Climate change is predicted to have adverse effects on Central America’s coffee producers. Hurricanes and coffee leaf rust, a fungal pathogen which has caused widespread crop losses in recent years, are considered to be a prelude to future problems.

It is therefore vital to identify best agroecological management practices to adapt to these changes, especially for organic farmers. A project supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) along with several partners* and led by Bioversity International, are conducting research with members of the Asociación Barillense de Agricultores (ASOBAGRI) in the western highlands of Guatemala. The cooperative consists of more than 1,200 organic farmer families.

ASOBAGRI promotes a three-prong plan for improving the resilience of shade-grown, organic coffee production by ensuring that growers are implementing best cultural practices; using two low-cost, biological foliar sprays (one that is a fertilizer and another for control of coffee leaf rust); and encouraging growers to re-plant their plots with a mix of both traditional high quality varieties and disease-resistant varieties which ensure yield. In the video below, farmers explain how they use these local solutions for adaptation.

Joint research with partners

Farmers indicated shade management as the most important measure to sustain coffee productivity under climate change. Therefore the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAFand Bioversity are applying niche modeling to predict which tree species are most suitable for establishing shade trees under progressive climate change. These species can also provide additional income and food sources like fruits, nuts, and timber.

Terraces are another best management practice promoted by ASOBAGRI extensionists as an important conservation tool. ASOBAGRI has a rather progressive vision when it comes to soil health and conservation. The cooperative is in the early stages of developing a soil conservation monitoring project, whereby 54 demonstration parcels have been identified to highlight different soil conservation practices and validate innovative organic inputs that boost soil fertility.

Students from the University of Vermont developed with ASOBAGRI technicians and farmers an accessible method to evaluate soil erosion and physical soil processes occurring in their coffee parcels. Preliminary results suggest that residue management has a greater effect on the degree of observed soil erosion than site characteristics such as slope or tree cover, suggesting that despite having to grow on steeply sloping landscapes, farmers can mitigate soil erosion and land degradation with proper residue management.

Location of Barillas, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Map: Google

Location of Barillas in Huehuetenango (outlined), Guatemala. © GoogleMaps

The farmers considered livelihood diversification as an important component of adaptive capacity and resilience. However, where they live (Huehuetenango department) is far from the capital or even secondary cities, which might offer markets for different agricultural products or diverse labor opportunities.

Migration within the country or into Mexico or Belize offers only one diversification option: poorly paid and strenuous labor on large farms, which our interviewees perceived as exploitative. Access to higher education for men and women family members allows families to further diversify their livelihoods and become more resilient to global change including access to skilled positions in urban areas.

The next best, and most frequently used, options are migration to the United States and, to a lower degree, agricultural diversification. As in other Mesoamerican coffee communities, farmers in Barillas municipality also grow corn, or “milpa,” often harvesting twice a year. But many of our interviewees told us that their corn yields were diminishing, and corn management practices don’t get nearly the development attention that coffee practices do.

Coffee growers at the lower altitudes have diversified into cardamom production, for which a developed market exists in Guatemala. But farmers in this region sell mainly to intermediaries, and receive relatively low prices. It is not perceived to be as profitable as coffee and a thrips pest outbreak was an anticipated threat. Honey is another potential diversification option that has been promoted through past rural development schemes, and is now being produced by some farmers.


Coffee farmers in Huehuetenango are adapting their coffee systems to climate change with support of ASOBAGRI. They benefit from being connected to agroecological research for further adaptation and monitoring systems like in selection of suitable shade trees under climate change and soil conservation evaluation tools. Currently, farmers have little diversification options other than migration to carry out poorly paid seasonal jobs or try getting into the USA.

Some farmers have successfully diversified in cardamom and honey, providing them perspectives to stay. But there are several challenges up to developing multiple and equitable value chains for agricultural products. Lessons can be learned from the experiences of other smallholder associations in Guatemala like in the Maya biosphere where remote forest communities were able to set up biodiverse value chains for export markets allowing smallholders to get out of poverty through sustainable and diversified production.

Read more

Dana Christel, Andrew Gerlicz and Ernesto Mendez are part of the project 'Participatory planning and investment in climate-smart agriculture in Central American coffee landscapes' led by Maarten van Zonneveld, from Bioversity International. Contact: m.vanzonneveld[at]
*Partners of the project: Hivos, the University of Vermont, CEDECO and the World Agroforestry Centre.