About an hour outside the capital city of San Salvador, El Salvador, lies a small coffee farm with a big impact. The farm belongs to Benjamin Alas Ordoñez, a 69-year-old farmer, husband, father, and grandfather. Benjamin and his brothers inherited the farm from their father.
“He grew Bourbon coffee everywhere – in all of this, and that’s what we inherited,” Benjamin recalls, gesturing to the vast expanse of coffee trees that fill his land. “It was wonderful because the first one, two, three, four years, I still enjoyed his inheritance. But then we had the rust.”
How Does Climate Change Affect Coffee Farming in El Salvador?
Like many coffee farms in El Salvador, Benjamin’s farm was affected by la Roya, or coffee leaf rust – a plant disease that decimated coffee yields across Latin America in the early 2010s. Bourbon coffee, a type of arabica coffee, is particularly susceptible to plant diseases and pests. Between the 2012/2013 harvest and the 2013/2014 harvest, coffee production in El Salvador decreased by 59%.
While the link between climate change and coffee leaf rust is still being studied, recent findings suggest that warming temperatures allow the plant disease to thrive at higher altitudes. For farmers like Benjamin who rely on coffee as their main source of income, the consequences of the outbreak were severe. Determined to revive his coffee farm, Benjamin got to work. But despite his efforts, his coffee trees were still not producing enough.
Across Central America, old and unproductive trees, plant diseases, and changing climatic patterns adversely impact the production of quality coffee, forcing some farmers to abandon their crops, if not their entire farms. In 2021, Benjamin heard of a program working with farmers in his community to improve their coffee and cacao production and decided to join.
Support for Coffee and Cacao Farmers
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through their Food for Progress Program, is the primary donor of Maximizing Opportunities for Coffee and Cacao in the Americas (MOCCA), a 7-year initiative implemented by a consortium led by TechnoServe. The project is helping farmers like Benjamin by:
- Training them on climate-resilient agronomic practices
- Facilitating greater access to finance
- Expanding the availability of high-quality genetic material for planting
- Supporting research focused on developing more resilient varieties
- Linking farmers to higher-value markets
In El Salvador, MOCCA collaborates with three partners in coffee: the Salvadoran Coffee Council, Banco de Fomento Agropecuario (BFA), and the Salvadoran Association of Women in Coffee (AMCES). The J.M. Smucker Company is another private-sector partner supporting MOCCA activities in El Salvador.
How is Climate Change Affecting Coffee Farmers in El Salvador?
El Salvador is a small, densely populated country in Central America. While it has a predominantly urban population today, agriculture still plays an important role in the national economy. In 2021, 15% of the population worked in agriculture, and 25% lived in rural areas.
El Salvador’s agricultural sector is also highly vulnerable to climate change. Over the years, the country has experienced increased temperatures, drought, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. These factors have combined to reduce agricultural production across the country, both for staple crops such as maize and cash crops such as coffee. Farmers like Benjamin face a number of climate risks, such as decreasing land suitability, increased post-harvest losses, more frequent crop failures, and more severe land degradation.
Rising temperatures exacerbate the challenges faced by smallholder farmers in El Salvador. Many crops have specific temperature requirements for optimal growth. Arabica coffee’s optimal temperature range is 64°–70°F (18°C–21°C). When temperatures rise beyond these thresholds, plant growth is stunted, leading to reduced yields and lowered coffee quality. Additionally, higher temperatures create favorable conditions for the proliferation of pests and diseases, further jeopardizing crop health. By 2050, temperatures in El Salvador are expected to rise 1.4°–2°C.
Farmers in El Salvador are also experiencing increased drought frequency and intensity. Rainfall patterns have become erratic, leading to water scarcity in many regions, particularly in the Dry Corridor. Agriculture relies heavily on a consistent water supply, so the lack of it leads to crop failure and decreased agricultural output. Small farmers, who often lack access to irrigation systems, suffer the most, as they cannot sustain their crops during prolonged dry spells. Precipitation in El Salvador is projected to decrease by up to 15% by 2050.
More Frequent and Intense Extreme Weather Events
El Salvador is also prone to extreme weather events, including hurricanes and floods, which have become more frequent and intense due to climate change. These events can destroy entire crops, destroy infrastructure, and displace farming communities. The aftermath of such disasters leaves smallholder farmers struggling to recover, often pushing them further into poverty. Rebuilding farms and replanting crops require significant financial resources, which many small farmers do not have.
A Coffee Farmer Cultivating the Next Generation of Climate Advocates
For Benjamin, the MOCCA program’s training on climate-resilient agricultural practices has been particularly useful. Farmers in the program learn a number of techniques, such as implementing agroforestry systems on their farms. Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. This type of system has a number of economic and climate benefits, including increased carbon sequestration, reduced soil erosion, improved soil health and water retention, and additional livelihood opportunities.
“Maintaining this forest is important for the climate – for the oxygen it provides and the carbon it captures,” Benjamin explains. “And coffee is not only about the cultivation of coffee. [The coffee plants] have to have medium shade and high shade, then the climate is improved…the environment is improved.”
Benjamin’s sense of responsibility for the environment extends far beyond his farm or even his generation.
“There’s another added value to this work that goes not only to the people of El Salvador but to the whole world,” he says. “These are small contributions, but little by little, a lot is done. And the best thing is that if it is done, let’s say, by a family, it is also creating a new culture for the children that come after us. The new generations need more awareness and more knowledge that the planet is our home, but that our home is getting too small, too narrow, so we must take care of it.”