In looking at our supply chain issues, there are many that deserve our attention. Given the urgency of La Roya, I believe that there are some immediate steps that we as a Council should be thinking about. I mentioned to a number of Council members a book, written by Bill McKibben, entitled: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben is a Vermonter, and has an organization called 350.org (www.350.org). He is an environmentalist who has done his homework. In the first 20-30 pages of the Eaarth he describes how just 5 years ago, climatologists had made a number of predictions of events that would unfold in the next 25, 50, and 100 years due to climate change. His hypothesis is that over just the past few years, many of these predictions that were recently made, have already come to pass. We are now on a different planet than we were just a few years ago, and there is no return (hence the spelling of Eaarth with two “a’s). The climate changes that are taking place are taking place at a much faster pace than anyone had predicted.
Why is this important?
Many farmers and agronomists I have spoken with have suggested that the recent proliferation of La Roya is directly related to the increase in temperature in coffee growing areas – just by a degree or two. Modeling that CIAT has done in Central America shows that with a very small margin of error, that by 2050 the land area suitable for specialty coffee in Nicaragua, will be reduced by 70%, and that specialty coffee will be grown at higher and higher altitudes. La Roya has often been associated with coffees growing at somewhat lower altitudes. It is moving up the mountain, agronomists have told me, due to climate change.
I believe that the sustainability of our industry is at risk, and that our focus as a Council should be to help encourage collaborative efforts to help small-scale coffee farmers build resiliency, so that they can survive La Roya and other events that may be headed their way. This involves supporting their efforts to enhance farm productivity and reduce the impact of La Roya, as well as supporting their efforts to reduce their dependency on coffee as their only source of income. Our partners (coffee farming families) are so vulnerable because so many have virtually all of their eggs in one basket – a basket that they can fill, but have very little control of since the price for their production is largely set thousands of miles away. Like any of us, they deserve a quality of life that meets basic needs, and more, allows them and their children the stability needed to advance in life.
Where do we start?
There are two fronts that need immediate support: 1) agronomy – support to renovate parcels, along with the training to keep their coffee plants healthy and productive. And 2) helping to provide farming families with the tools that they need to develop resiliency to SURVIVE in a rapidly changing environment and an often harsh market. We all need the basics – food, water, shelter, etc. – to survive. Encouraging our own companies to take steps to support these two areas is something that we as a Council can take on together, while encouraging others to join us by advocating for needed collaboration.
When I was in Guatemala last week, traveling daily between Santiago Atitlan and San Lucas Toliman, approximately 80% of the coffee I saw showed visible signs of La Roya. Some of the plants had weathered-looking yellow leaves that were gradually falling to the ground, while most looked frighteningly like skeletons with bare branches, with just a few branches having a handful of immature cherries hanging on for dear life. I had the opportunity to speak with a Mayan agronomist working in the area. He said that on average 40% of the crop will be lost this year, and next year he believes the loss will be closer to 80%. That’s also an 80% loss of income for these families who have been struggling to survive in better timers. How will they survive now? The agronomist said that families will do their best to cope with the situation. The first step many will take is to keep their children home from school and to have them work on their farms – to save and use the money that would have been used for books and uniforms to buy necessities like food. Even with this, he does not know how many families will feed themselves.
I believe that we are dealing with a natural and human disaster that is gradually unfolding before our eyes that may have an unprecedented impact on our businesses and our partners. Big thinking is required. Collaboration is required. Silos have to be torn down, and we need to work together as members of this Council and as responsible members of our industry, to help our business partners develop the resiliency they need to survive and to PROSPER. If they are unable to weather this storm and others that are almost sure to follow, neither will we.