Traditional shade-grown coffee helps maintain habitat for birds and other animals. However, environmental conditions threaten to wipe out a generations-old way of life. Coffee lands are producing smaller yields every year, partially in response to changes in weather conditions due to climate change.
The story of coffee is the story of globalization.
Discovered in Yemen and Ethiopia more than 500 years ago, the beverage has since spread to all corners of the globe. It is currently grown in more than 45 countries; just yesterday, about 2.5 billion cups of it were consumed worldwide.
Yet despite global demand for the crop, millions of coffee farmers face social and environmental challenges in their profession, and the impacts of climate change threaten to make it even more difficult.
In Mexico’s Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Conservation International (CI) is working with Starbucks and local partners to show that coffee can be a powerful tool for the promotion of sustainable livelihoods. Our projects compensate farmers for maintaining the ecosystem services – benefits like freshwater provision, species habitat and carbon storage – that shade-grown coffee provides; as a result, your daily cup could help to expand bird populations, protect streams and perhaps even keep a teenager in the family business.
Shifting Livelihoods in Sierra Madre
The mountain range known as Sierra Madre de Chiapas is famous for southern Mexico’s only remaining cloud forests, which provide a refuge for the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) and other species found nowhere else. The mountains serve as a water catchment area for urban centers, surrounding towns and agricultural landscapes. Chiapas is also an important coffee-growing region; the crop is the main source of livelihood for many of the 27,000 people who live in the multiple-use zone of El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, La Sepultura Biosphere Reserve and La Frailescana National Park.
Traditional shade-grown coffee helps maintain habitat for birds and other animals. However, environmental conditions threaten to wipe out a generations-old way of life. Coffee lands are producing smaller yields every year, partially in response to changes in weather conditions due to climate change. Over-reliance on one crop makes farmers especially vulnerable to market fluctuations in coffee price. In addition, over 40 percent of the region’s coffee production land is managed by farmers who are over the age of 50; young people are increasingly migrating to cities in search of work with a more promising future.
Yet the distribution of forest cover in Chiapas reveals the importance of motivating coffee farmers to continue their shade-grown methods, both for their own livelihoods and the global fight against climate change. Much of the remaining forest cover occurs outside of protected areas, on communal and private coffee farms. In fact, in overhead satellite photos, coffee plants are often invisible under the cover of taller trees.
LEARN MORE: Discover how economic incentives benefit both nature and people.
Climate Change + Coffee
To better understand current and future climate change impacts on the Chiapas region, scientists from CI and partners combined existing climate change research with local ecosystem data to model future crop suitability – creating maps that project the best- and worst-case scenarios for coffee-producing land in 2050.
These models predicted several impacts in Chiapas: a hotter, drier climate (resulting in increased wildfires and less productive cropland), an increase in extreme weather events like hurricanes, and less rainfall. These impacts may result in people turning to crops that are less water-intensive than coffee, but also less conducive to conserving habitat.
By taking these predictions into account, CI has begun working with local communities in priority regions to develop climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.
In the Shade
Shade-grown coffee acts as an important carbon reservoir; by continuing to grow it, farmers can also bolster hurricane protection for coffee crops and keep their options open for alternative livelihoods. Fruit and other resources from forest trees can aid household incomes if coffee yields fall short.
CI is working with the state government and local partners to promote restoration and agroforestry projects in the region, which will give farmers even more incentive to continue to grow their crops under forest cover. The Starbucks C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices program establishes a set of best practices that the company encourages farmers to adopt over time to ensure that the company’s coffee can be traced back to socially, economically and environmentally responsible sources.
IN DEPTH: CI & Starbucks
Some of these practices have the potential to sequester carbon as well, and CI and Starbucks are working together to identify opportunities to capitalize on this potential. By working with longtime CI partner AMBIO, which has many years of experience in the region, we are trying to overcome the challenges that often prevent small landowners from accessing carbon markets. In addition, CI is also working with the Chiapas government to incorporate coffee and climate linkages into a developing state-wide Climate Change Action Plan.
So far, about 1.8 million hectares (nearly 4.5 million acres) have been conserved in the region, including crucial habitat for 106 threatened species. Work in the Sierra Madre extends beyond coffee and coffee farmers; other landowners are also included in forest carbon schemes. Future plans include the establishment of similar systems for payment for freshwater and biodiversity services.
The establishment of a truly sustainable system that reaches all coffee farmers is still a work in progress; however, recent successes show promise for the future.
“As part of a state forest carbon strategy, CI has helped bring together federal and state governmental agencies with nonprofit groups,” says Yatziri Zepeda, Ecosystem Services Coordinator for CI’s Chiapas office. “It’s an exciting time, because different groups of people are starting to work together. We have a great opportunity in front of us to finally ensure a sustainable land use.”
READ MORE: Growing Coffee and Selling Carbon