Colombia’s vulnerable agriculture – “Peak coffee” soon a reality?
It is an undeniable fact that Colombian agriculture plays a crucial element within the South American country’s economy – actually it represents 10-14% of the national GDP. 3.7 out of 47 million Colombians rely on the agricultural sector as a form of income, yet they become increasingly vulnerable to climate change and climate variability. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), vulnerability to climate change is the degree to which geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change. In the case of Colombian agriculture, that means that with the progression of climate change, Colombian farmers, and particularly small producers, will struggle with changing precipitation patterns, extreme weather conditions and increased risk of fire hazards, floods and plagues. This, in turn, has dramatic consequences for food security. Therefore, it is necessary that appropriate decisions are being made at the political, public and private level in order to design and introduce appropriate adaptation strategies.
The project “AVA” (Agriculture, Vulnerability, Adaptation) in Colombia’s Upper Cauca River Basin is funded by the Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), and led by Cauca University (UNICAUCA), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Colombian Coffee Research Center CENICAFE and Caldas University (UNICALDAS). It is analysing the vulnerability of various value chains and communities within that geographic region in order to identify which actors and crops are going to be the most affected by climate change and climate variability. It focuses on the Upper Cauca river basin and encompasses five departments, namely from south to north, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Quindío, Risaralda and Caldas, which together comprise 9 million inhabitants (20% of the nation’s total population). The region is known for the cultivation of coffee and sugar cane, as well as tropical fruits, plantains, forest trees, and traditional agriculture (corn, cassava, potato, beans, and pasture). The AVA project proposes a four-dimensional vulnerability assessment model, where bio-physical, political-institutional, economic-productive and socio-cultural indicators are considered. The project started in October 2011 and has an estimated duration of 15 months.
Colombia is the world’s fourth largest producer of coffee and the world’s second largest Arabica coffee exporter. The upper Cauca river basin is a strategically important part of the Colombian coffee zone, which produces 45% of Colombia’s coffee. Possessing the ideal conditions for the cultivation of weather-sensitive coffee, such as the right mix of temperature, rainfall and spells of dryness, local coffee growers will have to adapt to different weather and climate patterns in the not-so-distant future. Coffee producers are already facing challenges as the yields decrease, owing to rising temperatures and more intense and unpredictable rains, partly due to global warming. Average temperatures in Colombia’s coffee regions have risen nearly one degree in 30 years, and in some mountain areas the increase has been double that, according to CENICAFE, the national coffee research centre. Rain in this area was more than 25% above average in the last few years. With increased temperatures, the plants’ buds abort or their fruit ripens too quickly for optimum quality. Heat also brings pests like coffee rust, a devastating fungus that could not survive the previously cool mountain weather. The heavy rains damage the fragile Arabica blossoms, and the two-week dry spells that prompt the plant to flower and produce beans occur less often. That is why even half a degree can make a big difference for coffee, affecting growth and increasing plagues and diseases, according to Néstor Riaño, a specialist in plant ecophysiology for CENICAFE.
Another problem associated with coffee farming is that it involves long-term investment, as it takes roughly 3 years to start producing, and a cropping cycle that farmers hope will last for more than 15 years. That, in conjunction with the on-going armed conflict makes re-locating a rather less realistic option. In 2006, Colombia produced more than 12 million 132-pound bags of coffee and set a goal of 17 million for 2014. In 2010, however, the yield was only 9 million. Therefore, in order to avoid “peak coffee” (referring to the point in time when the maximum rate of coffee production is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline), adaptation strategies will play a crucial part to maintain coffee production competitive and keep Colombia in the top ranks of high-quality coffee production in the world.
This is why the AVA project is fundamental for both farmers and politicians as to take action against the imminent threats of climate change in the region. Through participative workshops, AVA is defining a vulnerability model that will be a very useful tool to identify the most vulnerable crops/areas in the Upper Cauca region. Such efforts will equip farmers and small-scale producers with knowledge and confidence, whilst raising awareness at the public-political level to implement efficient adaptation strategies. “Peak coffee” must not occur, as long as the requirement for appropriate adaptation policies is fully recognized, while at the same time scientific progress through projects such as AVA remains encouraged.
(co-author: Néstor Riaño)