Adapting Coffee to a Changing Climate in Sumatra

Editor's note: Fazrin Rahmadani recently joined CI’s Director of Food, Agriculture and Fresh Water Joanne Sonenshine on Starbucks’ annual Origin Experience trip in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Today Fazrin explains the ongoing challenges Indonesian coffee farmers face — and how we’re helping them adapt.

On the sidelines of a sustainable coffee meeting in Central Aceh some time ago, a farmer asked me: “What can we do to restore the temperature and climate that have changed? It used to be so cold that at night we slept with a jacket on under our thick blanket. Now, we are too hot for even our blankets.”

Another participant asked: “Before, our coffee was safe from pests and diseases, but that is no longer true. Are pests and diseases related to climate change?”

Over the years, farmers have continually asked me questions like these. In the past, a stable climate in Sumatra minimized instances of pests and diseases, helped regulate the rainy season and made it easier to predict fertilization periods for coffee. Sumatra has long been recognized as one of the best coffee-growing geographies in the world. However, climate change has caused significant changes in both coffee production and quality over the last 10-15 years in Indonesia.

Rising temperatures have changed local conditions and made the area less suitable for growing coffee. Pest and disease attacks on coffee plants and an increase in extreme weather events has become a real problem on coffee plantations and other agricultural lands. For example, as temperatures increase, a beetle called the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) is expanding into higher altitudes and posing a growing threat to coffee crops. Many farmers have experienced firsthand how these and other changes can disrupt their livelihoods.

Since 2008, CI and Starbucks have developed and replicated a sustainable coffee management project in northern Sumatra. The main objective of this program is to increase the capacity of coffee farmers to better respond to the effects of climate change, optimize coffee production and increase household income. In turn, the farmers are working to reduce forest destruction and improve land management.

To help communities adapt to a changing environment, more awareness is needed. Through CI’s collaboration with Starbucks, we are providing trainings on the consequences of climate change to communities, local government and farmers through seminars, workshops and publications.

In addition to training, CI helps farmers understand Starbucks’ Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices program; build inventories of coffee varieties; plant shade trees; and improve methods for seeding and planting, soil and land management and harvesting. All of these strategies help farmers become more resilient to climate change and protect their livelihoods.

Farmers are taught about these methods via a demonstration plot, where they can learn before implementing on their own farms. Besides absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, planting shade trees improves the water system and groundwater supplies and protects the coffee from direct sunlight and rain. Farmers’ interest in this training approach is quite high, because it helps them better manage soil fertility and thus improve their crop.

Coffee is one of the largest contributors to the northern Sumatran government’s income. By liaising directly with the regional governments in places like Central Aceh, CI is working to integrate its trainings within the government’s planned activities around climate change adaptation, specifically ensuring a robust plan is developed among the coffee sector.

Northern Sumatran coffee farmers see these practices as a way to meet the challenge brought on by climate change. Indonesian policymakers recognize the need for a plan to adapt to these changes. Starbucks considers its investment in sustainable coffee as a down payment on higher-quality coffee. Much more work and collaboration needs to take place in northern Sumatra, but it’s clear that we all have a stake in continuing to build a sustainable future for coffee farmers — and coffee drinkers.

Fazrin Rahmadani is the Sumatra program manager for CI-Indonesia.