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Coffee: producers should bank on quality from now on

09.10.2006
Coffee has been the main export crop in Central America for more than a century. It contributes to the revenue of nearly 300 000 producers in the region. However, in 1999 the sector was faced with a major crisis when the coffee markets collapsed as a result of world overproduction, particularly in Brazil and Vietnam.

The CASCA project was set up in this context. It’s aim was to reduce the vulnerability of farmers to price fluctuations. The project was run by CIRAD and four partners: CATIE, CEH, Promecafé and UNA. It mobilised over 25 scientists and 35 students, including 25 Latin Americans, over a 4-year period. It has just finished.

In this region, about 70% of coffee plantations are managed in association with shade trees and varying degrees of intensification. However, the trend over the last 30 years has been to “modernise” Central American coffee production. As a result, cropping practices have been intensified and shading has been reduced. Now it appears that if farmers are to improve their incomes, they should focus on the quality of their coffee, diversification (by selling timber, firewood and other products from shade trees), and on developing environmental services instead. In this situation, viable alternatives to intensive mono-cropping were needed in order to promote agro-forestry systems and sustainable management practices.

During the 4 years of the project, data was collected from about 900 farms in three countries: Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Several broad areas of research were explored, particularly that of farmers’ knowledge and practices, the environmental impact of coffee production and, lastly, improving farm incomes.

Shading produces lower yields from which a drink of high added value can be developed

When it comes to the management of an agro-forestry coffee plantation, farmer knowledge and practices concerning the forest species to associate with the coffee crop are generally good. However, their management of the different species is lacking: tree density is rarely adapted to the shading required for good vegetative development and coffee tree production. Therefore, the scientists developed models to help determine which tree species and densities to maintain in different systems as a function of the coffee trees’ light requirements. CASCA also identified the impact of shade on the physiology and quality of coffee, particularly in terms of photosynthesis, the allocation of carbon between production and vegetative development and the effects on flowering and fruit load. Work showed that shade plays a similar role to altitude, by providing a micro-environment that favours good berry growth. It delays pulp maturity and, thus, produces a drink with considerable added value. Yields are lower but more stable from year to year and of better quality.

Coffee plantations also have a large-scale environmental impact. They cover a million hectares of land in Central America. In addition, they are often located in very fragile mountain ecosystems in the Meso-American biological corridor, which is one of the hotspots for biodiversity. In order to quantify environmental impact, the following areas were studied: the effects of shade trees and their management on soil fertility and the amount of available nitrogen for the coffee trees (legume nitrogen fixing, mineralisation of soil nitrogen). The scientists identified the fertilisation practices that struck a balance between production and environmental protection. Results showed that by reducing fertiliser requirements, agro-forestry systems help to reduce nitrate loss through leaching and, therefore, ground water contamination. In addition, the introduction of trees into coffee production systems increases the amount of carbon in the biomass, soil litter and the soil, which proves that agro-forestry systems have an important contribution to make in carbon fixing.

Diversification is the key to stabilising farmers’ incomes

Lastly, the scientists looked at farmers’ incomes. Here, the objective was to simulate the consequences of several cropping scenarios - intensive and without shade – and their consequences on the costs of coffee production and the economic sustainability of farms. Taking into account the diversification of production, the simulations show that timber and firewood make a major economic contribution, particularly in regions of low altitude. It provides 30-70% of revenue for coffee farmers in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Nonetheless, the sector could benefit considerably from improved organisation. Revenue could also be improved if farmers joined quality and certification schemes, such as sustainable or organic coffee, etc. However, according to the preliminary economic analyses, the costs of meeting the technical and social standards and of the certification process are high and some of the technical requirements are not yet sufficiently supported.

These results will be developed with a new project, Cafnet* which will start in a few months. The project should help the cooperatives improve their organisational and marketing capacities and adapt technical itineries, standards and certification (which have multiplied in recent years), to local ecological and the socio-economic conditions facing farmers.

Helen Burford | alfa
Further information:
http://www.cirad.fr/en/actualite/communique.php?id=527

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