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Designing Conservation Programs to Protect Coffee from Climate Change

Written by Xoco Shinbrot, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

Your alarm goes off, the light is creeping into your bedroom, you stumble out of bed and into the kitchen to grab the life-raft that gets most people through the day: a bag of coffee beans. It’s a morning ritual, a culturally embedded, addictive and habit-forming part of waking up. Even the smell of coffee can provide a pleasant refuge from the world outside the comforts of our sheets.

Different place, same ritual. Chiapas, Mexico. Photo credit: Xoco Shinbrot

Now imagine a world without that steaming cup of coffee, where you stumble to your kitchen and instead of coffee there is an empty cabinet with a few sad bags of tea. I study how to keep that coffee in your hands.

Farming generally, and coffee farming particularly, is changing rapidly. Coffee likes to grow in very particular climates; it’s a bit like the story of Goldilocks, not too hot and not too cold, just right. This Goldilocks though also needs to live in climates that are not too moist and not too dry. The combination means that there are only certain places, usually mountainous, tropical regions—between 800 and 1,800 meters about sea level—around the world that are suitable to coffee cultivation.

Mexico’s southern states are home to most f Mexico’s production of coffee, with over 250,000 US tons of high quality Arabica bean produced in 2015 (USDA FAS 2015). Mexico ranks as one of the top ten coffee producing nations worldwide. But its farmers have been hard hit by weather –frost, untimely rainfall, excessive humidity, and cyclones – that aside from their direct impacts also facilitate the spread of fungal diseases like coffee rust that can destroy whole farms.

A nursery filled with coffee-rust resistant plants. Photo credit: Xoco Shinbrot

Recently, Mexico’s national agricultural organization, SAGARPA, has given small-scale farmers incentives to adopt strategies to deal with climate-related weather impacts. The climate adaptive strategies are tucked into conservation plans that farmers can sign up for which provide: (1) training on how to decrease impacts of weather and climate, such as how to build living walls to prevent soil erosions; (2) inputs such as coffee-rust resistant plants; and (3) workshops on intercropping with other species like citrus and avocado.

In some programs, farmers receive cash payments for setting aside land for conservation for a contracted period, usually ten to fifteen years. These payments for ecosystem service programs, developed by Mexico’s national forestry commission (CONAFOR), are designed to be win-win for conservation of forests (with benefits for water supply downstream) as well as social outcomes like poverty alleviation.  Recent changes in the program have allowed matching from local stakeholders to promote other goals like climate change adaptation strategies for farmers. 

In light of the expansion in multifaceted conservation strategies, poverty alleviation, and climate adaptation programs, the question is whether and how these programs are actually providing the benefits to the environment and the farmers that live there.

The vast majority of coffee farmers are considered small scale—most on fewer than 10 acres of land—and rely almost completely on coffee production for their livelihoods. Rural areas are home to over 61% of Mexico’s extreme poor, many with no schooling beyond elementary education (USAID 2011). These conditions affect the way in which natural resources are perceived, sustainability is practiced, and how land management occurs. As traditional methods of coffee production are rapidly becoming less productive, farmers are strongly in need of information and resource sharing programs that teach new methods that suit the changing climates.

Local cooperatives have tended to fill this need by pooling farmer resources together and providing an important source of information. As new government programs are developed it is unclear whether they also improve climate adaptation strategies. By understanding which programs are successful, as well as which people tend to adopt new strategies, government policies can hone in on the most important leverage points.

This is just the first part the puzzle to connect, engage and facilitate healthy social-ecological systems for farmers and for consumers in this quickly changing climate. The impact goes beyond that morning cup of coffee to people’s livelihoods, culture and very identity.

References Cited:

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. 2015. Mexico, Coffee Annual. Global Agricultural Information Network. Available HERE.

USAID. 2011. USAID Country Profile: Property rights and resource governance, Mexico. Available HERE.


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