Climate-smart agriculture combats deforestation by increasing coffee yields

14 March 2017

Solidaridad is using climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to reduce deforestation in high-altitude regions and improve yields from existing plots by helping coffee farmers increase their resilience against climate change. Three areas of Central and South America were chosen for the trial programme where protecting the forests is a critical issue: Chiapas in Mexico, Risaralda in Colombia and San Martin in Peru. Improved results for yield increase and deforestation reduction show that farmers can be part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem.

Walter Gutierrez was able to reduce GHG emissions by about 93%. That was only possible because he monitored and adapted as his newly established plots started to produce.

Global coffee stocks at their lowest level

For the last three years, coffee producers have been unable to keep pace with rising demand, bringing global stocks to their lowest level in five years. Some predictions state that coffee production in Central America could fall by 34% by 2020. The decline has a number of causes including ageing trees and the spread of the coffee rust fungus in the last decade, but one of the major contributing factors is climate change. Annual rainfall in Colombia has been 40% higher than average since 2009.

The fatal attraction of deforestation

As temperatures rise in high altitudes, farmers respond by moving their plantations to even higher ground, where growing conditions are better in the short term. Deforestation is attractive for farmers because the newly cleared fields are more fertile and they can count on a bumper crop for the first three to six years. After this initial bump, however, the yields decline and new areas have to be cleared to maintain their income level. But opening up new areas is labour intensive and damages the environment. In the long term, this type of deforestation is unsustainable, because it exacerbates the problem of climate change that forced them to move in the first place.

Climate-smart agriculture increases yields by 20%

Climate-smart coffee aims to break this vicious cycle by helping farmers produce more from existing fields. Experience has found that applying good agricultural practices allows them to increase their yields by 20%. More efficient land use enables farmers to use spare land for alternative crops such as fruit and banana trees, providing more food for their families. This also fits with Solidaridad's wider strategy of improving farmers' resilience to climate change, their incomes and living standards, and food security. Higher yields and lower costs mean healthcare costs can be paid, children can go to school and food is available all year round.

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“I am proud that my coffee farm is now supporting a little part of the sustainable future for our planet.” - Orlando de Jesus Castañeda

Support to 7,361 farmers

The field operations were designed to test the business case for farmers as well as to find new forms of additional revenue for farmers.  In the course of the programme, 7,361 farmers were supported in adopting at least two CSA practices. These included applying manure to restore productivity and improve soil quality, establishing an agroforestry system using shade trees, changing wastewater treatment to reduce methane emissions and ensuring that the density of coffee trees was optimized for the growing conditions, such as soil fertility and type of slope.

Solidaridad used the Cool Farm Tool to measure and analyse a range of data for evaluating a farm's impact on the environment,  and recording carbon reductions and sequestration over the three years of the project. At the same time, Solidaridad began a dialogue with governments and roasters to protect forests and make the business case for roasters in Europe and North America.

Farmers are trained in Colombia on the need for well-established shade covering the coffee trees.

Key findings

  • Farmers can be motivated to improve yields on existing coffee fields by adopting CSA practices

  • Improving existing plots removes the need to clear new fields on higher ground, thus reducing deforestation and carbon footprint

  • More efficient land use enables farmers to earn better incomes and improve food security by using spare fields for alternative crops

  • Regional governments are keen to scale up concrete approaches like Solidaridad’s CSA

  • Roasters are interested but prefer to wait and see how the carbon and coffee markets develop

Farmers can be part of the solution

Crucially, the cost of the project was equivalent to 0.07 euro per kilogram of coffee, which is in line with the premiums paid for certified coffee. That is the price roasters have to pay to ensure farmers can earn a viable income and avoid deforesting their region. Yields per hectare increased by 5% in Colombia – which contained two-thirds of the total farmed area – 74% in Peru and 31% in Mexico.

Farmers also benefited in terms of their own livelihoods: one producer in Peru reduced his cultivation area from 10 ha to 2 ha but still harvested 21% more coffee, leaving 8 ha available to grow other crops or replant as forest. Overall the programme avoided 132 ha of deforestation in Peru and allowed 367 ha to be rehabilitated as forest in Colombia. It showed that given the right incentives, farmers can be part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem.

This summary is extracted from a paper titled "Smallholders switch to climate-smart coffee" that appeared in ETFRN News 58, and "Zero deforestation: a commitment to change", released in May 2017. Read the full publication here

Learn more about Solidaridad’s global coffee programme.