The Future of Sustainable Coffee in Nicaragua

By Rachel Northrop

In Nicaragua, coffee producers, as much as the overall rural population, are experiencing the effects of climate change. But Nicaraguan coffee producers are not merely observing these changes without taking action; the coffee sector in the Central American country is actively looking for ways to make short term adaptations to climate change and long term motivations.

One key entity to this process is CafeNica. According to the organization, CafeNica's mission is to "promote the development of member organizations, strengthen their institutional and business capacities, successfully position their products in the coffee market, politically represent smallholders processes that assure participation, gender equality, transparency, and quality and sustainability, both economic and environmental."

CafeNica is putting into action, with their network of cooperatives and their more than ten thousand producers connected to CafeNica, initiatives to continue advancing coffee production in a climate of uncertainty.

First, they work with organic agriculture. CafeNica says, "for us organic production systems represent a way of life, of production committed to people's health, environmentally aligned, and that protects our natural resources and ecosystems, especially the conservation of soil and water.

Focusing on the use of biological products and soil fertility makes cultivation more resilient to climate variability. It creates less families who are dependent on chemical inputs by using all the products and byproducts of the farm, which means lower costs. Organic production is also an opportunity to improve the quality of life and family income.

Nevertheless, organic production has many limitations for small producers: there are few sources of organic material to produce inputs in large quantities, it demands much manual labor, there is little research into it or information shared because large agrochemical companies campaign for intensive production, there is a lack of awareness around the advantages of consuming organic products, and the global economic crisis obligates consumption of goods of the lowest cost."

To produce organic coffee, for many producers, is a dream that will be impossible to reach given the economic environment CafeNica mentioned. But producing organic coffee is not the only system for growing sustainment coffee with advantages to producers.

One of CafeNica's projects is to support coffee grown with shade and trees, known as agroforestry. "For CafeNica, reforestation and diversification are achieved through Coffee Agroforestry systems. Their importance is rooted in the way that a diversified system favors the recycling and balance of nutrients, and in the first stages of plot development it guarantees an opportunity for food security and improved income associated with other crops (corn, bananas, vegetables, ginger, and others).

Diversified agroforestry favors systems that are more resilient to extreme events of climate change offer better tolerance against disease.”

CafeNica also maintains educational farms to educate members of their network in various systems of coffee cultivation. “We have demonstration plots, where we test different technologies for managing parcels of land planted with coffee, with agroforestry—including species like fruit trees—that contribute to food security, creates organic fertilizer from fallen leaves, and testing new varietals.

The main difficulties have been awareness and motivation at all levels, the use of technology, high costs of accessing the internet and means of communication like radio, TV, etc.”

The high cost of communicating agricultural best practices is one of the reasons why many producers find themselves without up to date information and education. But, with new platforms like WhatsApp and other mobile phone applications, which can be accessed with a basic internet connection, producers have more and faster access to information they can use to improve their coffee cultivation.

“We are developing various actions in conjunction with our associated organizations,” says CafeNica. “We are constructing a system of early alert that integrates the following elements. First, training technical teams of our ten member organizations, extensionists, and family producers about the threats and risks of climate change and variability to the sustainability of crops, particularly coffee. Second, establishing and monitoring a network of meteorological stations that permits us to associate climate variables like temperature, precipitation, and humidity with different phenological periods of the crop, and with dynamics of diseases and plagues.

This information allows us to analyze and carry out forecasts of climate threats (rain events and droughts) and phytosanitary threats (percentage increase in likelihood of pests and plagues) and in this way define actions to develop in the way that is most applicable to for producers.

All of this is based on a network of field promotors, formed by 70 young producers who compile, send, and distribute the information to producers using technology like phone and mobile applications, WhatsApp, text messages, online platforms, and others.”

Jose Aquiles Espinoza Fortin is one of those producers. Espinoza is a coffee producer and also part of the administration of the Cooperativa Multifuncional Pablo Velasquez Hernandez in San Juan del Rio Coco in Madriz. “As a producer, I am in charge of a complete climate monitoring station with the goal of executing a study about the behavior of each phase of coffee cultivation, and in this way looking for alternatives to adapt to climate change.

With the CaféNica network, I share data at the national level between small and mid-sized coffee producers, including those growing organically,” describes Jose.

The monitoring stations, located on coffee producers’ farms, are part of a project called “Coffee Sector Resilience in the Face of Climate Change,” managed by CafeNica (Matagalpa), Centro Humboldt (Managua), CIEETS (Inter-Ecclesiastical Center for Theology and Science) and financed by Lutheran World Relief (Baltimore, MD) with participation from cooperative organizations and small producers.

The project looks to decrease smallholder family vulnerability, promote new forms of farm management, diversify crops, understand climate changes, and promote the use of technology to make families and their properties more resilient.

One of the project’s initiatives is focused on the network of producers observing climate change from their farms and in this way directly sharing the experience with other producers in a practical, useful ways that are directly applicable to farming.

Espinoza continues, “The project has nineteen full manual monitoring stations and eight rainwater measuring stations across four departments of Nicaragua, composing a network of climate monitoring where information is shared—across the Coffee and Climate platform, developed by CafeNica—to a database, where information is analyzed and interpreted by a team of technicians and coop producers to generate recommendations for the thousands of families of smallholder producers by way of the same Coffee and Climate online platform, text message, and WhatsApp group.

Furthermore, these recommendations are sent out in bulletins and news alerts to empower producers to strategically plan activities that might protect against brusque climate changes and sudden events, thus reducing losses and damages to crops, also including other organizations and institutions who have interests in receiving this kind of information.

This project, for me as a producer, is something very interesting because the climate will continue to exist after us and day to day one learns and shares and the most important is to leave that idea to our children.”

At the full climate monitoring station, data points are observed and recorded every day of the year at 06:00am.

The station includes the following tools:

  1. Hygrometer for measuring percentage relative humidity and air temperature in degrees Celsius at a determined time (06:00am), measuring current temperature as well as minimums and maximums over the course of the previous day. Also measuring minimum, and maximum dew points in degrees Celsius. This equipment is inside a wooden box to protect it from rain.
  2. Pluviometer for measuring quantity of rainfall in millimeters every 24 hours.
  3. Measurement of percentage soil humidity in one or many layers of soil.
  4. Sunlight is observed manually, recorded as a percentage of cloud cover, from 0-100.

In total, there are fourteen data points collected, all of which are sent by cell phone to the CafeNica network.

Espinoza outlines the methodology for data transfer and analysis of disease:

“The producer is responsible for observing the station and transmitting data about climate as well as instances of pests and plagues, flowerings, state of the cherry development, vegetative growth, and more. This generates month to month comparisons in temperature, relative humidity, temperature and humidity of the soil, sunlight, and in this way determines to what levels or degree these factors are affecting the crop. This comprehensive data is transferred to the digital database. We know that nothing about managing coffee production is set in stone.”

Espinoza sees the project as successful over its years of implementation, but still in development. “We installed the monitoring stations in June of 2015, and in reality we are in a phase of evaluation and developing practices to adapt coffee cultivation to the irregularities present in today’s climate.”

Today, through various reviews, the project has recommendations based on data collected. The following are examples of conclusions drawn from collected data:

  1. If there is cumulative precipitation above 600mm in the month of July, there will be a problem with “pellejillio” “mal de hilachas” funguses.
  2. Leaf rust affects plants at temperatures between 22-30 degrees Celsius at an average relative humidity of 75%, most severely between October and March.
  3. Coffee berry borer increases infestations during the month of June when temperatures are between 20-30 degrees Celsius with relative humidity of 80%.

With the information and data obtained, it is possible to implement sustainable and/or organic actions on the farm to avoid and prevent these problems before they occur.

The collaborative project found the following adaptive alternatives to climate change:

  1. Implementation of preventative actions based on data obtained.
  2. Confirmation of new varietals (Java, Typica, Catuai, Icatu, Marsellesa, etc) according to elevation zone.
  3. Carrying out soil conservation projects, planting hardwood and primary forest species of trees.
  4. Use of organic products to prevent disease and as a nutritional supplement for the crop.
  5. Planning and formulating strategies to make decisions to orient producers, technicians, and the population to build awareness of the importance of resistance to abrupt climate events, through talks, exchanges, and events involving organizations and their producers.
  6. Every day the climate shows more variance and we have no way of knowing when changes will occur that will directly affect crops, farms, and the community in general. But if producers implement actions as a group in order to be more resilient to any event that might happen, they will also be implementing agroecological improvements through environmentally sustainable practices and this this way tend towards an optimized equilibrium, adapting the crop as much as their lifestyles to the risks we all currently face with changes in climate.

“As producers, we have much interest in the climate and detrimental human actions towards the environment—slash and burn, clear cutting, agrochemical contamination, among others,” says Espinoza.

“Monitoring climate change in our country, mitigation, and the process of adaptation: today producers find all three responsibilities in their own hands. We rise to these task with the support of our cooperative organizations and the projects they lead.”

In the future, tasks such as those carried out by producers and administrators like Espinoza will demonstrate an enormous value. As the saying goes, you cannot monitor what you do not measure, and Nicaragua’s coffee producers are diligently measuring the environment and the changes in its climate from their farms in their respective regions of the country.

Overall, CafeNica does not just recognize value in data; the organization also knows the value of networks and platforms for sharing solutions to problems and challenges that affect first and foremost people whose livelihoods rely on planting crops in the ground.

CafeNica says, “We have an investigative process and confirmed participation for the improvement of processes for producing quality coffee. We work on themes like managing coffee plots by renewing and restoring farms, focusing on improving soils, comparing varietals, establishing shade layers, manufacturing biological fertilizers, processing coffee at wet and dry mills, and prioritizing food security with edible crops.

This work is accomplished through collaboration between technicians, educators, demonstration plots, courses in the field, and knowledge exchanges.

This research is accompanied by scientific methodology and supported by national and international universities and centers.

Through this process, recommendations are generated for the application of practices with demonstrated success by other producers, through replicating trainings held by technicians at our member organizations.”

Nicaragua is facing the future of a changing planet not with fear, with a solid work ethic and with the desire to always come out ahead of the crisis.

-Rachel Northrop is a contributor for the Specialty Coffee Magazine and the writer of When Coffee Speaks. 

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Photo Credit: Landon Yost
RACHEL NORTHROP is a contributor for Specialty Coffee Magazine. Her articles focus on agriculture, environmental and economic sustainability at origin, emerging US roasters and retailers, and the personal narratives of people involved at all points along the supply chain. She began researching coffee production in 2012 for the book When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffeepeople. She works as the Northeast US & Canada rep for Ally Coffee’s specialty division. Read more at whencoffeespeaks.com.

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