Fulbright NEXUS: Climate Change and Food and Water Security

Rachel Garrett, NEXUS U.S. grantee
Member of the Climate Change and Food and Water Security research team

The Fulbright NEXUS Climate Change and Food and Water Security group, comprised of an economist from Jamaica, a plant biologist from Mexico, an engineer from Brazil, and a geographer from the United States, recently spent a week in Mexico to better understand coffee production systems and challenges to farmers’ livelihoods in the face of climate change. During this trip we visited two very different coffee regions – Cuetzelan del Progresso, Puebla, located in in a remote colonial village in the mountains, and Coatepec, Vera Cruz, abutting the highly urbanized state capital of Xalapa.

Over the course of the week we spoke to farmers, farm group leaders, government officials, and researchers in Puebla and Vera Cruz and learned that small farm size, deflated coffee prices, low processing capacity, and non-existent government support have been a constant threat to the continued viability of coffee farming in these regions since the early 1990s. We discovered how sensitive coffee production is to environmental conditions: how altitude influences flavor, how coffee trees need a very particular distribution of rainfall to produce high quality beans – drought-like conditions followed by steady rainfall during the flowering period, how a rare snowfall can stall production for the next two years, and how just the right amount of shade is needed – enough to protect the plant from high temperatures, but not so much that it encourages coffee rust. A seemingly impossible balance between coffee farmer, forest, and the larger climate system must be achieved in a narrow band of montane farmland in the Sierra Madre Oriental. In fact, environmental conditions are so central to the indigenous Nahua worldview that one farmer told us that the Nahua people view “Water as a subject not an object” and “Trees as living beings that shouldn’t be cut without apology.” Tlaloc, the rain god, features prominently in their mythology for good reason. He will make or break their harvest.

Enter climate change, which is already redistributing rainfall into the dry season and raising temperatures, potentially contributing to the rapid spread of coffee rust, a fungus that thrives in warm, wet conditions. How do the farmers cope with these changes? “With courage in their hearts,” as we heard from one expert. Farmers are already pressed to their limit; squeaking out a living on their small resource base, with few opportunities for technological improvement. In the short-term, farmers seek to offset lower coffee yields and low prices for conventional coffee beans by identifying niche markets for high quality beans within Mexico and European markets, where coffee prices are higher and more stable. Quality distinctions and premiums are achieved by creating a strong regional brand or pursuing organic practices. In the longer-term, farmers’ ability to adapt will be related to their ability to work as a group to overcome limited government support and research to identify technological solutions to maintain or improve current levels of high quality coffee production. We were blown away by the high level of social cohesion and optimism that the farmers’ groups demonstrated, including the Tosepan Titataniske Cooperative in Cuetzelan del Progresso and the Regional Coffee Council of Coatepec, and their commitment to finding solutions to the deepening financial and environmental challenges faced by farmers.

Joao Pinto (Brazil), Erick de la Barrera (Mexico),
Sharon Nelson (Jamaica), Rachael Garrett (USA)

Over the next two years, we hope to visit more coffee farmers and experts in Puebla and Vera Cruz. In the meantime, we will be visiting two additional sub-tropical coffee production regions: the Blue Mountains of Jamaica and Minas Gerais, Brazil. From our comparative case study between Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil we hope to learn more about how state level distinctions in infrastructure and policy, local variations in culture, management, and social capital, and differences in microclimate influence coffee farmers’ ability to cope with and adapt to global climate change.

The Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research (NEXUS) Program links early or mid-career academics, applied researchers and public policy professionals across the Western Hemisphere. A cohort of twenty grantees from Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and the United States have been selected and appointed to research teams organized around the following themes: renewable energy, including micro-grid innovations, social and behavioral adaptation to climate change, measuring climate change and its impact, and climate change and food and water security. Combining a series of three seminar meetings with a research exchange in the region, scholars will cultivate partnerships with local, national and regional stakeholders, linking science and policy through innovative projects with long-term regional impact.

Two prominent experts, Dr. Daniel Kammen from the United States and Dr. Sergio Pacca from Brazil, serve as Distinguished Lead Scholars for this cohort, providing intellectual leadership to the research teams.

For more information, please visit http://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-nexus-regional-scholar-program.