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How can scientists contribute to a climate-resilient cup of coffee?

Agricultural production is one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change around the world, and poorer countries face significantly more difficulties than the developed world. Coffee is an agricultural commodity that most people enjoy but are oblivious to the climate-related challenges affecting coffee farmers. Among the many challenges affecting coffee production is the price volatility, prevalence of fungal diseases, and migration of younger generations from rural to urban regions. In such a complex setup, how can their quality of life and ecosystems and our favorite cup of coffee be guaranteed in the future? And, how can we as scientists contribute to ensuring the sustainability and resilience of coffee producers?

The context

In early 2021, the government of El Salvador proposed a so-called agricultural rescue plan to reignite the dwindling agricultural sector in El Salvador. It primarily focuses on two things: increasing the production of staple foods and reviving the coffee sector. Historically, the coffee sector has played an important role in the country’s economy and is considered by Salvadorans an important part of their cultural identity, but currently only 2% of El Salvador’s export income is from coffee products as many producers have gone bankrupt. Reviving the coffee sector has the potential to greatly stimulate the economy and improve rural livelihoods. The question is: how to do that in the face of climate change?

In this blog, we describe the recent fieldwork experiences of a group of interdisciplinary scientists in El Salvador, where we performed an initial study on the development of stakeholder-led adaptation strategies to climate change in the Salvadoran coffee sector.

Our seed grant

With three Liveable Planet colleagues and a Salvadoran collaborator from TU Delft, we submitted a project proposal to the Global Transformations and Governance Challenges (GTGC) seed grant call. The GTGC program is focuses on studies about overcoming governance challenges (in this case the implementation of a national strategy for improving the coffee sector) to global transformations (in this case toward climate-resilient agriculture). We proposed a transdisciplinary study in El Salvador to identify and engage with stakeholders to collectively develop adaptation strategies for the coffee sector.

Our Fieldwork team

We traveled to El Salvador with a team of four: Achim Häger, an Assistant professor at LUC who has over 10 years of experience working with the coffee sector in Costa Rica; Antonella Maiello, an assistant professor at FGGA who has ample experience with stakeholder encounters in sustainability transitions; Daniel Teodoro, a postdoc at TU Delft with years of experience working in El Salvador and in-depth knowledge of agricultural social networks and, me, Suzanne Marselis, currently a postdoc at CML, mostly contributing my growing knowledge about agricultural systems and experience in organizing field trips and connecting diverse scientists. For me, this was a first-time introduction to interdisciplinary field studies and I am excited to share my experiences here.

Fieldwork team at the coffee farm of Raul (center). From left to right: Suzanne, Daniel, Raul, Achim, and Antonella. Photo credits: Suzanne Marselis.

The field study

The most important component of the one-week fieldwork was the organization of a participative workshop for which we invited stakeholders from all across the coffee sector: farmers, scientists, government representatives, civil society actors, etc. Before this seminar, we wanted to engage personally with some of the key players in the coffee sector to further understand the challenges, opportunities, the roles of different stakeholders, and any existing power imbalances. We visited three coffee farms of different altitudes and management strategies to learn about the climate-related challenges they and their nearby farmers are facing. We visited the Salvadoran Coffee Council [Consejo Salvadoreño de Café, CSC] where we spoke to coffee experts who have been studying different aspects of coffee cultivation in El Salvador for many years. We were also invited to the Salvadoran Agency for International Cooperation [Agencia de El Salvador para la Cooperación Internacional, ESCO] to discuss the continued support of the Salvadoran government for our study. We used a snowball sampling technique to continually expand our list of stakeholders.

Student workshop

Among the places we visited, was the  National School of Agriculture [Escuela Nacional de Agricultura, ENA], where we met with a group of 25 third-year students. These students play a large role in the intergenerational aspect of our study as they constitute the next-generation agricultural experts in the country. We shared information with them about our study and the importance of transdisciplinary approaches in solving climate change and societal issues. We had a lively Q&A session where the students shared valuable first-hand insights, as most of them come from rural areas. We also elicited information from them about their vision for the future of the coffee sector in El Salvador and collected some valuable insights as well as new contacts for our study.

Daniel (left) presented our coffee study to the students from ENA. Photo Credits Achim Häger.

Participatory workshop

On Wednesday 24th of August, we hosted a full day stakeholder workshop. Our outreach efforts paid off as the list of registered attendees grew from less than 20 to 35 in just a few days. The day started with presentations about climate change and its anticipated effects on the coffee sector and the latest research about the prevalent coffee rust epidemic, which continues to severely affect coffee growth. These presentations were followed by three main participatory activities.

In the first participative session, we adopted a world café setup. Groups of mixed stakeholders held table discussions regarding two important questions. The first question was about their personal experiences of the effects of climate change. Many personal stories were shared among participants. Some recurring themes included the increase in solar radiation and unpredictable rainfall patterns. According to participants, the timing of the rainy season used to be very predictable. The current increasing unpredictability of the rainy season is affecting agricultural management practices. In addition, rain showers are getting more intense, but episodes of severe drought are observed at the same time.

Answering world Café questions with a diverse group of stakeholders. Photo credit Suzanne Marselis.

Adaptation strategies

In the second World café question we asked participants how they think the coffee sector could adapt to climate change impacts. Participants discussed a variety of different approaches and adaptation possibilities. Some possibilities that arose were geared towards more practical solutions, such as soil conservation or crop diversification, but also more social aspects such as a change in mentality were mentioned.

After lunch, Antonella introduced the concept of transdisciplinarity to the group and how this plays an important role in creating adaptation strategies that are participatory, science-based, and action-oriented. Daniel followed up with a short presentation about social networks and the interaction between different stakeholders. At the different tables, the different groups of stakeholders created maps displaying the links between stakeholders they see important in the coffee sector. With different color markers, they then indicated the flows of resources and flows of information between the different stakeholders.

Presentation of the network activity results by coffee producer Jose Acevedo. Photo credits Daniel Teodoro.

Identifying open questions

The final session of the workshop was geared towards identifying the important open questions regarding the adaptation to climate change in the coffee sector. Every participant was allowed to submit as many questions as they wanted – based on the input from the whole day and their own experiences in the coffee sector. They pasted them to a large sheet of paper. Afterward, the participants were allowed to cast votes on the question they deemed most important to advance the development of science-based adaptation strategies. We were impressed by the enthusiasm of participants in all the sessions and activities and we concluded the day having collected a lot of information and knowledge, and we left extremely satisfied with the workshop.

Looking to the future

Our time in El Salvador gave us insight into the climate challenges facing El Salvador. We received a warm welcome from all stakeholders and they showed great enthusiasm for participatory approaches. By the end of our visit, we learned that the experience of participating in a transdisciplinary workshop, where experiences and new knowledge were shared, enabled a change from worry to hope in most participants. Collaboration between scientists, practitioners, farmers, and other stakeholders holds great promise for successful adaptation strategies to climate change. We will now take the information and knowledge gathered and continue working towards the development of stakeholder-led adaptation strategies.

Banner photo. Finca San Fernando.

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