Nicaragua's coffee farmers switch to cocoa as climate changes

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 7 December 2009 15:09 GMT

BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Cocoa, known around the world as the basic ingredient used for chocolate, is slowly changing the fortunes of Nicaragua's coffee farmers as they seek ways to adapt to a changing climate.

In recent years, coffee producers in the heart of the country's coffee growing region in the north-central Jinotega highlands have seen coffee production decline as a result of weather changes, prompting farmers to turn to cocoa as an alternative cash crop.

Coffee farmers in the small Central American country first noticed erratic weather, linked to global warming and deforestation, about ten years ago. Hurricanes, rising temperatures, drier spells and heavier rains have become more common.

All this has taken a toll on coffee crops, which do not flourish in hotter temperatures. Cocoa, a scarlet red and green fruit shaped like an elongated melon, however, thrives in the heat.

"Coffee used to grow well because of the cool climate but with global warming it doesn't grow so well anymore," said Miguel Angel, a small coffee farmer whose family has relied on coffee sales as its only source of income for generations. "Cocoa is growing really well. I think it can help families here earn a better living."

The production of high-quality coffee beans has fallen by around a quarter in recent years. The high-quality beans are sold to markets in the United States and Europe and are one of Nicaragua's major cash crops and main exports but the rising temperatures leads to poorer quality beans and a smaller harvest.

PILOT PROJECT

Miguel Angel belongs to Soppexcca, a local association of 18 small-scale coffee farming cooperatives, which is taking part in a pilot project to help its members grow cocoa with the help of UK-based charity Christian Aid.

Forty-four coffee farmers have been given cocoa seedlings to plant in small plots of land. They also take part in a three-week training course about producing high quality cocoa beans, including pest and disease control, the use of organic pesticides, and the proper storage of cocoa pods.

Coffee farmers are gradually setting aside more and more land to grow cocoa alongside coffee, and they hope to replace all coffee crops with cocoa plants within the next five or so years.

So far, Miguel Angel has ripped up around four acres of coffee to plant cocoa, which when mature he hopes will bring in an extra $650 a year.

News about the promising pilot project is getting out, and there is a waiting list of local coffee farmers wanting to join. Across the world, 14 million small farmers depend on cocoa for their livelihoods.

The added benefit of cocoa, which originated in the Amazon basin thousands of years ago, is that it can be grown at the same time as the coffeeÂ?s traditional 'dead' period when farmers are not busy harvesting coffee.

"Cocoa keeps families afloat and the extra money means families can afford to send their children to school," said Emma Pomfret, a journalist with Christian Aid, who recently visited the cooperative.

Profits from cocoa sales in local markets are being ploughed back in to the cooperative and are also being used by farmers to buy an extra hectare or so of land.

Christian Aid says the Initial coca harvests have been so promising that the cooperative hopes to increase the area dedicated to cocoa farming to 350 acres by next year, and step up sales of organic cocoa to new markets.

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