For more than three decades, Gustavo Patiño has been cultivating prized Arabica coffee beans at his Finca El Ocaso farm, which sits atop the misty, 1800-meter-high hills of Salento in remote western Colombia. On any given day, squawking parrots can be seen clambering along the branches of the surrounding cloud forest, as fatigued farm hands sweat and strain to load baskets with handpicked coffee below.
The 62-year-old Patiño claims to drink up to 15 cups of Salento coffee a day, but only in its purest, most potent form. His first taste came on his grandfather’s farm at the age of 10, served up with a dose of sweet agua panela, or boiled sugarcane juice.
Until 2015, Patiño thought his own children might be able to continue the family tradition of coffee cultivation. That was the year record high temperatures scorched the land and caused a quarter of his expected harvest to rot. Then, in 2016, landslides caused by unprecedented rains destroyed a significant part of the plantation. “We weren’t ready for it at all,” said Patiño.
Changing weather patterns are a lethal threat to the future of coffee plantations like Patiño’s in Colombia, the third-largest producer in the world. The increasingly volatile climate has led to an unprecedented spike in heat waves and prolonged, devastating droughts. At other times in the year, relentless rains are causing deadly mudslides and flooding. Crop disease and invasive insects associated with climate change are also on the rise. All these changes have created an extremely challenging environment to grow coffee.
“Too much sun causes flowers to bloom too early, the beans become too ripe and rot inside, and increased rains wash the crop’s nutrients into the soil,” Patiño said during this year’s dry season, grimacing as he grasped a handful of dirt along one allotment. “In all my years of working on this land, the conditions have never been this terrible.”
The industry’s demise would be a disaster for some of Colombia’s poorest communities: It generates $2.64 billion a year, making it the country’s largest agricultural export, and employs two million people, including a quarter of the entire rural population.
“In all my years of working on this land, the conditions have never been this terrible.”
The situation has been made even less tenable by a related threat to farmers from a group that is ostensibly supposed to protect them. The Colombian National Coffee Federation, or Fedecafé, is a cooperative that was founded in 1927 to represent the country’s coffee farmers nationally and internationally. But Fedecafé, which farmers are required to join and pay six cents on the dollar for each pound of coffee they export, rejects humanity’s scientifically proven role in climate change, instead explaining recent weather changes away as part of a “natural cycle.”
Because of its climate change denialism, Fedecafé has been “failing to adequately prepare farmers for climate change,” according to Mauricio Galindo, Colombia director for the Rainforest Alliance, a conservationist non-profit. Many farmers would benefit from switching to crops that will be able to survive in the changing climate, such as avocado or bananas, but don’t receive that advice, Galindo told VICE News.
Many coffee farmers struggle to earn a living wage, and slim profit margins are further eroded by the obligatory fee that growers pay to Fedecafé, equivalent to an income tax of 15.3 percent.
Fedecafé’s alleged climate change denialism dates back at least to 2012, when World Coffee Review interviewed the body’s main climatologist, Alvaro Jaramillo. “The climate on earth has been constantly changing for over 4.6 billion years and the formation of mountains and volcanic activity continues to create new weather cycles,” he said then. “Since 2007, what we have seen is that the world is actually entering a new era of global cooling.”
Scientific research suggests otherwise. The mountain region where Patiño’s—and the majority of Colombia’s—coffee is grown is warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade, according to a study published in Coffee & Cocoa International last year, an astonishing rate that is nearly double the global average increase of 0.17 degrees. The amount of sunlight in the region has also declined by 19 percent in just a few decades due to increasing cloud cover brought on by climate change, it found, with extreme weather events and fungal diseases more common.
“It’s a hockey stick curve that kicked off in the 1980s and has continued ever since,” said Peter Baker, an agronomist for Climate Edge, a social enterprise working with smallholder farmers, who was involved in the study. “But the warming is only a part of it—the weather is also becoming more chaotic. When it rains, it rains harder. When there’s a drought, it gets worse. Diseases will increase. It’s never easy to grow coffee but this is unprecedented.”
Between 2008 and 2013, Colombia’s coffee production fell by around 33 percent, in large part due to the extreme El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, a period in which the number of rains, storms and droughts increased. According to Baker, events like these will only become more common as the climate crisis intensifies.
Because of global climate change, there may not even be Colombian coffee to pick and sell in the long term. As average temperatures rise, optimal coffee cultivation will rise to higher altitudes. But space is limited and, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change in 2015,
Galindo argues Colombia’s coffee regions, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site that reflects “a centennial tradition of coffee growing,” need to be individually analyzed in order to assess which areas should de-incentivize coffee cultivation and genuinely consider alternative crops. But he understands why Fedecafé is reluctant to acknowledge the effect of anthropogenic climate change on the national coffee industry. Doing so would diminish its own role in the country.
“It can’t undermine itself and be the ‘non-coffee coffee growers association.’ It’s very hard to tell its farmers—even if all the evidence points to the fact that in 20 years time their coffee farms will be useless—that they should stop growing coffee.”
“It can’t undermine itself and be the ‘non-coffee coffee growers association’,” said Galindo. “It’s very hard to tell its farmers—even if all the evidence points to the fact that in 20 years time their coffee farms will be useless—that they should stop growing coffee.”
Others have been more direct about Fedecafé’s lack of action. “Some countries have been very slow on the uptake on climate change, and Colombia is one of them,” said Baker, the agronomist. “There is a specter of downplaying the climate.”
Instead of embracing climate adaptation, Fedecafé is pressing ahead with a focus on improving technology to mitigate the damage and improve efficiency, such as developing more resistant tree varieties. So far, the plan is working. In the year up to June, Colombian coffee farmers produced 14.2 million bags of coffee beans—roughly 1.9 billion pounds—up around 30 percent since 2013, reversing the downward trend seen over the years before. But they’re still short of the national production goals of 14.7 million bags, a shortfall Fedecafé attributes to excessive rain and cloudiness, which raised eyebrows among the scientific community.
Some farmers say that this myopic approach—maximizing short-term profit over long-term sustainability—is to the detriment of their own wellbeing. Many coffee farmers struggle to earn a living wage, and slim profit margins are further eroded by the obligatory fee that growers pay to Fedecafé, equivalent to an income tax of 15.3 percent. As a result of that tension, controversy erupted last year when the general manager of Fedecafé, Roberto Vélez, revealed that he was receiving a salary of 105 million pesos, or $28,000, a month, the equivalent of around $350,000 a year.
“The state policies do not offer us subsidies or fair prices, even though we work so hard to produce a good product,” said one farmer in the region of Risaralda. “Instead of helping us, the state is squeezing us.”
“Instead of helping us, the state is squeezing us.”
Yet Fedecafé’s director, Alvaro Gaitán, has defended the group’s treatment of farmers and its decision to describe climate change as cyclical. “Colombia is living one of its best moments in terms of the agronomic conditions of its coffee growing areas,” he told VICE News. “At least for the coffee growing areas in our country, we have no clear evidence that a new, unseen pattern of weather is occurring right now.”
At Patiño’s farm, the reality contradicts these claims. Clusters of ripe red coffee cherries are just meters away from plants that do not have any, and this uneven maturation of crops, according to the farmer, is an effect of unpredictable weather—a marked shift away from the once-distinct dry and rainy seasons. Climate cycles have upturned 100-year-old practices, with coffee trees acutely sensitive to small changes in the weather. “Our economic survival depends on knowing the yields we will have each year,” added Patiño. “But now it’s almost impossible.”
Patiño has made efforts to adapt. A new towering canopy of nogal cafetero trees provides shade and protection for the coffee plantation in order to mitigate extreme weather, and alternative produce such as plantain, banana, and lime is now being grown as a safeguard if a harvest does fail.
In the 18 months leading up to May 2019, Colombia lost 40,000 hectares of coffee-planting area.
Yet small-scale farmers, who make up the vast majority of Colombia’s coffee production, have very little margin for error. Of 500,000 farms, 95 percent are smaller than five hectares, and the average is less than two. Their small size means many are being forced out of business. In the 18 months leading up to May 2019, Colombia lost 40,000 hectares of coffee-planting area, according to Fedecafé, and since the 1990s, the total amount of land used for coffee has plummeted by 20 percent.
“Due to fluctuating coffee prices and lack of institutional support, it’s a constant cycle of poverty,” said Dr. Jessica Eise, who interviewed 45 coffee farmers in Colombia as part of Ph.D. research for Purdue University into their experience of climate change. “It’s backbreaking labor and it’s very difficult for them to plan for the future because they have to focus on the day-to-day precarity. They definitely know what climate change is and they experience it as chaos and an existential threat.”
Of those farmers interviewed by Eise, more than 90 percent said there had been changes in average temperatures on their land, 74 percent said droughts had become more severe, and 61 percent spoke of an increase in mountainside erosion and landslides caused by heavy rains. The majority said there had been an increase in invasive pests and crop diseases, while a remarkable 91 percent reported differences in the fruiting cycles of their coffee trees.
Testimonies of farmers in Colombia’s Risaralda region heard by VICE News reveal growing desperation and signs of impending environmental disaster. One farmer said that during a particularly intense heatwave recently he thought “the whole region was going to burn”. Another revealed that incessant rains had caused landslides, completely destroying his coffee plants. “There were no flowers and all the crops were lost,” he said. Others said that crop outputs had reduced by a third in a single year, and that in some cases coffee sales were so low there was not enough income to pay workers.
Coffee experts like Mauricio Galindo see a “perfect storm” emerging due to a combination of climate change, a potential chronic labor shortage due to the coronavirus pandemic, and downward pressures on global coffee prices fueled by greater output in Brazil, which saw coffee trading below the cost of production for most of last year. Combined with expensive production costs, high taxes and younger generations deciding to move to the cities, the situation has become perilous for those on the lowest rungs of the coffee industry.
Amid the soaring, emerald hillsides of Salento, the irreversible change of the coffee-growing landscape is a difficult truth to accept. Shorn of institutional support for change, and with little capacity to adapt independently, Colombia’s coffee farmers face a slow walk into oblivion.
“My family and I have invested our livelihoods into this,” said Patiño. “Even if I wanted to escape, and start a new life, what could I do?”