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Small coffee farmers invest in smart agriculture to address the Cerrado climate crisis
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Small coffee farmers invest in smart agriculture to address the Cerrado climate crisis

Small coffee farmers lay their chips on smart agriculture to overcome climate crisis in the Cerrado biome


  • A long drought followed by a strong freeze in 2020 damaged the coffee harvest in Brazil, the world’s biggest producer and exporter of the crop.
  • Small farmers in the Cerrado region who generally don’t use irrigation because of the area’s historically abundant rainfall were hit the hardest.
  • Coffee farmers in Cerrado have joined a climate smart agriculture program to meet the challenges posed by the changing climate.
  • Agroforestry, connected Landscapes, and Water Resource Management are all strategies for resilient crops.

While the world was discussing the most pressing environmental issues at the COP26 climate summit last week, Leonildo Victorente de Paula, a coffee farmer was trying to figure what he should do to keep his business afloat. De Paula has been supported his family with his coffee farm for 20 years, but extreme weather events have now become part of the lives of the people in his community in Brazil’s Cerrado grasslands, putting their livelihoods at risk.

The Cerrado was hit hard by severe drought in 2020. This disrupted the normal process of fruit formation and flowering in the coffee fields. The strong frost of July 2015 caused severe damage to the trees that had survived the drought. It was the strongest frost in the region in 27 years. Farmers expect the damage to also affect the 2022 harvest.

That’s bad news in Brazil, the world’s top producer and exporter of coffee, where 78% of the crop is grown on family farms like de Paula’s. According to CONAB (the national food agency), the national coffee harvest fell 27% in September this year compared to the same period last. It attributed this to changes in the climate.

In the municipality of Patrocínio in Minas Gerais, where de Paula lives, 80% of the farms implement what’s known as dryland farming, which eschews an irrigation system because rainfall in the region is traditionally abundant. Minas Gerais is Brazil’s main coffee-producing state, responsible for half the national production, and Patrocínio is the municipality with the world’s largest area of planted coffee, spanning some 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres).

“Small farms like us can’t have more sophisticated irrigation systems because of the cost and also to preserve the water resources that supply the region. We really do depend on the rain,” de Paula says. “If a drought like this one hits, it’s very hard to bounce back, to not have huge losses. If things continue like this in coming years, it will be hard to hold on.”

De Paula lost 40% of his crop and was unable to work. He took out a loan to finance the next harvest.

At a cost of about $3,500 per hectare ($1,400 per acre), it’s “financially impossible for small farms” to install an irrigation system, says agronomist Patrícia Burgos, regional manager of EMATER, the Minas Gerais state agency for rural assistance.

Burgos points out coffee is a very climate-sensitive crop. “In some places, you will find more irrigated fields because they can’t rely on rainfall there,” she says. “It’s different everywhere, and that’s why any startup operation needs to analyze the region carefully to know what sort of farming is done there.”

Despite the overall production drop and the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s coffee exports hit record highs in 2020 and are projected to go even higher in 2021; as of August, exports were up by 8.7% from the same period last year. A shortage of supply has driven up international coffee prices, but it’s the extensive network of middlemen buying from the farmers who are seeing most of the benefit, with small farmers largely left out.

Coffee plants are damaged by frost in Alfenas State in southern Minas Gerais. Image courtesy of Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

Climate-smart farming

To take on the climate pressure weighing on the coffee crops, de Paula and other small farmers in Patrocínio have joined a collaborative platform called Consórcio Cerrado das Águas(CCA) or Cerrado Water Consortium. CCA works with communities, local governments, and companies since 2014 to combat climate change within the Cerrado region of Minas Gerais.

It launched an incentive program in 2019 that works on four fronts: institutional involvement, connected landscapes and climate-smart farming (CSA) as well as water resource management.

“We work on all the fronts together, both in terms of the hydric basin and in terms of the property,” says Fabiane Sebaio, an agronomist and executive secretary of the CCA. “Climate-smart agriculture analyzes risks to the harvest and proposes strategies for a more climate-resilient crop.”

A coffee farm in Patrocínio, Minas Gerais state, that is part of the CCA’s incentive program for farmers. Image courtesy CCA

Climate-smart agriculture was coined by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2010, based on the three pillars of increasing production sustainably for food security; creating resilience (adaptation); and reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation).

To adhere to these principles, the CCA’s incentive program works with technical and scientific professionals from institutions like EMATER and Institute of Forestry and Agriculture Management and Certification (Imaflora). They pore over each farm to analyze the challenges facing each one and to verify the property’s impact on ecosystem services in the region.

They can make recommendations for both productivity improvement and actions to restore biodiversity by taking a holistic approach. Recommended projects include planting trees on farms and along property lines, which requires knowledge and care so that the shade produced doesn’t affect the coffee plants adversely.

Agroforestry is also a way for farmers to intercrop shrub species and other plant varieties in order to preserve soil quality and integrity. De Paula believes that his losses would be much greater if he had not taken the action suggested by the incentive program.

“As we had all planted at the same time, I could see that our soil ended up holding moisture better. I saw that neighbors who didn’t join lost even more than I did,” he says. “If we don’t take care of biodiversity, things will definitely get much more difficult.”

Coffee crop on a farm enrolled in the CCA’s incentive program in Patrocínio, Minas Gerais state. Image courtesy CCA.

The monitoring of the incentive programs led to the creation a holistic methodology for climate-smart agricultural. It can be adapted to other strategic farming areas, and used to boost productivity as well as ecosystem services. The first phase involved 52 farms.

Another result of the incentive program in Patrocínio was the development of an app to provide technical information to farmers. Three monitoring stations that measure rainfall have been installed and transmit data in real-time to farmers via the CCA platform.

Since the program’s inception, 300 hectares (740 acre) of farms have adopted climate-smart agriculture. In addition, 96 hectares (237 acre) of native vegetation were restored. For proponents of the system, it’s vindication that, away from the limelight of high-level summits, local investment in awareness and applied science can also pack a punch in the fight against climate change.

Banner image courtesy of Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brasil team and first published HereOur website Brazil site on Dec. 2, 2021.

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