Elevated Risks and Forced Migration: The Impacts of Climate Change on Coffee Farmers
Not long ago, coffee farmers could rely upon a well-established seasonal calendar for planting, harvesting and processing coffee. The occasional outlier weather event was followed by a return to the normal cycle during the subsequent season. Today, in the wake of COP26, climate change continues to disrupt this calendar and contribute to the unpredictability and increasing intensity of weather events, including powerful hurricanes such as Eta and Iota which devastated parts of Central America in 2020, and prolonged droughts in the region’s dry corridor.
An increase in humidity and air temperature of just a couple of degrees has also created ideal conditions for a fungus known as la roya to thrive for nine years. This fungus attaches itself to the underside of coffee leaves, eventually defoliating the coffee plant and drastically reducing its production and the farming families’ earnings from coffee, which is often their only source of income. La roya appeared in Central America in 2012. By 2014, it had spread throughout the region, causing crop losses in excess of $1 billion while leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed.
Food scarcity drives migration
When the harsh impacts of climate change are combined with the volatility of the international coffee market, farmers are unable to meet the basic needs of their families. A well-known phenomenon in Central America known as “los meses flacos” (or “the thin months”) of chronic seasonal food scarcity has plagued small-scale coffee farmer for decades. The impact of these months has been exacerbated by climate change and farmers’ overdependence on earnings from coffee.
When farmers’ earnings do not meet their families’ basic needs, families look to reduce their expenses. Scarcity manifests itself in a lack of access to education, to medical care, to credit and even to nutritious food on the table throughout the year. Indeed, many families who have recently attempted to migrate to the United States have not been doing so only for better opportunities. For many, food scarcity was the primary driver.
The future of coffee farming
Globally, the average age of coffee farmers is approaching 60 years old. At the same time, the past decade has revealed a steady exodus of young people leaving their coffee-farming families and communities in Central America to seek greater economic opportunities in nearby urban centers or in the United States. Many young people do not want to build their futures on coffee when the returns have been so elusive for their parents. The pathway to emerge from poverty on the farm has become steeper every year. With young people leaving the farm in the hands of their aging parents, it is natural to ask, “Who is going to harvest the next generation of specialty coffee?”
In order to build hope for the next generation and support young people throughout Central America to thrive within their own country, Lutheran World Relief has developed an approach to youth engagement which follows USAID’s Positive Youth Development Framework and strives to prepare young people living in rural poverty for sustainable careers in agriculture.
Supporting climate resiliency
By working with youth and coffee-farming families, Lutheran World Relief is helping communities become more resilient to shocks and stressors at the household level. These efforts include incorporating climate-smart agroecology and agroforestry practices on the farm and maintaining and improving farm diversification that will provide food and additional income for the family. By generating healthier growing conditions for coffee plants, Lutheran World Relief works to improve productivity, quality and prices.
To improve access to helpful information throughout the coffee sector, Lutheran World Relief co-funded the online platform The State of the Smallholder Coffee Farmer with Heifer International. The platform was constructed by the University of Vermont and Stats4SD. This pilot platform is an open access data resource designed to “drive more informed, inclusive, and democratic decision making across the [coffee] value chain.”
I am hopeful that through on-farm diversification, which improves soil, resilience to economic and environmental shocks, and livelihoods, coffee-farming families will finally achieve a living income. Living income is defined as “the net annual income required for a household in a particular place to afford a decent standard of living for all members of that household.” When farmer income reaches this level, farmers and their families will operate from a stronger financial position and will be able to invest in their farms and their futures, no longer needing the support of Lutheran World Relief or other international nongovernmental organizations. This is my dream.