Keeping our daily coffee: the farmers in Peru adapting to climate change

Coffee crisis in Peru

Peruvian farmer Edelmira Reyes Facundo has seen her coffee plants wash away with torrential rains

Shade-grown, hand picked coffee is one of Peru's biggest exports, but the country's smallholder farmers face sustained crop losses from extreme weather. Matilda Lee reports from Peru

Coffee connoisseurs will tell you that in Peru, the world's seventh largest coffee grower, the high altitudes, Pacific Ocean winds and alternating periods of rain and sunshine provide the perfect growing conditions for the delicate Arabica coffee bean. Coffee growing is a central part of life for the 6,600 smallholder coffee farmers who make up the Cepicafe cooperative in the northern Sierra Piura region. Here, farmers tend to small plots of up to five hectares, their land and shade-grown coffee farming traditions passed on generation after generation.

But Mother Nature can be unforgiving. Heavy downpours and flash floods that lead to landslides, and at the other extreme, high temperatures and drought are wreaking havoc on coffee farms across the region. Farmers like Angela Santos Tocto, 60, who has looked after a two and a half hectare plot in Canchaque village all her life, are facing new and complex conditions. ‘As a grower, I know everything, inside and out. The weather is affecting us,' she says. She harvests an average of eight ‘quintals', the 57.5-kilo sacks of unhusked coffee beans, on the same land that used to give her father 20. ‘The worst year brought a yield of only three quintals. This was real scarcity,' she says.

Another Canchaque farmer, Alexandre Reyes, 57, literally grew up with coffee. ‘When I was eight or ten, I learned coffee growing from my parents. There were lots of trees in the mountains. It was colder, fresh. Now when the rain comes, it is still hot. The weather is changing, we need to adapt, but there is a lot we don't understand.'

During the Ecologist's visit to Canchaque and San Miguel del Faique villages, many farmers described how unpredictable weather, including rains 500 per cent greater than normal, has left them defenseless. Winding up a treacherous, dirt road 1,100 metres above sea level en route to Canchaque, the effects were visible in the rope and pulley system (pictured below) built three years ago to carry schoolchildren and provisions across a river when the flash floods and ensuing landslides make road crossing impossible.

A growing concern

Peru is among the group of countries that will be most affected by climate change, according to the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. It can always be argued that specific extreme weather events aren't directly connected to climate change, but proof of cause and effect is a moot point for these small farmers who can't afford the luxury of climate change scepticism. Peru's Vice-President Marisol Espinoza told the Ecologist, ‘We are already living the effects of climate change. We've experienced massive landslides and flooding along the coastal regions as well as in the mountains. It's happening in the here and now. This is not about criticizing, but about proactively coming up with responses and solutions to tackle climate change that address the issue for the poor and give them a way forward'.

Ninety per cent of the region's coffee is for export, which means the implications on the global market, were unlikely to go unnoticed. The question is how international coffee buyers are prepared to respond to climate change related impacts on the world's second most traded commodity after oil.

Cafédirect, the UK's leading Fairtrade coffee brand, has worked with the Cepicafe cooperative since 2001. Founded in 1991 by Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange and Twin Trading, Cafédirect's unique owner structure means the 39 producer organizations it works with in 13 different countries are represented on the board and have shares in the company. While most of the world's coffee farmers sell to middlemen, or brokers at coffee auctions, who, in turn, profit from selling on to multinational companies, Cafédirect works directly with growers.

Wolfgang Weinmann, head of sustainability at Cafédirect, says, ‘In 2005 and 2006, during producer group meetings, I would hear a lot from our [coffee, cocoa and tea] growers about weather related issues - from drought, to desertification, to flash floods. We will never be able to predict exactly the impacts, but climate change is happening for them now. This is about decreasing the vulnerabilities and strengthening their capabilities to adapt.'

Climate data about the Piura region predicts that some parts of the area will not be suitable for coffee growing in 20 years time. ‘A scientist would say, "So what you just move up the mountain, it's cooler. Grow the coffee there". No, from an environmental point of view, you should not do that. The highlands are more fragile. In most cases, they are still uninhabited. The bigger picture is about the wider water management,' says Weinmann.

In 2006, Cafédirect set up a three-year programme aimed at responding to grower concerns with pilot projects with four of their growing partners, including Cepicafe in Peru. The project, ‘Adaptation to Climate Change for Smallholder Growers', (AdapCC), includes site-specific climate adaptation methods and a carbon credit reforestation project designed to buffer the coffee farms against heavy rainfall and landslides up mountain.

Climate adaptation brings changing traditions

According to the Smallholder Coffee Association (Junta Nacional de Café), there are around 150,000 coffee smallholders in Peru. Everything from coffee picking, sorting and milling is done by hand. A radical departure from tradition such as the Brazilian method of sun grown coffee on large plantations using chemical fertilisers and heavy machinery, is neither possible nor desirable. Coffee is a quality market, and being organic smallholders with a hand picked premium coffee bean helps ensure differentiation in a competitive market. Luis Torres, Cepicafe's Project Manager on AdapCC, says, ‘We can't compete with Brazil in quantity but we know our quality is good.' Vice President Espinoza refers to Peruvian coffee's unique ‘aroma of justice' because of its link with community development.

In Canchaque, farmers learn adaptation methods through a ‘talking map', a colourful, hand drawn visual aid illustrating how the weather changes have affected the coffee farms. Paul Santos Santos, 24, a young farmer turned community organiser trained to pass on technical assistance, sings a song he's written about the community's coming together to face the dual threats of drought and heavy rains.

‘We could see the changes, but we didn't know what to do about it,' he says.

Support from the AdapCC project has enabled coffee farmers to invest in rain-fed irrigation systems to provide water during dry spells and methods to stop soil erosion on steep hillsides. In the village of San Miguel del Faique, the most significant result has been to repair a water reservoir (pictured below).

‘In the past we had complete fields infested with the coffee borer, it was too hot,' says Alexandre Reyes. They now use biological pest traps: plastic water bottles cut in half with coffee essence inside, used to attract pests, which then drown.

Coffee is an understory crop, shade trees buffer against high and low temperatures. In Canchaque, coffee plants are interspersed amongst banana, Roble and ‘cedro rosado' (hardwood,) canopy trees. Hundreds of new shade trees have been planted as part of the project. ‘But we know that too much shade means more pests, so we prune our shade trees,' says Paul Santos.

When the Ecologist visited, coffee cherries were just starting to turn colour - from green to the deep dark red that means they are ripe. The coffee cherries are hand picked and sorted then poured through a ‘popping machine' where they are pulped, leaving two white beans from each cherry.

The future of coffee growing in the Sierra Piura region depends in part on adaptation projects such as AdapCC. Cafédirect's project represents a new start in corporate practice to protect smallholder coffee growers around the world. Cafédirect say climate change adaptation should be a boardroom agenda for all major coffee retailers. Vice President Espinoza says, ‘I think [companies] can't be just spectators to what is happening, they will have to contribute to find solutions to climate change.'

Further information
Coffee Climate Crisis: Pioneering Smallholder Adaptation in Peru

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