In Costa Rica, where we have been paying attention to the plight of coffee farmers in the last year, there are numerous scientific and sectoral organizations dedicated to assisting with the impact of climate change. Richard Schiffman, who last appeared in our pages nearly a year ago, has this about Colombia’s approach:
Hundreds of Colombia’s small coffee growers have stopped cultivating the bean in the face of low prices and reduced harvests linked to a shifting climate. As farmers struggle, the nation’s scientists are seeking to develop new varieties that will flourish in a changing environment.
At first glance, Finca El Ocaso, located in the hills outside Salento, Colombia, could be mistaken for a natural forest: rows of squat Arabica coffee trees are interspersed with plantain, banana, and lime and shaded by towering nogal cafatero trees, whose high canopy hosts flocks of chattering parrots and other birds. The 44-acre coffee plantation has been certified by international organizations for being sustainable, climate-friendly, and fair to its workers.
But Finca El Ocaso is struggling under the weight of intensifying economic pressures.
“Lots of smaller farms near us have gone out of business,” said farmer Gustavo Patiño. “It is no longer sustainable to have a medium-size farm that pays high taxes and expensive production costs, when in the end they may get paid less for their coffee than their expenses.”
Several years ago, in an effort to keep the plantation afloat, Patiño’s eldest daughter, Carolina, opened the farm to foreign and Colombian tourists. The plantation now attracts more than 1,000 visitors a year. “Our farm can only survive because we offer tours and sell our coffee to the tourists,” Patiño said.
In the last 18 months, Colombia has lost nearly 100,000 acres of coffee plantations, more than 4 percent of the land under coffee cultivation, according to a statement issued last week by Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers (Fedecafé). Since the 1990s, the total land under coffee cultivation has shrunk by 20 percent, Fedecafé said. The federation largely attributed the most recent exodus to the ruinously low price for coffee on the New York exchange. The migration of younger laborers to higher-paying jobs in the cities and abroad is also a factor, notes Diana Carolina Meza Sepulveda, a professor of agro-industrial development at the Technical University of Pereira.
Yet beyond these immediate economic concerns, looms a threat that is already affecting some of Colombia’s coffee growers: a changing climate. The Colombian mountain region, where coffee is grown, is warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.5 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade, according to a study published in April by coffee agronomist Peter Baker and a team of scientists. The number of hours of sunlight also has declined by 19 percent since the middle of the last century due to increasing cloud cover, and there is no longer enough sun to sustain high levels of coffee production in some areas, the researchers reported. Precipitation extremes are more common, as is the spread of insect and fungal diseases — plagues driven in part by generally warmer, wetter weather.
Indeed, Colombia’s increasingly volatile growing conditions pose the biggest long-term threat to the nation’s small coffee growers, scientists say. Of Colombia’s half-a-million coffee farms, 95 percent are smaller than 12 acres. “In the Central Coffee Zone, their output is declining quite fast,” says Baker, who works with the Initiative for Coffee and Climate. “Bad weather and coffee diseases are clearly a factor.”
For now, warming weather has worked in favor of the Patiños. But the long-term climatic trends do not bode well.
“When we started the plantation, the neighbors said that we were crazy, it is too cold for coffee — now the altitude [of 5,800 feet] is just right for growing it,” said Patiño who bought the land in 1987. “I have noticed big weather changes in the last 30 years. On the one hand, we have more extremely sunny days, and at other times there is too much rain.”…
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