The good news: Millions of farmers around the world are using ecologically sound methods to produce small harvests of high-quality coffee beans for global markets.
The bad news: they’re just as vulnerable to drought, intense storms and other symptoms of climate change as industrial-scale coffee plantations — but they’re lower income and cannot recover as easily.
Sustainable but fragile
Worldwide, millions of families depend upon growing coffee in an eco-friendly manner — under the shade of a natural forest canopy.
This produces plants that are more resilient and sustainable — and beans that are better tasting — using a low- to moderate-yielding farming methods that do little harm to the environment.
Shade-grown coffee is significantly better use of land compared to full-sun coffee-bean plantations preferred by major growers.
These are higher yielding, but the plants need intensive use of fertilizers and herbicides, and tend to produce lower-quality beans of the sort used for instant coffee.
But despite their greater quality and ecological resilience, small-shade coffee farms are vulnerable to both major climate events as well as the volatile international coffee market.
Unlevel playing field
A study in Puerto Rico confirms that a coffee farmer’s ability to recover from mega-storms such as 2017’s Hurricane Maris depends less on their artisanal, ecologically sustainable status — and more on how rich they were.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that despite the ecological advantages of small shade-growing coffee farms, 2017 Hurricane Maria was equally harmful to both shaded and full-sun coffee farms on Puerto Rico.
In part, this had to do with the unusual strength of the storm, which toppled shade trees, devastating coffee plants that would typically have been protected by the shady understory.
Once Hurricane Maria blew over, better-off farmers growing high-yielding full-sun coffee could more easily afford the herbicides, fertilizers, and new plants necessary to restore their damaged farms.
The lowest-income growers with shaded farms could not.
Besides extreme storms, another factor that degrades and destroys coffee farms is increasing drought, which is linked to climate change via the El Niño and La Niña weather phenomena.
Supporting small farmers
As a result, many of Puetro Rico’s small farmers are leaving their rural lands and moving to urban areas in the hopes of new work with better wages.
One heartening effort to support these small farms and keep them operational is a collaboration between the nonprofit economic-development agency ComPRmetidos and the growers’ advocacy group PROCAFE.
The two agencies are working together to provide small farmers with new coffee plants and equipment in the wake of the storm.
It will need to be a sustained effort, as Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria will take at least a decade.