What's Climate Doing to Guatemala's Coffee?

by |December 13, 2018

The Samalá River watershed on Guatemala’s Pacific coast is a highly productive region for staple and cash crops. It’s also known for having one of the highest incidences of natural disasters in the country. Among the diverse agricultural production in the region, coffee stands as one of the most important export crops. Over the last few decades, Samalá farmers have faced a number of coffee crises, some caused by volatile global commodity markets and some caused by disease outbreaks. Climate variability is also likely playing a role, but little research has conducted to try to quantify this, says Diego Pons from Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). In the Q&A below, Pons discusses new work on exploring the relationships between several climatic variables and coffee productivity at different altitudes in the Samalá watershed as well as his survey of local growers about the type of climate information they use. His work in Guatemala is part of the IRI-led ACToday project, part of Columbia World Projects.

Diego Pons

Pons is presenting this work at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Friday, Dec. 14, 8:45-9:00AM at the Walter E Washington Convention Center Salon B. Full details in the IRI@AGU schedule and in the AGU program.

The Samalá watershed is an important food growing region for Guatemala. What are the different types of risks that farmers there face?

This watershed has one of the highest incidences of natural disasters in Guatemala, mostly due to annual flooding events from the Samalá River. These are usually associated with interactions of high rainfall and volcanic activity from the Santiaguito volcano, which causes mudslides and landslides, known as lahars. The watershed is home to 120 communities and surrounding farmland. United Nations estimates show approximately 350,000 people are vulnerable to natural disasters there.

The Samalá River is essential for vegetable production, coffee growing and electric power production. Extreme weather events routinely disrupt these activities and cause hardship.

For instance, in June-July 1983, during the rainy season and after an El Niño event, a lahar destroyed 35 percent of the town of El Palmar; in a later event in August 1984, the entire town was destroyed. In August 1988, another similar event caused serious damage to the Pan-American Highway and coffee plantations. And in 1993, a lahar destroyed a major road and several coffee farms.

Coffee producers in Guatemala have to deal with price instability, climate change, pests and other major challenges. The volatility of market prices over the last several decades has led to the abandonment of many coffee plantations by smallholder producers and land use changes in medium and large producers. While low prices continue to devastate rural economies and threaten the ecosystem services associated with traditional coffee production, new challenges related to climate variability and extreme weather further threaten the sector.

Where does the coffee get exported to? How has productivity changed among the coffee farms of Samalá in the last quarter century?

About half of Guatemala’s coffee exports go to the U.S. and Canada. Other markets like Japan and Mexico follow. The coffee from the Samalá follows this trend but usually, farmers sell the coffee to intermediaries who then export the coffee abroad. Coffee in Guatemala is classified according to specific characteristics associated with the altitude at which it is planted. Prime and extra-prime coffees are planted on the lower altitudes; semiduro and duro varieties are next highest, and the extrictamente duro coffees grow on the highest elevation. The coffee farmers within the Samalá watershed plant all of these coffee types. The National Coffee Association has identified a changing trend between coffee produced at lower elevations (prime and extraprime coffees) and those planted above 1,372 meters (4,500 ft) above sea level (estrictamente duro coffees). For example, prime and extra-prime coffees accounted for 54 percent of Guatemalan exports in 1962-63 but only 7 percent in 2010-11. Similarly, production of estrictamente duro in 1962-63 accounted for 18 percent of the total exports, whereas in 2010-11 the amount rose to 77 percent of the total exports. Our research shows that there are multiple reasons for this, including climate variability, and we’re trying to quantify it better.

In your survey of coffee growers, what types of climate information do they use to make farm-level decisions? What types of information do they wish they had more of?

We started a participatory process with several stakeholders (including coffee farmers, extension-service technicians, and local and central representatives of the National Coffee Association) to identify the current access and use of climate information among coffee farmers and a potential demand for climate services. The results of our survey suggest that farmers who keep a climate record at the farm level have detected a rising temperature trend and more abnormal precipitation—in both amount and distribution—over time. Farmers without instrumental records at the farm level have also perceived a change in temperature and precipitation distribution.

Overall, farmers have identified that increasing temperature and increased precipitation regimes have had a negative impact on their coffee yields. We investigated these extremes by assessing a correlation analysis between coffee yield and climate variables for a cluster of these farms. Overall, our results suggest that increased rainfall during the growth stage that triggers flowering (and for which dry conditions are needed) has a negative impact on the final coffee yield. This suggests that farmers have correctly identified the weather impact of increased precipitation on their productivity. Not surprisingly, when asked about the type of climate information they need to make decisions at the farm level, 90 percent of them responded that they need precipitation and temperature forecasts presented in statistical charts including below, average and above average precipitation and temperature variables.

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