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A staff member for the Organization for Tropical Studies by day and coffee farmer on the weekends, Samuel walks Gina through one of her future research sites. The coffee farm (left) fragments the forest (right), with some large trees left in the coffee farm for shade. (Gina Errico for The Xylom)

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"It Breaks My Heart": Costa Rica's Coffee Communities Challenged by Climate Change


This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

In Costa Rica, coffee farming isn’t just a job, it’s a family tradition.


For Diana Vargas Hernández, a daughter of coffee farmers in Puntarenas, a sprawling province spanning most of the Central American country’s Pacific coast, the annual coffee bean harvest has always been a part of her life. “Growing up I remember how crazy it was trying to pick all of the fruits before they went bad or the birds ate them all,” she said.



But today, Diana’s family is facing a crisis. “Now I hear my parents discussing the decrease in [coffee] yields and issues with fungal pathogens that may force them to give up on the farm and it breaks my heart.”


Unripe coffee fruits infected by a fungal pathogen, which can be seen by brown spots and tiny yellow spores coming off the fruit in focus. (Gina Errico for The Xylom)

Her family is not alone. In Costa Rica, there are around 50,000 individually owned coffee farms, 90% of which are on less than five hectares (13 acres) of land. Each farm is being faced with multiple crises at once, including rapid changes in temperature and rainfall, an increase in fungal and insect pests, coupled with a rise in the cost of pesticides/fertilizers.


 

Living in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, Costa Ricans take pride in their forests and the quality of their coffee, but there is a struggle developing between the two. With climate change, an increase in temperature and erratic rainfall patterns are creating challenges for the coffee farmers of Costa Rica.



Globally, Costa Rica is a small producer of coffee, but its seventh-largest export material is a lifestyle and drives a large portion of its economy. While working on my master’s thesis in forests by coffee plantations in Costa Rica, I took the opportunity to talk to local farmers and foresters about the issues they are facing and learn how they are trying to combat these problems.


A coffee farm with integrated banana trees to provide shade and also a supplementary crop. (Gina Errico for The Xylom)

Unlike many other crops, coffee can be grown and managed in a variety of ways. There are two distinct types of coffee management: sun, which is a large monoculture with no shade and large amounts of pesticide/fertilizer usage, and shade, which utilizes shade by maintaining forest cover and uses little to no pesticides/fertilizers. Since farms are individually owned, there is a large diversity of coffee growing methods, most falling within the gray area between sun and shade. However, no matter how farmers choose to manage their land, there is a common theme, keeping the tradition in the family, and being conscious of the effects their farming has on the tropical forests nearby.


A coffee flower. (Gina Errico for The Xylom)
Coffee fruits ripening early, turning red. (Gina Errico for The Xylom)


Coffee “beans” are seeds from a coffee fruit, which are harvested annually by hand. Harvesting is an all-hands-on-deck operation. It’s a race against the clock, to harvest as many fruits as possible as they ripen, but since temperatures have become more erratic, the window for coffee picking has begun to shift. This has created problems in planning harvest schedules and has made crop yields unpredictable.




While many places are experiencing record droughts, Costa Rica has been experiencing more hefty rainfall events compared to a generation ago, particularly during the wet season when the coffee plants are growing but not yet fruiting. While more rain may seem to be a good thing, increased rain during the coffee growth season has led to an increase in fungal infections for the plants. One common type of fungi is a leaf pathogen referred to as ojo de gallo” or “eye of the chicken”, for its appearance on the leaves. This pathogen, among others, is fast-spreading, difficult, and expensive to control. If the infection persists throughout the grow"ing season, it has the potential to infect coffee fruits and seeds, damaging crop yields.


A coffee plant infected with "ojo de gallo". (Gina Errico for The Xylom)

Coffee is a high-risk crop to grow due to the large upfront investment, without a guaranteed reward. A lot of initial investment into coffee happens before the fruiting takes place. Farmers need to purchase and apply fertilizer and fungicide or pesticides to the plants early in the season and hope that their crop yield is sufficient enough to cover the cost, plus pay themselves and their workers. With the rise in fungal pathogens in this area as well as an increase in fungicide and fertilizer prices globally, the cost of production is rising, but the price of coffee remains relatively the same. While farmers will discuss the rise in costs for fertilizers/pesticides, the faux pas behind using these in high quantities prevented their disclosure of exactly how much initial investments and purchases have been changing.


Some farmers see a dilemma between preserving biodiversity and their way of life. The increase in costs to maintain these small farms is pushing a lot of farmers to turn away from coffee production, as the risks are becoming too high and the rewards too small. This is driving them to clear more forests in hopes of increasing yield and finding more arable land. It's a difficult decision for them because while they are aware of their duties to protect the natural land of their country, they know that at the end of the day, they will probably earn more from coffee profits than the small government incentive for preserving the forests.


However, a lot of these farmers continue to push forward. They are investigating new methods of management by working to obtain eco-friendly certifications. These will allow them to explore new management styles and the certification will allow them to increase their coffee prices. In the Brazilian Amazon, farmers have also found that agroforestry has increased the yield of coffee beans, meaning that they can grow more — and sell more — with less. They are also researching new ways to cultivate and improve management to help prepare their farms for the future. Coffee farmers have begun working with researchers and conservationists to develop ideas for the mitigation of climate change issues, persistent to keep the tradition alive and do their best to protect their forests.


Lainekel, a coffee farmer whose full name is withheld for personal reasons, explained, “The [coffee] farm was passed onto me by my father. I have been working with researchers and getting certifications so that we can continue to run our farm, while also protecting the forest nearby. I want to pass this farm on to my son one day.”


When asked if he would ever consider removing some of the forests to expand the farm, he swiftly replied, “No.”

 

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Gina Errico

Gina is a Master's student at Oklahoma State University in the department of Plant Biology, Ecology and Evolution, studying biotic interactions in forest plant communities altered by habitat fragmentation and climate change. Prior to that, she obtained a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Self-Design Anthropology from the College of New Jersey, and a Green Iowa AmeriCorps member for Trees Forever. Gina is also an active science communicator, having founded SciXplorers, a free app for kids to explore the world of science independently through projects & experiments created by scientists.

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