The warming world brewing behind that hot cup of coffee

The warming world brewing behind that hot cup of coffee

With coffee cherries ripening on trees across the lush Sierra Madre foothills, hundreds of coffee farmers streamed into a festively-painted coffee collection center in the town of Ángel Albino Corzo, in Chiapas, Mexico last month. Sporting cowboy hats and machetes, the smell of wood smoke clinging to their blue jeans, they crowded into the cement warehouse—not to deliver their harvests, but to talk with scientists and value-chain partners about climate change, or cambio climático, as it’s called in Latin America.

It was the second annual forum on coffee and climate change, organized by three coffee cooperatives with over 800 members, farming in the buffer zone of the biodiversity hotspot, El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico.

Expectations may have been low for progress at the recent international climate talks in Doha, but coffee farmers aren’t waiting for world leaders to act. They’re taking matters into their own hands.

The objectives of their forum were to further engage with experts to better understand what is happening to their world, to raise awareness among younger farmers, and to seek assistance from value chain partners as they struggle to adapt to climate change impacts like erratic rainfall and debilitating outbreaks of fungal diseases, like coffee rust, or insects like the coffee berry borer.

Alberto Velazquez, president of Triunfo Verde, one of the three cooperatives behind the forum, summarized what many farmers are experiencing. “I have been growing coffee for over 30 years now and I have seen the changes. Before we wouldn’t begin harvesting coffee until January or February and now we start harvesting in November. Every year it gets hotter and hotter. And now, when the rain comes, it doesn’t come over several months. It comes for a short while like a storm, like a hurricane sometimes, and it affects the quality of the fruit.”

Mesoamerican coffee farmers face an uncertain future with scientists estimating that 30 percent of coffee lands could become too hot to produce in a matter of decades. The World Bank’s new report, Turn Down the Heat, painted an equally dire picture about what 4 degrees of warming will look like for global food production.

The coffee farmers’ forum was, in essence, a pragmatic call to action from the grassroots up. As my colleague, Bety Ocampo, who spoke at the forum, observed, “Growers understand that climate change can directly impact their ability to earn a living and they’re approaching it in a very conscious and responsible manner. They are ready to adapt.”

And they’re coming up with their own solutions.

Last year, participants at the forum agreed to start an insurance fund for farmers to compensate for harvest failures resulting from environmental factors. Eight organizations contributed to the fund, including the Mexican Central Bank and the three sponsoring cooperatives, Ceshmach, Triunfo Verde and Comon Yaj Nop Tic.

True pioneers in confronting the challenge of climate change, these three cooperatives have an advanced awareness of the need to protect natural resources.

“Harming the natural resources of the reserve would have a negative impact on the well being of farmers,” says Hugo Lares, general manager for Triunfo Verde. “Coffee is the main source of income for farmers and their families. It is their best opportunity for feeding their families, for health care, education and for life’s basic necessities.”

Typical coffee farms in the reserve’s buffer zone resemble dense jungles, intermingling coffee trees with banana and other food crops, and deciduous shade trees. These native trees strengthen root systems and prevent soil erosion. They capture and retain rainfall and lower temperatures on heat-sensitive coffee farms by an average of six degrees Celsius, while serving as wildlife corridors for migrating birds and endangered animals like the puma or spider monkey.

But with an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius in Chiapas, the farmers are bumping up against real limits.

“We travel higher and higher every year to plant coffee because it is too hot in the lowlands. This makes us travel long distances to reach our plots, but the bigger problem is that we are reaching the limits of the buffer zone and cannot plant in the reserve,” commented Rosember Morales Gonzalez, a coffee farmer at the forum.

To adapt, farmers can cross breed coffee tree species that are more tolerant to changes in temperatures and different levels of humidity. They can diversify into fruit and honey production to provide additional income and to preserve soil quality. Healthier soils in turn retain moisture better and are more resilient in drought conditions.

Reforestation around coffee plantations provides shade and cooling and protects against soil runoff during severe weather events and can be paid for through carbon creditsas Cepicafe, in Peru, has secured, thanks to Café Direct.

Ultimately farmers need access to information, and capital from value chain partners, such as buyers and financiers.

They need detailed information, such as from GIS mapping, to better understand micro-weather patterns and to determine where coffee trees should be planted longer-term. They need information about clean technologies like solar dryers and water-efficient wet mills for coffee processing and technical assistance to learn how to use the technologies.

And they need access to capital to make wise investments—in planting the next generation of coffee trees in climate smart locations or to adopt clean technologies.

Those of us in the value chain should heed their call to action. Your next cup of coffee just might depend on it.

Photo by Shared Interest via Flickr