Aida Escolán, originally from the capital city of Tegucigalpa, moved to rural Ocotepeque eight years ago to take over her grandfather’s coffee farm. The petite woman jumping down from the driver’s seat of her dusty off-road pickup is an ironic scene, but Aida’s disregard for the industry’s male predominance and her determination to continue her grandfather’s legacy has made a way for herself and other women farmers. Yet the difference in production between Aida’s generation and her grandfathers has been night and day. “The changes in climate have been very drastic,” she says as she leans against the bed of her pickup. “The plagues and the diseases that we didn’t use to have at these altitudes we are now seeing. It affects the quality of the coffee and all of a sudden, the quantities that you could’ve sold with high quality are not the same, so in the end that affects you economically.” In the wake of these new climate challenges, however, Aida and other farmers have found an ally in the Alliance for Resilient Coffee through the adaptation practices, technical support and training it offers.
For decades, the high mountains and expansive valleys of western Honduras have sustained the livelihoods of coffee farming families. From grandfather, to father, to granddaughter, the coffee fields have put generations of kids through school, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. In recent years, however, the climate in the area has become unpredictable, and coffee production right along with it.
Aida Escolán, a coffee farmer in Ocotepeque moved to the area from the capital city of Tegucigalpa to take over her grandfather’s coffee farm.
Driving through Ocotepeque in the month of March, the crisis of the landscape is palpable. Mountainsides that should be lush and green are dry and spent under the constant heat of the sun. Bare tree branches stretch toward the sky, earnestly waiting for the relief of a good rain. For coffee farmers, production is waning, and quality is suffering. With rising temperatures and transforming climates, farmers and coffee cooperatives are left searching for solutions that will allow them to adapt their crops to new plagues, changing rain patterns, and extended dry spells.
Donaldo Gonzalez, the General Manager of the coffee cooperative ARUCO, also feels the pressure to find solutions for farmers. “We don’t know exactly what the future looks like for our production,” he says. “In the last twenty-five, thirty years, we’ve seen a big difference in climate and obviously the coffee production has also been seriously affected. That has caused ARUCO to look for strategic partners and specialized institutions that can support us with training for producers so that we can adapt to these changes in our climate. We need to look for more alternatives for sustainability for our coffee plantations.”
The Alliance for Resilient Coffee, or ARC, is working to test and implement those alternatives. “Currently we are doing constant training with the producers on new practices,”
says Javier Rivas, the Regional Coordinator for ARC. “We work a lot on the topic of cover crops, shade crops, and making adaptations to their farms so that they are resilient to changes in climate.”
Kevin Leverón, a young coffee farmer from Ocotepeque, and an ARC technician test the hardness of the soil in one of Leverón’s demonstration plots.
In the demonstration plots of Kevin Leverón, a young entrepreneurial coffee farmer from Ocotepeque, the success of these new practices is evident. On one half of the steep mountainside plot, Leverón nurtures his coffee plants with the age-old techniques his family has always used. The plants are small, yellow and withering under direct sunlight. Farmer or not, anyone can see that the hope of harvesting coffee from those plants looks futile. On the other side, Kevin has implemented climate smart practices with the help of ARC technicians. Trees, planted as temporary shade, are scattered throughout the plot. Spacing between rows are spread further apart to increase light and wind flow. And the coffee plants? Large, healthy, and full with those satisfying dark green waxy leaves. There, you can see the potential.
Coffee plants from Kevin Leverón’s demonstration plot. On the left, coffee planted and cared for using traditional farming practices. On the right, coffee planted and cared for using climate smart practices introduced through the ARC program.
On the opposite end of the coffee value chain are Emily and Justin Carabello. In 2009, the determined couple started Carabello Coffee, a grassroots coffee shop in Newport, Kentucky, with the intention of investing in sustainable change in coffee producing countries. As buyers who are committed to serving their customers top-quality coffee, Emily and Justin are also concerned with finding solutions for farmers to adapt to fluctuating climates.
“What we see is that there has not been enough technology offered to coffee farmers, and as that information and data grows, there are so many simple things that they can do to make it more sustainable,” Emily explained on a recent trip to Ocotepeque, one of the top coffee producing departments in Honduras. “The demonstration plots have been amazing to see that they can track the tiniest little changes, and the temperature, and how spreading the plants out can impact Roya. It’s exciting to see how science as well as philanthropy can work together so that hopefully in the future, this is a sustainable lifestyle for people rather than such a struggle.”
With the efforts of ARC technicians and committed farmers, coffee producers in Ocotepeque have already noticed a difference in the quality and production of their farms. “Through all the information they’ve collected during these two years in the project, the producers have really seen a change in their farms. They’ve been more resilient to changes in climate,” says Rivas. “This is teamwork. It’s a series of practices, a series of actors that are involved in this chain and it’s been very gratifying to see these results.”
Santos Sanabria and his son, Alexander, stand amongst their coffee crops, which have thrived after implementing climate smart practices such as cover crops, temporary shade, gypsum and diversification with the help of ARC technicians.
For Aida Escolán, support from ARC means more than just results in the coffee fields. “[The ARC project] is helping us because it’s supporting the quality of our coffee,” she explains, “ and at the same time, we have the sustainability of our families, the care of the ecosystems where we are working, and that our coffee plots are productive.” As the sun sets behind the mountain, the coffee fields that Escolán’s grandfather planted so long ago are briefly washed in a golden light. “I always say that behind each cup of coffee is a story,” she says. “It’s a story of a group of people who strive to make something good and bring it to a market that is fair, where the entire coffee value chain really has that – a value.”
ARC, together with coffee farmers in western Honduras, are fervently working to ensure that that story doesn’t end here. Smart agricultural practices not only protect the future of coffee production, but beyond that, protect the future of coffee farmers, their families, and their communities whose livelihood is deeply intertwined with coffee production.
The next chapter relies upon us to invest in the farmers who make it all happen. For more information on how to get involved, visit: The Alliance for Resilient Coffee.
The Alliance for Resilient Coffee is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the U.S. Government’s food security initiative, Feed the Future and is made up of 7 consortium members: CIAT, IITA, Root Capital, Conservation International, World Coffee Research, Sustainable Food Lab and Hanns Neumann Stiftung.