How Colombian coffee farmers helped my climate-change research

My research with Colombian coffee farmers aims to determine how environmental pressures harm their communities and what resources they need to adapt. For these farmers, cultivating crops is more than a means to an end. It is their lifestyle. The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia is a World Heritage Site, designated by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, that honors the agricultural tradition of this region. The landscape consists of 18 urban settlements dating back to the nineteenth century, as well as coffee plantations located on steep mountain ranges and frequently clearings in the surrounding forest.

But due to climate change, these farmers report that their livelihoods and cultural heritage are threatened by changes in temperature, more extreme weather events, increases in pests and disease, and their inability to plan production decisions (such as when to harvest coffee cherries) on the basis of altered historical indicators, and that they feel helpless to adapt2. Even though they are seasoned farmers whose families have often been involved in coffee farming for generations, they lack the support necessary to overcome the challenges posed by climate change. They require additional information, institutional assistance, and financial stability.

My team and I created Clima Y Cafe, a website that aims to support these farmers by addressing their interests and the political and economic pressures they face, in order to address some of these issues. During the site’s testing with farmers, we discovered that they desired information and advice that was immediately applicable, understandable, and actionable.

Some wanted to know, for instance, how to determine when to harvest and how to manage the rising number of pests and diseases caused by a changing climate. Others wanted to know how to predict the changing seasons, what they could do to shade their plants and protect the soil, and which varieties of coffee would be more resistant to these changes. Some inquired as to whether they should begin growing alternative crops, such as avocados, if their farm’s altitude rendered it unsuitable for growing coffee. To reduce financial uncertainty and achieve stability for themselves and their families, making their businesses more profitable was a top priority.

My team and I used the standard academic approach to compile practical advice for the farmers: we conducted a literature review. We discovered a plethora of scholarly articles on climate change and agriculture in Colombia and its repercussions, as well as data and statistics on how much the problem is likely to worsen. For example, we could present long-term forecasts of annual temperatures over the next several years or the anticipated increase in precipitation by 2100. This varies by region, but overall growth is anticipated.

However, we found very little of the type of straightforward advice and assistance that the farmers requested: immediate and practical adaptation tips. I could not help but feel this was a scientific failure. Why conduct research if it does not benefit those who need it the most?

Not only was it difficult to locate the desired information, but what did exist was largely inaccessible — hidden behind paywalls, buried on technical websites, or written in a language that the farmers might not even understand. How could this information trickle down to them in a meaningful way?

Calls for more engaged scholarship to assist in addressing urgent and pertinent issues and problems are not new. Neither does the co-creation of knowledge and solutions serve to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. However, engaged scholarship is not given the importance it requires if scientists are to assist people in dire crises. If researchers are to listen to what communities need to address pressing issues — such as poverty, the inability to continue farming, and conflict resolution — and assist in resolving them, then we must work harder to change our research habits and incentives.

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