Q&A with Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera on Coffee and Climate

coffee farmer in Colombia

A Colombian farmer examining his coffee bushes. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT.

By Carla Pena Singson

Colombia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change. Large settlements in the Andes and coastal regions means that people’s safety and well-being are at risk from both water shortages and flooding. Climate change also threatens to disrupt the balance of Colombia’s diverse ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems that the country’s large rural population relies on for subsistence.

The effect of climate on shade-grown coffee has been one focal point of the ACToday project in Colombia. Although coffee is not an edible crop, its production is a large factor in the food security of communities whose livelihoods depend on it, especially in Colombia and other major coffee growing regions of the world. In the Q&A below, Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera discusses his research on sustainable coffee production.

Hernandez-Aguilera is an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Originally from Colombia, his interest in the stark contrast between Colombia’s natural resource wealth and high levels of inequality, rural violence and deforestation has manifested in feeling a “responsibility to bring research toward action.”

You’re an economist specializing in making impact assessments and creating models, and you are also a member of IRI’s Financial Instrument Sectors Team, which focuses on developing index insurance to help farmers cover some climate risks. What is the value of having multidisciplinary ACToday teams working in each of the countries? How does this dynamic affect the life cycle of a project?

Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera headshot

Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera is an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. He is part of the Columbia World Project “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow” (ACToday) and the Financial Instruments Sector Team (FIST).

As an economist and social scientist, one of my primary concerns is how to translate my work into policies and recommendations for sustainable development. Both the ACToday and financial instruments teams include economists, climate scientists, geographers, physicists, biologists and data analysts, among others. This diversity facilitates a holistic understanding of the complex interactions between climate, agriculture and poverty, ultimately paving the path toward the implementation of appropriate market instruments and policies.

Projects in multidisciplinary settings are equally exciting and challenging. Just imagine the dynamics of having people with different backgrounds sit down to tackle a common problem. It requires confident members who can contribute their knowledge and expertise, but who are also open to learning. Multidisciplinary research demands building trust among team members, which can mean an extra investment of time. In the long-run, however, it is very rewarding, stimulating and relevant.

Your research explores the complex decision making that underlies sustainable coffee production. In a recent study you discussed ways in which shade-grown coffee can be viewed as an adaptive strategy to climate variability and change for smallholder farmers. How does this research tie into the work you do with ACToday Colombia?

Coffee is one of the most important — if not the most important — agricultural sector in four out of six ACToday countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Vietnam). In Colombia, for examples, coffee directly employs 550,000 smallholders. Changes in climate may result in significant reductions of land suitable for coffee production in all of these countries.

Addressing the challenges of climate variability and low profitability in the coffee sector will not be simple. Coffee-production systems are subject to diverse geographical and socio-economic factors, even across regions within the same country. My research on transitioning to shade-grown coffee does not attempt to suggest a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Instead, it provides scenarios and estimations for land-management decisions that incorporate the pest control services offered by birds inhabiting shade trees. These scenarios also incorporate the possibility that consumers will recognize — and pay premium prices for — improved product quality and biodiversity conservation. Finally, my research highlights other long-term benefits of shade-grown coffee, such as temperature regulation.

Our ACToday activities are based on the needs and feedback we receive from a diverse set of stakeholders. For example, Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture has expressed interest in improving and investing its existing risk assessment system for agriculture. Weather-based index insurance products are usually designed using a combination of satellite estimates, meteorological station data and data gathered directly from farmers’ workshops and household surveys. While satellite data can cover large areas, weather patterns and local topography can affect its reliability. Traditional participatory processes can produce valuable and detailed data but are time-consuming, expensive and limited in scope. As such, I am now looking at gamification — the use of game design elements in non-game contexts — as a way to incentivize and scale-up the generation of historical climate information from rural communities. If we increase our understanding of how to get large numbers of smallholders to produce good quality climate data on a regular basis, we can improve the availability of farm-specific, user-friendly, reliable and affordable information.

How is your work with ACToday Colombia helping to promote food security in the region? As a Colombian, what do you see as the main challenges to successful implementation of your research results and recommendations?

Coffee constitutes the main cash crop for 25 million producers and their families worldwide. This is a production system that mainly employs smallholders. We know that food security is linked with income: having a sustainable source of income facilitates access to more nutritious foods. Moreover, financial instruments and early-warning systems reduce vulnerability to climate shocks, which can otherwise compromise long-term investments and productivity.

city in colombia

Over the summer, Columbia University students worked with ACToday projects around the world. Interns acquired on-the-ground experience in developing climate services and strengthened vital relationships with local partners. Photo: Walker Higgins (SIPA’20) and Júlia Henriques Souza (SIPA’21)

Rules, legislation and frameworks in Colombia are usually very good and even serve as reference points for other countries in the region. However, the implementation of polices and effective coordination between different groups and agencies are always challenging. As a Colombian, I perceive that the main challenge is generating a cohesive dialogue among key stakeholders.

In addition to our collaboration with  the National Meteorological Institute, we have also worked with the National Department of Planning, Ministry of Agriculture, and the Rural and Agriculture Planning Unit. Finally, we are involving local academic research centers as platforms to facilitate these dialogues. This summer, two interns from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs supported by ACToday are actively collaborating with the Center for Sustainable Development Goals for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Universidad de Los Andes. The ACToday Colombia team is now reinforcing those connections and inviting new and diverse actors.

About Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow: Columbia World Projects’ first project, ACToday, aims to combat hunger and improve food security by increasing climate knowledge in six countries that are particularly dependent on agriculture and vulnerable to the effects of climate change and fluctuations—Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Colombia, and Guatemala.

This interview was originally published by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. 

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