Arabica’s magic skin

5 March, 2014 by (comments)

Like the mysterious magic skin in the 19th century novel by French author Balzac, the area suitable for growing Arabica coffee in Mesoamerica is shrinking away as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, leaving smallholder coffee producers vulnerable and in need to adapt swiftly.

Infographic-Coffee-English-6Mar2014Every year, we drink some 400 billion cups of coffee (1) around the world, making this the most widely traded agricultural commodity of the tropics. Coffee fuels our daily lives and that of the world’s 25 million coffee producers, most of whom are smallholder farmers directly dependent on coffee for their livelihoods.

Coffee trees are fussy and will produce their best beans at high altitudes in a tropical climate where the temperatures are stable and the soil is rich. Such conditions are typically found along the Equatorial zone.

The problem is that, in many tropical areas of Mesoamerica, coffee will no longer be in its “comfort zone,” as temperatures and rainfall are altered. Indeed, both models and farmers confirm that climate changes will decrease the area suitable for coffee and effectively displace its production up to higher altitudes and cooler climates. In Central America as a whole, the optimal coffee-growing elevation will shift from 1,200 meters above sea level today to 1,600 meters by 2050.

According to a recent study by CIAT in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua, this will affect a number of vulnerable coffee growing families, who currently lack the capacity to adapt to new conditions.

Across Mexico and Central America, over 4 million people depend directly on coffee production for their livelihoods, and coffee production, purchasing, and processing employ an estimated 8.5 million in the region. Employment and income generation from coffee is also particularly significant for many indigenous people in Mexico and Guatemala.

Families who participated in the study identified a series of general strategies for adaptation to climate change including the development or improvement of technologies such as drip irrigation in areas with high risk of drought, shade management, soil fertility management, pest and diseases control, conservation of soil and groundwater, and adoption of new crops to adapt to future conditions.

“Each family is different regarding tenancy, location, culture, knowledge, experiences, among others. Therefore, strategies have to be developed considering the household level, but also the local and regional levels, with policies focusing on groups of families with similar characteristics,” says Maria Baca, a scientist with CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) Research Area in Managua, Nicaragua.

Access to finance – including microloans and formal credit – is critical to help households strategically invest in coffee varieties, complementary crops, and livelihood enhancements that effectively reduce risk and improve social welfare.

While the role of the state remains important for planned adaptation and sustainable development, social organizations like civil society groups, cooperatives, and small-business organizations are an important element of the solution and should be supported. They not only enable rural households to access the resources and knowledge necessary for adaptation, they also empower communities to shape the direction of the coffee sector to meet their diverse development needs.


Read the peer-reviewed paper on PLOS ONE

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Filed Under: Climate Change, Latin America and the Caribbean