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Climate Change Threatens Central American Coffee

Date: 21-Aug-09
Country: GUATEMALA
Author: Sarah Grainger

CERRO DE ORO - Scientists expect climate change to dramatically affect coffee production in Central America in the coming decades, but some lowland farmers in Guatemala say they are already feeling the effects.

The United Nations forecasts temperatures will rise one to six degrees over the next century, which will make some lower-lying coffee producing areas enviable, forcing farmers to move to higher altitudes.

Academics conducting a four-year study of the effects of climate change on small coffee growers in Guatemala have found that many in lowland areas are struggling to continue.

"In the eastern department of Santa Rosa, the problem is the dryness and farmers there are complaining about a lack of water, particularly this year," said Edwin Castellanos, the scientist leading the study.

Guatemalan coffee exports have been largely consistent over the last five years, hovering between 3.3 million and 3.8 million 60-kg bags per season and never varying by more than 10 percent a year because farmers in higher altitude microclimates have been less affected.

"If we see a percentage change over 10 percent, then we would start to worry," said Christian Rasch, head of Guatemala's coffee producers association.

Even farmers in more humid areas are struggling with extremes of weather. Some experts say climate change is a factor in the recent increase in unpredictable weather.

Coffee growers in Cerro de Oro, a village nestled in the volcanic mountains overlooking crystalline Lake Atitlan, have been hit by torrential rains as well as harsh droughts in recent years.

"There's not much we can do to counter the effects on our crops because we can't predict what the weather will be like," said coffee grower Carlos Sitean.

GOVERNMENT HELP NEEDED

In nearby Nicaragua, much of the low-lying land devoted to coffee production is likely to become unsuitable for the crop as temperatures rise. Unlike Guatemala, coffee growers there have no higher ground to move to so its farmers will have to give up on coffee altogether.

Those farming at higher altitudes in Central America may also be tempted to diversify into other crops or even quit farming as unpredictable weather makes growing coffee an increasingly risky investment since an entire harvest can be destroyed by hurricane or drought.

"I'm thinking now that I'm going to have to sell my land because its not giving me results," said Nasario Guoz, who has been farming coffee in Cerro de Oro for over 30 years.

Ideas to help coffee farmers cope with climate change include zoning schemes where farmers get access to cheap credit in return for planting crops recommended by agricultural models and developing more resistant crop varieties.

But experts warn that the efforts of nongovernmental organizations and the private sector will not be enough to cope with the challenge.

"Governments have to strategically look at where coffee could be grown in the next 30 or 40 years and other areas where clearly its going to die out quickly," said Dr Peter Baker, an expert on commodities at the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International, a UK-based think tank.

Some help for coffee growers could come if a new global climate change treaty can be agreed this year.

Developing nations want industrialized countries to commit to helping poorer countries with financing and technology as part of the new treaty that will replace the Kyoto Protocol.

A group of 80 poor nations argued at a UN climate negotiations in Germany that rich countries should provide $100 billion a year to help them adapt to climate change. The new treaty is due to be signed in Copenhagen this December.

(Editing by Robert Campbell)

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