How Coffee Farmers Are Tackling Global Warming

By 2050, half of the land that is currently used for coffee production will have become unusable. While climate change presents small-scale farmers with unprecedented challenges, a coffee association in Guatemala is trying to find some answers.

We’re driving in a minivan through the Guatemalan clouds to the beats of Shakira. We twist alongside volcanos and pass some typical “chicken buses” – a colloquial term for the old, patched-up American school buses now serving here as public transport.  We’re heading for the second-biggest city in Guatemala towards the FECCEG headquarters in Quetzaltenango. FECCEG stands for La Federación Comercializadora de Café Especial de Guatemala. This organisation tries to improve the living conditions of the country’s small-scale coffee farmers.

Looking for solutions to unpredictable weather

After arriving in Las Barrancas, one of the farmers speaks to us in Mam, the local Mayan language, and tells us about the 64 farmers that work in their cooperative called COPECAFE. In 2012, they started out with eight farmers, but since then the number of farmers has grown steadily. And the business is growing as well. Over the last season, more and more farmers harvested a total of 225 tonnes of coffee berries on 222 hectares of land. We walk up to a field of one coffee farmer, Rufo. He explains how up until 15 years ago, all the land in the area was still in the hands of one owner, who owned a coffee plantation of 350 hectares in total. 

“The major coffee rust problems, combined with poor management, caused both the productivity and quality of his beans to drop - and subsequently, the price he was getting for them. He couldn’t pay his employees anymore and passed on the land to his son, who divided it into small pieces and sold them. I was able to buy one of the pieces of land by paying through instalments.” 

Coffee farmer Rufo shares his life on the coffee plantation.

Rufo has since paid off the loan for his 1.5 hectares. “When I first purchased it, the land was not usable, and we had to grow a lot of new coffee plants. Although the trees are fully grown now and productivity has improved, it remains difficult to predict the yield. Everything has to do with the weather conditions: over the past few years, the rain has been heavier and more unpredictable, and the temperature is warmer.”

Diversification as a solution

Rufo cannot live off the yield of his coffee beans alone, so in 2014, he started diversifying his crops. In his field, there are now many types of plants –  such as yuca, avocado, macadamia nuts, citrus fruit, bananas and beans. “These other crops are intended for our own consumption”, Rufo says. “But they also provide shade for the coffee plants, which helps them to grow better.”

Diversification as a tool for self-subsistence

When Rufo started growing other crops, the FECCEG supplied him with seeds. The organisation stimulates as much diversification as possible. This way, the farmers do not solely depend on coffee and can be self-sufficient, at least when it comes to growing their own food. Also, any surpluses from these additional crops are resold to other FECCEG farmers, creating a community where members can rely on each other for essential produce. 

Besides coffee, Rufo also keeps bees and sells their honey through the Federation. He also grows little coffee plants and resells them to other coffee farmers. He tells us the price: “15,000 pieces at 0.25 Euro per plant. Overall, I’m getting by. I don’t receive money from family members who emigrated to the US, unlike a lot of farmers here.”

Diversification as a method to increase coffee yield

By using this diversified cultivation method, Rufo has gained a better knowledge of how to make the land retain water, and he can tell his plants look healthier. Thanks to the FECCEG certification, he also gets a better price for his coffee: about 90 euros per 46 kg bag of beans this year. For conventional coffee that isn't sold through social and environmental sustainability certifications, the price he is paid comes down to 67 euros. “Conventional buyers also do not always weigh correctly and can’t be bothered with the process; they only care about their profit.”   

Coffee farmers affiliated with FECCEG cooperatives were also able to increase their yields thanks to the technical tools provided by the federation. “Our yield went up to 1,000 kg beans per hectare on average”, Rufo says. “In the past, we sometimes only produced 100 kg per hectare”, even though ANACAFE estimated that the average yield in Guatemala dropped from 964 kg per hectare in 2006 to 638 kilograms per hectare in 2015.

By using this diversified cultivation method, Rufo has tapped into how to make the land retain more water, making his plants happier.

Read How FECCEG Is Making Use Of Old Coffee Plantations

A new model for sustainable coffee production

A 2019 publication of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture describes what sustainability in the coffee production chain, in Guatemala as elsewhere, should entail: “Climate Smart Coffee” is a model for sustainable coffee production. The concept was derived from ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ (CSA), launched in 2010 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

The CSA programme stimulates shade agriculture, as does the FECCEG, meaning that trees of various species are planted around coffee plants to provide shade and protect them against direct sunlight, creating a more consistent microclimate. The programme also incentivises farmers to use types of coffee that are more resistant to coffee rust and climate change. CSA farms are also required to use specific fertilisers and pesticides that prevent the soil from becoming too acidic. 

Shared objectives for a more sustainable coffee production

Of course, the needs of each plantation are different, and every microclimate requires a different approach. But the main objectives are the same: first, we need to increase food security in a sustainable way; second, cultivation needs to become more resilient, and agriculture should be adjusted to respond to the needs of a changing climate; and finally, greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced.  

The FECCEG is trying to meet these objectives to the best of its abilities. “We hope to create a snowball effect with the knowledge that we’re spreading. It’s the only thing we can do: promote sustainable coffee production amongst the farmers and final consumers,” says FECCEG’s director Juan Francisco Gonzàlez.

Our coffee farmers can have their beans roasted here for free. It ensures that they attach greater value to the product they’re selling. Before we offered this service, they used to sell their entire harvest and buy low-quality coffee for themselves

Growing problems with pests

A coffee farmer holds a damaged coffee bean in his hand. The culprit? The Coffee Berry Borer.

Guatemalan farmers have had to endure a lot these past few years. They saw their coffee production costs go up while the price they received for their coffee beans went down. This all started in 2012 and 2013, when Guatemala was hit by the la roya (coffee rust) crisis that affected coffee plantations across all of Central America. The fungus harmed 70% of the entire coffee cultivation area, dropping all proceeds in the whole of Guatemala by 20-25%. 

The outbreak was caused by rising temperatures and an early rainy season. Coffee farmers had to resort to buying chemicals to fight la roya. But la roya was not the only problem they have had to deal with: American leaf spot disease (ojo de gallo) and coffee borer beetle (la broca) were also - and still are - threatening their coffee production. 

According to ANACAFE, farmers would need to replant 50% of their cultivation to improve their coffee production quality and yield. Estimates from USAID* evaluate that farmers would actually have to replant up to 70% of the plantations (169,000 hectares) to make up for losses. And since it takes the plants up to 3 to 5 years to become fully grown and produce berries, the farmers will have no coffee yield during that entire period.

Warmer and drier climates make coffee cultivation challenging

From a climate perspective, there is no good news on the horizon. A 2017 report from the Climate Institute forecasted that by 2050, half of the Bean Belt – the area between the tropics Cancer and Capricorn – will no longer have suitable conditions for coffee growing.

Mathematical models predict that by 2050, the average annual temperature will have risen 1.7 to 2 degrees Celsius. That would be disastrous, as an increase of just 1 degree on average could already mean a 25% loss of coffee production. This is made worse by the declining total annual rainfall in these regions. On the southern coast, rainfall is estimated to decline to 0.8% and 6.0% in the northern regions - periods of drought and short heavy rainfall will only increase.  

A changing climate will make it possible for coffee production to grow in regions where the plant did not grow before; for example, the Arabica coffee bean can be planted at higher altitudes. But in reality, it is actually not that simple: new farming spots come with their own limitations, such as erosion or a lack of fertile land. Coffee plants would also then compete with existing plants in new cultivation areas  – whether they’re native species or farmed plants. 

A climate increase of just 1 degree Celsius on average could already mean a 25% loss of coffee production.

The replanting operation will bring a great loss for many Guatemalan coffee farmers, but this is only an example of the hardship that 25 million coffee farmers worldwide will have to endure when faced with new changes in the climate. The main issue is that small-scale coffee farmers often don’t have the financial means to adapt to environmental changes quickly, and often don’t have enough knowledge about new growing methods. And as rainfall declines and rainfall patterns change, the Guatemalan government – like many other governments in the region – will not be able to provide sufficient irrigation systems to support changes to cultivation areas.

The social benefits of joining a cooperation

Hearing about these challenges from local farmers gave us enough reason to pay a visit to the FECCEG: we would like to know how the organisation is dealing with these ominous forecasts. 

“We represent 14 cooperatives in total, counting 1,150 producers - 350 of which are women. Their families included, the farming communities are made up of 7,500 people. The international market, with its fluctuating prices, carries enormous risks for these small-scale producers,” Juan Francisco Gonzàles, Director and founding member of the FECCEG told us. He also added that “the Federation wants to support them by focussing on the production and promotion of high-quality organic and Fairtrade products, which we sell with as few intermediaries as possible.”


Juan Francisco González, Director and Founding Member of Guatemalan Coffee Federation FECCEG.

Discover whether FairTrade really works

1. A close-knit relationship with certified trade markets

As we are talking to González, employees walk around carrying large bags of coffee beans on their backs. They dump the contents in machines where the beans are cleaned and sorted. Only the beans that have a grey-green colour are suitable. Of all the beans brought in, 10% are unsuitable for selling because of their colour or size. 

“We ensure that the farmers’ beans get here, get stored and then exported to the US, Europe and Japan, amongst other countries,” González continues. “We have different certificates for Fairtrade and organic trade in all these areas. Eight in total, from the European Bio label to USDA Organic and the German Ökogarantie.”

With great pride and enthusiasm, Gonzàlez explains how the FECCEG has forged many new regional and international relationships since its foundation in 2006, linking with different parts of the coffee chain.

Storage depot of FECCEG coffee beans.

2. Farmers buying their own coffee

Our next stop is the roastery. “Here we roast, taste and pack the beans intended for Guatemalan supermarkets and our own coffee shop in the city centre,” Gonzàlez says. Here in Guatemala, the Federation sells 7 different kinds of coffee, but also honey and derivatives, cane sugar and tea infusions that their farmers grow as by-products. This way, the local population can also buy local quality products.

“Our coffee farmers can have their beans roasted here for free,” Gonzàlez goes on. “It’s important that they drink their own coffee to stay connected to their products. It ensures that they attach greater value to the product they’re selling. Before we offered this service, they used to sell their entire harvest and buy low-quality coffee for themselves.”

3. Preventing child labour 

During our tour, we also visited 2 of the14 farmers’ cooperatives affiliated with the FECCEG. The drive up to the first village is a lot less smooth compared to travelling to Quetzaltenango. Las Barrancas is only about 50 kilometres from the city, but it takes us at least two hours to get there. “The community built this road themselves because the government would not invest in one”, explains our driver, Ramiro Temaj. He is one of the agriculturalists among the fifteen technical-skilled people at the Federation who give training to the farmers. 

While we are jostling around in the car, along the steep cobblestone road, we talk to our driver about a recent episode of the British Channel 4 documentary ‘Dispatches’ that was aired the day we left for Guatemala [Editor’s note: the trip was taken in March 2020]. The documentary shows Guatemalan companies bringing in children under the age of thirteen for the production of coffee berries. A week before the documentary aired, a small media storm broke out when it was discovered that Nespresso and Starbucks are customers of these Guatemalan companies. George Clooney, the face of Nespresso for several years, praised the investigative work and said he was appalled by these findings.  

Temaj knows about the documentary, “I believe you can prevent child labour by working in a cooperative structure. 25% of the country’s coffee farmers are affiliated with a cooperative like ours. The majority – 75% – are on the payroll and get paid by the kilogram.”

“Our farmers own their little piece of land and have no external workers on their payroll. On conventional fields, the farmers only get one inspector’s visit once a year - there’s no other inspection. We don’t work like that: we come around every month to train the farmers. We’re in close contact with them and monitor their situation.”  

We have to take Temaj’s word for it, as it is impossible to check whether or not ‘his’ farmers also get help from the children in their families. About the cause of child labour, Temaj says: “Child labour is related to extreme poverty - that’s the root of the problem. If you want to tackle child labour, you have to make sure that farmers get a better price for their beans. That way, they don’t have to use children to earn enough money. That’s what we want to work on.”  

Marieke travelled to Guatemala at the invitation of Fairtrade Belgium and Delhaize.

The author originally wrote this piece for Belgian outlet Eos Wetenschap. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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