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CRS Aids Central American Coffee Farmers

April 20, 2012 by

A delegation from Catholic Relief Services arrived in Portland, OR to be part of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual exposition.

The event gathers experts, business owners, producers and coffee enthusiasts. CRS’ delegation is headed by CRS’ Fair Trade program. It also includes experts who work in Latin American, overseeing programs that have to do with coffee, water and climate change.

  • Jefferson Shriver, Regional Technical Advisor for Agroenterprise and Climate Change, will speak on how to help coffee growers adapt to a changing climate.
  • Michael Sheridan, head of CRS’ Borderlands Coffee Project, will join a panel on how to identify and define critical issues in the field.
  • Paul Hicks, Regional Coordinator for CRS’ Global Water Initiative, will discuss resourceful ways to utilize scarce water sources during coffee processing.

CRS is committed to improve conditions and resources for farmers in the field confronting the challenges of a changing environment. Robyn Fieser, Regional Information Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, recently traveled to Nicaragua see these programs and how they relate to each other. In her story, she looked at CRS’ Coffee Under Pressure (CUP) project carried out in collaboration with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

The CUP project revealed that the same conditions that have made Central America home to some of the world’s finest coffees also makes it susceptible to the effects of rising temperatures in the region.

“All told, about a third of the area now suitable for growing coffee in Mexico and Central America won’t be by 2050.”

Continue reading for the full story and contact Robyn Fieser for more information on this project.

Coffee in the time of climate change

By Robyn Fieser/CRS

NICARAGUA – Dolores Calero Ruiz wipes her soil-covered hand on her t-shirt and shrugs.

“You know what they say about us farmers, we’re always looking up,” she says, her eyes squinting at the sun.

It’s December, the start of the harvest season for the Ruiz family, which owns a small coffee farm in Nicaragua’s central highlands. The family usually pays a handful of neighbors to help them pick coffee around this time. But this year, unripened green cherries cling to the plants that line the farm slopes. They’re not ready to be picked. Anxious that the season’s harvest, most of which sells on the fair trade market in the United States, will be small, Dolores prays for rain.

“First we had a bunch of rain and then we had none for a spell,” she says. “Some [trees] flowered early and fell off and now what’s left is not ripe. We need a good rain.”

While this year’s later harvest may prove to be a climatic anomaly, a Catholic Relief Services study shows that it could be a forecast for coffee in the region.

Carried out in collaboration with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the project, Coffee Under Pressure (CUP), found that the same conditions that have made Central America home to some of the world’s finest coffees also makes it susceptible to the effects of documente changes in climate. Its moderate temperatures are already rising, its predictable rainy season is becoming irregular, and pests and fungi could invade altitudes where they previously wouldn’t thrive. Although seemingly minor, the changes will have major consequences in coffee growing regions.

According to the study, the ideal altitudes for growing coffee will shift in coming years as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.   Although seemingly minor, the changes will have major consequences in coffee growing regions.

Altitudes of 1,200 meters, where some of Latin America’s most celebrated coffees now grow, will be too hot by 2020. And by 2050, high altitudes, historically too cool for coffee, will be ideal.

All told, about a third of the area now suitable for growing coffee in Mexico and Central America won’t be by 2050, says Peter Laderach, a CIAT researcher who coordinated the study, which cross-referenced data from 7,000 coffee farms with climate change models to track how different areas will be affected by climate change.

There are likely to be different impacts for farmers at different altitudes. The dramatic shift uphill, where land is scarce, will particularly affect poor farmers, who have trouble acquiring new land. Many of the farmers, who, today, supply the bulk of the world’s high quality coffee beans, will be forced to adapt.

Planning for change

CRS is sharing the results of the research with small farmers throughout Central America and helping them devise long-term strategies for coping with climate change.

To help them reduce their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and minimize its impact, CRS is promoting improved farming techniques, crop diversification and hardier tree varieties.

Many farmers are planting shade trees, which lower the temperatures over their coffee plants and stabilize hillsides that often suffer from soil erosion. Others are changing to drought resistant varieties of coffee or installing irrigation systems.

CRS is working to help farmers in areas that will become unsuitable to grow coffee identify and develop alternative crops and new ways of generating income.

Preparing for the effects of climate change, which will impact the entire coffee supply chain, will require planning and investment by both governments and private sector, making it essential for more information-sharing on the issue.

Just as farmers need access to technologies for adaptation, buyers and sellers need to know where and when high quality coffee will grow to guarantee their coffee supply. Governments and development organizations that work with farmers need to understand how land use patterns will change over time to ensure that the rural poor find sustainable and competitive options for the future.

For these reasons, CRS plans to continue to disseminate information about climate change and foster discussions on the issue amongst a wide variety of people involved in selling coffee.

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