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Trouble brewing for Colombian coffee

Freshly picked coffee cherries from the slippery slopes of Colombia's coffee zone (Neil Palmer, CIAT)
Freshly picked coffee cherries from the slippery slopes of Colombia's coffee zone
Neil Palmer, CIAT

The countryside in Colombia's western Risaralda department is breathtakingly beautiful. But to the expert eye, the signs of climate strife are clear: steep-sided slopes that used to be hillsides of coffee are now grazed by livestock, and there are large tracts of plantain where coffee bushes once stood. These are worrying sights in the zona cafetera, a region renowned for its distinctive, high quality Arabica coffee beans.

Obscured by morning mist, the small hilltop town of Balboa is one of many in the region facing an uncertain future. Around 90 per cent of the local economy depends on the coffee trade but in the past few years rising temperatures, excessive rainfall during flowering and increasing disease pressure have meant all the coffee farmers in these, the foothills of the western Andes, are feeling the pinch. Some 2,000 hectares of coffee around Balboa have already been pulled up and converted to lower-value pastures or plantain.

Bean there, done that

Moving a small herd of cattle through a plantain field, Leonardo Palacio is one of the farmers to have abandoned coffee. "Where we now stand, there used to be coffee," he says, motioning around us. "Over there, where the paddock is, there was also coffee. I can't plant coffee any longer; it's just too hot."

An hour's drive from Balboa, in the town of Apía, smallscale coffee farmer Javier Román is also feeling the heat. "We noticed the climate beginning to change about five years ago," he says, clinging to a tree branch on the edge of a slippery coffee slope. "Now it's either too hot or there's too much rain. The climate has changed so much you can no longer make forecasts."

Farmer Leonardo Palacio who has abandoned coffee in favour of livestock and plantain (Neil Palmer, CIAT)
Farmer Leonardo Palacio who has abandoned coffee in favour of livestock and plantain
Neil Palmer, CIAT

Despite being only 30-years-old, Román has made some difficult decisions to protect his income and his family. "I've grown coffee all my life but I've had to plant other crops: vegetables, fruit trees, and now I also raise chickens. You learn and risk it all so there is always food on the table."

But Román is one of the lucky ones. Much of his coffee is grown using the traditional system of interplanting taller plantain trees as shade crops. As well as moderating the temperature and sheltering the coffee bushes from heavy rain, shade also provides the habitat for natural predators of the coffee pest Broca, or coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei), which can devastate yields.

At around 1,700m above sea level, Roman's crop has also managed to avoid coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix). Higher temperatures mean that this virulent fungus, which strikes fear into the hearts of coffee producers worldwide, has been resurgent on the lower altitude slopes of Risaralda, and is a major cause of the coffee exodus. The farmers who have chosen to stand and fight must either plant rust resistant varieties or invest in expensive chemical fungicides. The odds are stacked against them.

No time to lose

For Andy Jarvis, a climate change expert at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the experiences of coffee producers in Risaralda only confirm what the climate models are showing. Using GIS technology and models of crop adaptation, CIAT's Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) program has been getting glimpses into the future of coffee in several Latin American countries: without adaptation, the prospects are bleak.

"According to our models, climate change is going to force coffee production across Latin America to even higher altitudes," he says. "But as you move up a mountain you lose more and more land area, which can cause major social, economic and cultural upheaval. Coffee is a major employer in rural Colombia, and switching to less labour intensive crops, or livestock, could be a major blow to local economies."

A coffee picker collecting gourmet cherries in Colombia's world-renowned zona-cafetera (Neil Palmer, CIAT)
A coffee picker collecting gourmet cherries in Colombia's world-renowned zona-cafetera
Neil Palmer, CIAT

Farmers therefore need to start adapting coffee production to the new challenges, and quickly. "The pace and scale of climate change in Risaralda is frightening," Jarvis continues. "But what is of greater concern is that there is still not enough work being done on adaptation. This needs to be happening now, not just in Risaralda, but across Latin America. For example, planting shade trees today can buffer the impacts of climate change and buy a farmer a couple of extra decades to diversify production."

But, according to Jarvis, farm-level adaptation is only part of the solution: it's time for the world powers to show strong support for vulnerable farmers. "We've spent the last ten years trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but it's not enough on its own," he says. "At the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in October, our politicians need to do two things: make historic commitments to reduce emissions significantly, and find the money to support urgent adaptation."

For some coffee farmers in Risaralda, whatever is decided in Copenhagen will come too late. But for many, the right support could help protect an industry with both regional and international significance.

Written by: Neil Palmer

Date published: September 2009


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I live in kenya and have also observed the effect of climate... (posted by: Njogu)


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