Climate change mitigation in the coffee sector

ICADSConservation, Environment

Solution or profit for the “development sector?”

By: Kat Peters, M.Ed., Master’s in Rural Development (thesis pending)

In honor of the climate conference in Paris, I thought I’d share a translation of a version of a piece I wrote last year about solutions proposed to coffee growers in Costa Rica as a response to climate change. Since then, I have visited our Fair Trade, organic coffee-growing partner again (name omitted to protect their business privacy), and they are now considering selling their operation due to financial issues.

(written November 15, 2014):

In the recent Tico Times article “Climate change is making coffee a risky bet for Central America,” the author (Dyer), describes a situation facing Central American coffee growers the same week of an international conference on world coffee prices [Sintercafé, which took place at the Hotel Intercontinental in San José in 2014]. Dyer cites coffee sector leaders who say that due to climate change (draught, higher temperatures, and other changes) coffee is no longer a stable crop. These leaders name the coffee rust fungus that came to the region starting in 2012 as an example of the climate vulnerability that faces the sector.

Dyer points out that there are two main accepted strategies for dealing with climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Costa Rica has joined the mitigation efforts with Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA), which consists mainly of a US$2 million project from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) (Arias, 2014). The main technique proposed by the project is to have coffee farmers use a smart phone app to report the advance of the coffee rust to alert other farmers of its spread. Another proposed change is to modernize the technology used in order to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

This article grabbed my attention because ICADS students had just made a visit to an organic, Fair Trade certified coffee growers’ association not far from San José. This association of 35 families has employed a variety of elements to improve their coffee income; in addition to the certifications mentioned above, they also have built a coffee shop along the main highway where they roast and package their own coffee, and sell it by the cup (in a country that mostly exports its coffee before the roasting process, this value-added effort is laudable, and no small feat).

We have been visiting this farm for many years in order to learn about the challenges faced by farmers who are attempting to use socially and environmentally sustainable practices in their enterprise, and thus also garner a higher price for their coffee. On this last occasion, the leaders showed us a new machine in the processing plant: a dry processor. In the past, the association had used a wet processor to remove the cuticle, and would then dry the coffee beans on patios in the sun. Now, one of the founding members explained to us, they use the dried cuticle as fuel to run the dry processor, a practice that they were told would allow them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

A small wet processor that produces minimal greenhouse gases, much like the one that has processed the association’s coffee for years.

A small wet processor that produces minimal greenhouse gases, much like the one that has processed the association’s coffee for years.

This news was startling. As the leaders explained, they did not plan to use the dry processor very often, as it is expensive to run and it reduces the quality of the coffee. Also, prior to acquiring the dry processor, the association dried all of its coffee on the patios in the sun, a practice which does not emit any greenhouse gases at all. The wet processor uses a Colombian technology with a motor powered by minimal fuel.

This made me curious about the funds and projects directed toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. Fortunately, the IDB publishes its project budgets. For the US$2 million project we can see that there are $807,900 designated for consultants, including consultants that will be paid $62,250, or translations worth $7,000. The goods and services contemplated in the project are worth $550,000.

We can see who is benefitting from this climate change mitigation program, and it is not the farmers. The great majority of the budget is dedicated to consultants, with a minimal amount invested in actual infrastructure for farms. And, if the infrastructure is anything like the dry processor used by our coffee-growing friends, the expense won’t be worth it to the farmers, though I’m sure it was to the machinery manufacturer.

A dry processor, similar to the one sold to the association to help them emit fewer greenhouse gases.

A dry processor, similar to the one sold to the association to help them emit fewer greenhouse gases.

A few months ago we went back to the association for another visit. They told us that the dry processor has been such a financial hardship for them that they have had to look for more coffee to process from other farmers, who are not organic certified. While this brings in some income with which they can maintain their machinery, it also adds costs, as their organic certification requires them to implement specific measures to prevent cross-contamination with conventional coffee.

Climate change is an important issue, one that affects the whole world. However, the ways in which climate change is impacting farmers in the developing world doesn’t look much different from the global status quo. Underdeveloped countries feel disenfranchised in climate negotiations, and are. Infrastructure and consulting budgets are large, and offer no real solution for farmers who are already doing their part to be sustainable: organic, Fair Trade, small-scale coffee growers in Costa Rica are losing, while international development experts, machinery producers, and agro-industry is winning.