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Environment & Climate

As climate changes, Mexico struggles to keep coffee industry abuzz

A severe outbreak of disease could be the first of many climate-induced challenges in Chiapas, Mexico’s coffee-growing mecca.
4 Abr 2017 – 09:20 AM EDT

TAPACHULA, Mexico - Paulino Morales López grimaces as he walks among the deep green foliage of this tropical mountainside he calls home. He holds a machete, intermittently slashing the plants and trees obstructing his path.

Suddenly, Morales stops in his tracks. “There it is,” he says, pointing the tip of his machete to a coffee plant to his left.

He’s pointing at roya, or rust, a fungus that spread through Mexico and Central America beginning in 2013 and which hit this highland region particularly hard. Here, in Mexico's specialty coffee-growing mecca, farmers are still recovering.

“It shows up and then 15 days later the plant is dead,” Morales says, his face solemn. “You can’t use it.”

Many scientists link the disease at least in part to a changing—and increasingly unpredictable—climate. To grow, coffee needs a precise mix of rain, temperature, dry periods and altitude. Roya generally flourishes in weather that is warm and rainy, where spores multiply.

Some scientists say the intense roya outbreak could be just the first sign of a “new normal” of uncertainty for farmers here, who are being forced to shift and adapt their practices despite limited government investment in the industry.

Across the region, the roya outbreak caused more than $1 billion in crop losses. Hundreds of thousands were stripped of their livelihoods. Whereas in 2010, Mexico produced 4.5 million (60 kilogram) bags, last year that number was just 2 million.

Now, Mexico’s agricultural producers and exporters face a period of more uncertainty, with the potential for crippling new regulations in the era of Trump. Approximately 40 percent of coffee exports from Central America and Mexico are destined for the United States.

“I see a complicated panorama,” says Dr. Juan F. Barrera, a researcher from El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a university in Tapachula. “It’s not easy.”

Mexico’s coffee industry has experienced highs and lows in its more than 200-year history, but the outbreak of disease over the past few years brought the industry to a low that few anticipated. In the midst of the roya outbreak, officials declared it the worst crisis ever to hit the Mexican coffee industry.

Barrera says the 2013 roya outbreak shook an already vulnerable and aging industry.

“The plants were getting old, the producers were getting old,” he says. “On the heels of a global economic crisis roya came and uncovered the situation and had a severe impact. It was the last straw.”

Unlike healthy coffee plants, which are a deep green punctuated by the shiny red of the beans, the leaves on plants affected by roya are speckled with yellow and brown spots. The coffee beans look shriveled and grey.

The advance of roya through Central America began about three years before it reached southern Mexico. The region was struggling to contain damage from another coffee pest, la broca, a tiny beetle that also thrives in warmer temperatures.

Central America and Mexico account for over 15 percent of the world’s Arabica production, the most valuable species of coffee, and Mexico is the world’s primary exporter of organic coffee, nearly all of it from this southerly region. Across the state of Chiapas, some 1 million people—30 percent of the population—live off the coffee industry. Nationwide, over 5 million people depend on coffee. Most work on small, family-run farms: there are some 500,000 small coffee producers in Mexico.

Carlos Ildelfonso Jimenez Trujillo, the director of the municipal Chiapas Institute of Coffee, described the roya outbreak as a “tragedy,” which forced many to leave behind coffee farming or to migrate altogether.

It’s not just Mexico that has suffered devastating climate-induced challenges in recent years. In Brazil, a drought has caused production of Robusta beans to drop to a 10-year low. In Vietnam, production was forecast to decline 2.2 million bags this year as high temperatures and drought weakened yields.

A series of reports published in recent years say that the world's coffee supply may be in severe danger due to climate change.

“There is strong evidence that rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns are already affecting coffee yields, quality, pests, and diseases—badly affecting economic security in some coffee regions,” says a September report from Australia’s Climate Institute.

Without strong action to reduce emissions, climate change is projected to cut the global area suitable for coffee production by as much as 50 percent by 2050, it says.

Christian Bunn, a coffee and climate change modeler from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), says some models show that coffee could all but disappear by 2080.

“That number is something that could happen in most extreme scenario,” he says. “Our best bet is that about half of the currently suitable area for coffee production is seriously threatened by climate change.”

Coffee farmers in Chiapas who are deeply connected to the land say the weather has become less predictable over the last decade.

Victor Lopez, who lives about an hour outside the town of San Cristóbal on a modest, two-acre farm, says rainfall has been especially atypical. Though rain normally comes at a steady pace, this year has seen drought in Chiapas, punctuated by heavy downpours.

On a sunny afternoon in mid-December, Lopez sat outside waiting for rain. “It should have already rained one or two times today,” he says. “But nothing so far.”

“Coffee needs water, but if it rains a lot while the fruit is forming it can also affect production,” he adds. “Rainfall must be well-distributed throughout the year for coffee to grow.”

Lopez says he and others in his community have been struggling to support their families. He recently helped organize an assembly to share knowledge with other coffee growers in the region, which was attended by some 50 local producers.

“We see we’re not able to make enough money to support us all year and maintain our children,” he says. “We’re looking for a solution because the money is not sufficient.”

Struggling farmers may also be more likely to pick beans early and regardless of their quality, selling them for a lower price.

Chad Barasch of the U.S.-based Café Imports says Mexican coffee, long known in the specialty industry for its high quality and reasonable price, has experienced a marked decline on the market.

“In specialty coffee you score on a 100-point scale,” he says. “In Mexico three years ago we’d see an 84. Now, that’s probably an 80. Four points difference is pretty huge for the community.”

Bunn, the climate modeler, says an adequate response to the current crisis requires a number of different actors, driven by government policies and funding for farmers who likely can’t afford to invest in adaptation strategies and new plants on their own.

International organizations, like USAID and Conservation International, are investing in Mexican coffee through programs that bring new technology and disease resistant plant varieties. Starbucks, too, has donated more than one million coffee plants to local producers, with plans to donate some 4 million more over the next five years. And universities and other research institutions are distributing training materials that encourage new strategies and techniques for sustainability.

Santiago Arguello, the Director of Coordination for Mexico’s Integrated Plan for the Care of Coffee from the Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), concedes that government investment has historically been inadequate.

“In the last 15 years we have not invested enough to guarantee competitiveness,” he says.

But the government has begun to take coffee production more seriously, publicly stating its commitment to work with farmers to increase productivity. It launched its Integrated Plan in late 2015, to develop a comprehensive strategy for sustainability. It’s also working to provide access to credit programs and improve producers’ capacity and skills.

“Coffee is a priority for [President] Peña Nieto,” he says. “Resilience is part of 80 percent of our future agenda.”

Arguello says the government invested $70 million last year in coffee producers. It also ‘renovated’ almost 500,000 acres of coffee growing areas. And he says it’s trying to be more present in rural communities through a series of district offices.

That may be especially important now, as U.S. President Donald Trump has floated a 20 percent tariff on goods imported from Mexico to help pay for his proposed border wall.

As part of a campaign to defend Mexico’s sovereignty, Peña Nieto boasted in early February that Mexican products are ever more valued around the world, naming organic coffee as a top product.

And Mexicans are drinking more high-quality coffee, too. Internal consumption has tripled in the last 10 years, to 1.5 kilos per capita, Arguello says. That number is expected to further double in the next five years.

Arguello says production is adequate to meet demand in spite of recent challenges. This year, coffee production is expected to rise by 200,000 bags from last year, to 2.2 million, as the country continues to recover from the roya outbreak. That’s still less than half of 2010 production.

“Coffee is a point of national pride,” Arguello says. “And we plan to be a leader.”

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Jessica Weiss’ reporting from Mexico as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.