Climate change drives cropping shifts from coffee to cocoa in Central America

Climate change drives cropping shifts from coffee to cocoa in Central America

As a researcher there are few moments more awkward than being corrected at a public event. At this years Specialty Coffee Association of America seminar series I experienced this first hand after presenting a slide showing the expected impact of climate change on coffee in Central America. Fatima Ismael from the SOPPEXA Coop in Nicaragua stood up and in the dignified voice of a farmer who has seen many experts come and go from the coffee lands of Jinotega over the years said “you are wrong”. The slide I shared showed coffee under increasing pressure from climate change, particularly for farms under 1,000 or 1,200 meters of altitude and I commented that this might lead to farmers moving out of coffee and into other crops notably cocoa in the future. Fatima patiently corrected me by saying, “What you are projecting in your maps is already happening. Farmers are moving out of coffee and into cocoa now and will keep doing so”.

I was reminded of this exchange by a recent series of articles (here and here) as well as previous pieces from colleagues at the CRS Coffeelands blog (here and here) that explore the role of diversification and cacao as possible strategies for climate change adaptation. But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Below are two climate adaptation maps for 2050. On the left is cocoa and on the right coffee. Green regions indicate where the crop will grow well under projected future climate conditions, yellow regions are feasible but require additional investments and red regions are likely to transition out of the core cropping system. If you were a smallholder farmer placing a bet on your family’s livelihood over the next couple of decades — the productive lifespan of both coffee and cocoa trees — where would you put your money?

And what if we incorporate other more short-term factors into the decision-making process? Coffee in Central America remains susceptible to leaf rust with large-scale impacts fresh in farmers’ minds, input costs both for fertilizers and for rust control applications steadily increase while prices continue far from historic highs. Farmers report impacts on coffee yields and pest and disease pressures now which climate change will most likely exacerbate in the future. On the flip side, cocoa adapts well to the emerging climate, is not that disimilar to coffee in terms of production, fermentation and drying and has a ready market with attractive prices in both the commodity and fine flavor segments. Central American cocoa varieties with improved productivity and fine flavor attributes exist and the sector receives substantial support from development agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief and VECO Mesoamerica who view cocoa as a potential response to climate change and a vehicle for poverty reduction.

Clearly farmers and producer organizations are voting with their feet based on their nuanced knowledge of local reality. It remains to be seen how other value chain actors will shift their practices either by investing in climate smart practices to extend the lifespan of coffee in Central America through renovation or through innovative public private strategies like World Coffee Research or by moving to buy cocoa in regions previously seen as key parts of the global coffee lands. The future is not written but climate change as a key driver in decision-making is growing in importance.