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.
  • To take on the challenges brought on by the changing climate, coffee farmers in the Cerrado have joined a climate-smart agriculture program.
  • The strategies adopted for more resilient crops include agroforestry, connected landscapes, and water resource management.

While the world was hashing out the big environmental issues of the day at the COP26 climate summit last month, coffee farmer Leonildo Vicente de Paula was grappling with what he needs to 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.

In 2020, severe drought hit much of the Cerrado, interrupting the normal processes of flowering and fruit formation in the coffee fields. The trees that survived the lack of rainfall were then hit by a strong frost in July this year. It was the strongest frost recorded in the region in the last 27 years, and farmers expect the damages to affect the 2022 harvest as well.

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. As of September this year, the national coffee harvest was down by 27% from the same period last year, according to CONAB, the national food agency. It attributed this mostly to changes in 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 about 40% of his crop, and the only way he was able to keep working was to take out a bank loan in the hopes that the next harvest will bring in enough to balance the books.

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 that coffee is an extremely 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 hit by frost in Alfenas, southern Minas Gerais State. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

Climate-smart agriculture

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 the Cerrado Water Consortium. The CCA has been working with companies, local governments and communities since 2014 to fight against climate change in the Cerrado region of Minas Gerais.

In 2019, it rolled out an incentive program that works on four fronts: institutional engagement, connected landscapes, climate-smart agriculture (CSA), and 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 of the 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.

By taking a holistic approach, they can come up with recommendations both for improving productivity and enabling actions to regenerate biodiversity. 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.

Farmers have also established agroforestry systems by intercropping shrub species and other plant varieties to maintain soil quality and integrity. De Paula says his own losses would have been much greater had he not carried out the actions proposed 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 of the CCA.

The monitoring of the incentive program resulted in the creation of a holistic methodology aimed at climate-smart agriculture, which can be adapted to other strategic farming areas and used to boost productivity and ecosystem services there too. Fifty-two farms participated in the first phase of the program.

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 were installed and now transmit information in real time to farmers from the CCA platform.

In the nearly two years since the incentive program was rolled out, some 300 hectares (740 acres) of farms have begun using climate-smart agriculture, and 96 hectares (237 acres) of native vegetation have been 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 here on our Brazil site on Dec. 2, 2021.