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Research: Climate change disrupting farming in Central America

© Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks

Above: Farmers in Central America are already feeling the effects of climate change. Coffee farmers such as this man in Chiapas, Mexico will likely need to move to higher elevations in order to keep their crops productive.

A collection of new scientific papers has confirmed what many Central American farmers already know: climate change is affecting weather, ecosystems, agriculture and people in the region. Central America’s smallholder farmers are the most vulnerable to these effects, which include shifts in rainfall, temperature and water availability — not only because of their reliance on nature and the benefits it provides, but because they often have limited financial resources and the ability to adapt to a changing climate.

This new research by Conservation International (CI) and partners from more than 20 institutions addresses many aspects of climate change in Central America: the extent to which it’s affecting smallholder farmers, the crippling lack of access to timely data, and the absence of the analytical tools farmers and policymakers need to help this vulnerable population fight climate change and adapt to its impacts.

Lee Hannah, CI’s senior scientist for climate change biology, led the synthesis paper that summarizes the research and its key findings. “These results show that climate change will have major impacts on crop productivity, smallholder farmers and ecosystems in Central America. This research improves our ability to help the most vulnerable farmers and those in poverty,” Hannah said.

According to Camila Donatti, CI’s director of climate change adaptation, one of the critical takeaways of the research is that “climate-related changes are not only expected in the near future, they’re already happening.” Historical records show that a marked warming has already happened in the region.

As for what climate change has in store for Central America? There will likely be a reduction in tropical forest cover, which will impact everything from water filtration services to wildlife habitat to carbon sequestration. Priority areas for biodiversity conservation will shift, which will require updating the location of existing protected areas. And climate change will affect everyone’s favorite beverage when suitable coffee-growing areas — and coffee farmers — are forced to move to higher ground, putting increased pressure on the forests and other ecosystems at these loftier altitudes.

To address the current impacts and prepare for future ones, decision-makers need a full picture of how climate change is affecting Central America. CI’s research will help fill in critical information gaps, and the data will be used to inform and support efforts to use nature to mitigate and adapt to climate change, whether through protecting forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere or training coffee farmers to use more sustainable practices.

The summary paper and the full slate of research papers are available here.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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