Tierra Nova Foundation

Hans Levelt is without a doubt one of the most idealistic directors Simon Lévelt has known. It was Hans who made the decision to start buying directly from the producers, who promoted the interests of the workers and focused on sustainable entrepreneurship  . His dedication led to the establishment of a wonderful foundation: Tierra Nova.

Hans Levelt, the pioneer

When Hans assumed full management of the company in 1969, this had a significant impact on the way Simon Lévelt was run. In the 1970s he first travelled to the coffee and tea plantations of his producers. Upon arriving there, he was shocked by the bad labour conditions and environmental issues he encountered. He also really objected to the extensive use of chemicals. “What especially struck me was that the people who worked hardest, were the ones who were worst off. The banks were prepared to give the farmers a loan to bridge the gap to the new harvest, but only under strict conditions. For example, the farmers were forced to use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers. This was due to the fact that the manufacturers of these products had close ties with the banks and had a lot of influence. The coffee and tea producers didn’t have a say at all. Here in Europe and in the US the sustainable production of coffee and tea had been on the agenda for quite a while and I wanted to share this knowledge with the coffee and tea producers.”

Hans realised that the producers were ill-informed about the potential production methods and the market price they could get. Simon Lévelt then decided to change its purchasing process so it could support its producers in the transition to sustainable agriculture. Hans: “For the producers it was all very new. I remember visiting a coffee producer and discussing the problem he encountered with the banks. He claimed that it wasn’t possible to grow coffee without using artificial fertilizers and chemicals. When I asked how his parents and grandparents grew their crops before, the penny dropped; after all, they didn’t use chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer.”

Simon Lévelt sent agricultural experts to Latin-America to help the producers implement better production methods. A little bit of extra attention already led to significant improvements. “We put a lot of effort into giving them more knowledge and information.”

Hans’ pioneering spirit led to many other initiatives. In the 1980s he was the first to introduce organic coffee and tea on the Dutch market, and he had a hand in the creation of Max Havelaar, a certification for fair-trade coffee. After his retirement he continued his mission with his own foundation, Tierra Nova.

Tierra Nova

Tierra Nova was established in 2004. This independent foundation, which has close ties with Simon Lévelt, is managed by Hans and two Simon Lévelt employees: Rob Sikkema (member of the board) and Paula Koelemij (head of purchasing). Additional support is provided by Ignace Breemer (purchaser for Simon Lévelt). The funding for the foundation comes mainly from Simon Lévelt’s profits.

The foundation focuses on projects in the countries of origin. Besides being involved in the development of sustainable production methods, Tierra Nova also plays a key role in improving the working and living conditions of the farmers. To achieve this, the foundation invests in schools, health centres and facilities on and near the plantations. This investment is badly needed, as in India, for example, many children don’t have access to education. To help address this need Simon Lévelt, in cooperation with Ambootia Tea Estate, decided in 2001 to build a primary school on one of Ambootia’s tea plantations: the Ambootia Simon Levelt Primary School. In 2003 the building was extended with an extra classroom and in 2008 an assembly hall was added thanks to a donation from Tierra Nova. The school now possesses several computers that were acquired with money donated by customers of Simon Lévelt. These days the school provides education to no less than 40 pre-schoolers and 120 school-aged children.

Tierra Nova contributed to the establishment of a special training centre for the coffee farmers that are associated with the production facilities

Tierra Nova offers support in the form of either a financial contribution or knowledge and experience. One example is the Sipi Falls project in Uganda, which is co-financed by the Dutch ministry of economic affairs. When Simon Lévelt helped build central coffee processing facilities in 2008, Tierra Nova contributed to the establishment of a special training centre for the coffee farmers that are associated with the production facilities. The trainings that are provided contribute to a higher quality of the coffee and they ensure a higher price for the farmers.

Projects

  • Finca Irlanda - Mexico

    Construction of facilities for the coffee pickers

  • Ambootia Tea Plantation - India

    The Ambootia Simon Lévelt Primary School is built on the tea plantation

  • Sipi Falls - Uganda

    Construction of a central wet processing factory

Activities in Brazil

Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world, but when it comes to sustainable agriculture it is lagging behind. Only 0.2% of the Brazilian coffee production is organic, a much lower percentage than the 5-10% in surrounding countries such as Peru and Honduras. This is due to the difference in set-up of the coffee industry in these countries. The coffee sector in Brazil can be described as high-tech; there is not a lot of traditional cultivation. The high standard of living and labour costs in Brazil are another limiting factor for the development of organic cultivation, which is very labour-intensive and therefore less cost-effective.

Tierra Nova decided to focus on Brazil because of the lack of organic coffee cultivation in this country. In February of 2013 the foundation, together with various producers, traders and scientists, organised a conference about coffee in order to investigate whether it would be feasible to develop organic coffee cultivation in Brazil.

“A lot of people were sceptical or reserved judgement initially, but the conference turned out to be fruitful”, says Hans. It was decided to resurrect the Associação Café Organico do Brasil or ASOB, the Brazilian association for organic coffee cultivation. A new multi-year project was set up in order to turn Brazil into the country with the highest percentage of organically produced coffee. Once several coffee roasters got involved and the Dutch government decided to invest in the project via the IDH (a Dutch initiative for sustainable trade), it really took off.

Since the kick-off of the project in 2014, more than 2,220 small to medium-sized coffee farmers in the state of Minas Gerais have been following specially developed training programmes. Some of the topics they learn about include how to grow high-quality coffee beans in a sustainable way and how to deal with the effects of climate change by planting suitable trees for providing shadow and ground cover plants and by organising water management. The eventual aim is the certification of their plantations, something which not only is beneficial for the buyers, but also improves the income position of the farmers. A unique aspect of the training programmes that were developed, is that they have been integrated in the regular educational institutions in Minas Gerais.

Hans: “The project in Brazil is one that has to continue developing itself. Financially it will be completed this year, but there is still a long way to go. After that, it’s up to the producers, the traders and the Brazilian government to keep the momentum going. Eventually it should become a self-supporting project, and I’m sure this can be achieved. During the conference it struck me how smart the producers are. I was very impressed by the possibilities they came up with, so I expect that this upward trend will persist.”

Vision for the future

In the future, Tierra Nova wants to continue supporting sustainable ideals. With the Brazilian project soon to be finished, there are no concrete plans for a new mission yet. After several projects aimed at coffee cultivation however, it has been suggested that it might be an idea to focus on tea production too.

Find out more about the projects and various producers share their story

© Simon Lévelt