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Water and natural resources

Regenerative Blue Harvest: Contributing to the rescue of Lake Apanas in Nicaragua

May 15, 2024
Key Insight

José Iván Hernández has been growing coffee on the slopes of Lake Apanas in Nicaragua for 15 years. Today, he has a treatment system that allows him to produce better coffee and treat the wastewater from the wet processing process, thanks to the support of the Regenerative Blue Harvest project. José Iván, along with almost 3,500 coffee producers in the municipality of Jinotega, used to pour the honey water into the lake. This led to a high level of contamination that jeopardized the local landscape and the community's food security.

Apanas is an artificial lake located in the department of Jinotega, Nicaragua, an area with a temperate climate, high winds, and access to water resources, making it an ideal place for producing almost 60% of the vegetables consumed throughout the country. It also represents an area of high environmental importance, boasting an ecosystem with great biodiversity for various species of animals and plants. The lake is surrounded by natural reserves of great importance, such as the Apanás, Asturias, and Datanlí-Cerro El Diablo wetland nature reserves.

"Before, I used to pulp on a log or a stick that I placed there, where I installed the machine and hung a sack. Then I started with a small wooden fermenter that could hold 2 or 3 sacks, but always with the machine there, with a log outside in the field. I estimate that this lake has a contamination rate of 40 or 50%, which affects many people who wash and use this water because they don't have drinking water," says Iván.

The coffee wet milling process can have a negative environmental impact if not properly managed. During the process, a large amount of water is used to wash and ferment the coffee beans, generating large amounts of wastewater, commonly called honey water. If this wastewater is not properly treated, it can contaminate nearby rivers and streams, affecting aquatic fauna and flora, as well as nearby communities that depend on the water for consumption and daily use. Additionally, improper disposal of coffee pulp and other waste can generate foul odors and attract pests and disease vectors.

Jorge Martínez, the Blue Harvest project monitoring specialist, explains that the waters of the Apanas are beginning to show progressive deterioration due to the multiple uses to which it is subjected. “Sedimentation accumulates at the bottom of the lake and is washed into the lake as a result of agricultural activities in the area and deforestation,” explains Jorge. This problem, in addition to having a negative environmental impact, also affects the hydroelectric power generation process that supplies the lake to the country, representing about 35% of the country's total energy production.

Regenerative Blue Harvest

The Blue Harvest project is an initiative implemented by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the coffee-growing areas of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to protect the communities’ water. Currently, in a new phase begun in 2022, it is being implemented in coffee areas of Nicaragua and Honduras. The project promotes soil restoration practices and trains producers in water and soil conservation techniques. They also learn about strategies that allow them to increase their yields, improve competitiveness, and gain access to markets.

José Iván currently has a wet coffee processing facility with a fermenter and a larger coffee pulping machine. “Now I have also lined up a channel for washing, a very big change from the previous one, as I produce more and with less effort,” he acknowledges.

“Blue Harvest has helped me economically to build a filter and a collection pile with the aim of not polluting the water, and we have already seen that its use gives good results, I would say 100%. It wasn’t the same when we disposed of it in the temporary pit; it always spilled mud. Now you don’t smell any bad odor or see dirty water running into the lake because now they run filtered,” says José Iván.

Farmers participating in Blue Harvest promote water-efficient methods to benefit coffee production and properly treat wastewater to avoid contamination. Additionally, the project promotes pulp treatment to return to coffee crops to improve soil quality and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers.

In the Lake Apanas basin, there are already about 300 small coffee producers working with Blue Harvest, and evidence shows that the Wastewater Treatment Systems of the coffee processing plants (STARs, for their acronym in Spanish) are helping to reduce pollution in the lake basin. “Of course, pollution has been decreasing, I think from 40 to 30%, thanks to the honey water treatment systems,” says José Iván.

Since 2014, Blue Harvest has worked with 4,517 producers in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, supporting them with technical assistance, improving access to water for 146,302 people, and saving more than 131 million liters. The project has also improved 360 coffee processing facilities and has managed to reuse more than 7 million kg of coffee pulp, achieving the protection and conservation of more than 60 thousand hectares of land. Currently, producers have marketed 2,155 metric tons of high-quality coffee under the Blue Harvest approach in high-value international markets.

The aim of reducing pollution in the Lake Apanas basin is a challenge that has just begun, but in the eyes of the producers themselves, it is already yielding fruit. Blue Harvest protects and restores water sources while ensuring that sustainable agriculture is viable and profitable for all small coffee producers.

With the effort of wastewater treatment systems, the Blue Harvest Regenerative project contributes to the protection and decontamination of the Apanás, Asturias, and Datanlí-Cerro El Diablo wetland nature reserves, which represent socioeconomically important areas for the basin’s population. Moreover, in these water recharge zones, there are important areas where high-quality coffee is produced.

“I would recommend to my colleagues that they first make the effort to organize themselves and achieve the goal that I achieved, to have a honey water treatment system. I know that this is not achieved overnight, but with effort. I recommend that they try because it does yield good results; I can attest to that,” concludes José Iván.

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