffee agroforestry systems also store carbon in the fertile soil and support the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing trees such as pacay, better known as the ice-cream bean tree, and the threatened Spanish cedar.
In addition to the environmental benefits, shade-grown coffee production has economic and social value, says César Meza Cáceres, community liaison for Serfor, the Peruvian National Forest and Wildlife Service.
“Because the coffee is such good quality, it can be sold for a premium price to clients like Easy José [the company working with the Mayni to produce coffee] and that allows the community to improve living conditions and offer opportunities for future generations,” he says.
While Serfor directly incentivises this type of coffee production, the allocated budget from central government in Lima is small, according to Cáceres. Easy José and its UK-based import partner, Freeman Trading, pay growers a premium to ensure the farmers are reimbursed properly for their efforts and the extra time it takes to produce the coffee in this way.
“We want to make this coffee-growing method the norm,” says Greg Campher, head of coffee at the UK-based Easy José, who is happy that five other Peruvian communities have followed in the footsteps of the Mayni, including the White River tribe and Mazaronkiari.
“It takes longer for coffee trees to reach fruition and yields are 30% lower but we believe consumers would pay more for ethical, sustainable coffee with this provenance,” says Campher, who has called on the Peruvian government to make it illegal for native forests to be cut down to make coffee.
Organic shade-grown coffee crops are highly sensitive to the changing climate and as temperatures increase, the “coffee belt” in which arabica coffee can be grown is moving further up the slopes to cooler elevations at 1,700-2200 metres. Only five years ago, it could be grown at 1,000 metres above sea level. The climate crisis also puts pressure on Peru’s organic coffee production by increasing the spread of pathogens such as the destructive coffee berry borer beetle and coffee leaf rust.
In 2019, Peru lost 162,000 hectares (400,300 acres) of primary forest out of a total of 74m hectares, according to the World Resources Institute, so the estimated average annual deforestation is quite low, at about 0.2%. But relatively little of Peru’s fragile montane forest remains and because this important coffee region feeds the Amazon basin, any further destruction could affect the regulation of the planet’s carbon and water systems.
Coca production for cocaine is a major cause of deforestation, as is gold mining, and illegal logging. Once surrounded by these other industries, indigenous communities find it difficult to migrate across the landscape in response to the changing weather and seasons. “That’s where the adaptive capacity of these indigenous groups is limited. Communities get sandwiched in, so what Easy José is doing is fantastic because it gives the Mayni an option,” says Whaley.
The success of this kind of sustainable coffee production ultimately depends on a greater demand for the products. Mayni coffee is not cheap – it retails at £9.50 for 250g.
Debbie Wood, owner of the Summer Café in Wiltshire, has worked with Easy José since 2014. “Coffee sales have massively expanded over the years, our customers absolutely love the provenance behind this coffee,” she says. “It’s a win-win situation, having great tasting coffee while also supporting the indigenous communities and protecting the environment.”
Dahlia Casancho with bags of harvested coffee beans ready to be shipped out. Photograph: Greg Campher/Easy José Coffee
From June to December last year, Easy José’s monthly online sales increased by 1,472%, perhaps due to changing buying habits during lockdown. But Campher also believes that public awareness of Amazon deforestation is rising: “Our consumers are becoming more eco-conscious and by supporting these indigenous communities they are making a positive impact.”
With about 2bn cups of coffee drunk every day, there is enormous potential for a step-change in buying habits. “It’s all about consumers being able to verify the truth and effecting change quite significantly in this case,” Whaley says. “Consumer power can change and protect the ecosystem.”

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