Over the past decade, coffee farmers across various regions have reported steady declines in coffee yield due to a combination of extreme climatic events and unsustainable farming techniques. Climate change has led to unexpected weather events such as droughts and floods, as well as rising global temperatures, increasing risk factors for coffee farmers. Aggravating factors such as eroded soil, pollution and lack of biodiversity have further negatively impacted coffee yields. Aware of the need for adaptive strategies, many coffee farmers have turned to agroforestry, a practice of re-introducing trees into farming systems, to make their farms more resilient to climate change. 

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How Does Agroforestry Differ From Traditional Farming? 

Since the 1960s, most coffee plantations use a system of monoculture farming, where farmers only grow a single type of plantation – the coffee plant. Monoculture systems expose coffee plants and soil to UV radiation, high temperatures and heavy rain. By stripping away many varieties of flora and fauna to make space for coffee plants, monoculture farming also leads to a lack of diversity and displaces wildlife while increasing the incidence of pests. Soil degradation and pest control have driven farmers to resort to pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to maintain high and consistent yields.  

A monoculture farming system poses a striking contrast to a coffee plant’s natural environment. Coffee plants thrive in equatorial regions; the continuous rainfall in these regions allows for significant biodiversity and the maturation of coffee plants at a steady rate. There are four primary types of coffee beans, including Arabica (Coffee arabica), Robusta (Coffee caniphora), Liberica (Coffee liberica), and Excelsa (Coffee liberica var. dewevrei). Coffee Arabica, which accounts for 70% of global coffee production, originates from the forests of the biologically diverse Ethiopian highlands. In its natural environment, Arabica grows in highlands under tall, dense tree canopies and is generally less resilient to disease. Arabica plants thrive in cooler climates, with ideal temperatures  ranging from 15- 25 °C. 

By depriving Coffee Arabica of its traditional shade systems and replacing it with intense, sun-exposed monoculture where it is more vulnerable to plant and disease, coffee farmers are adversely affecting the resilience of coffee plantations in the medium-long term. Intense monoculture practices which disregard the coffee plants’ natural environment has led to increased Co2 emissions, the loss of biodiversity and land degradation, by exposing top soil to wind and rain.

Agroforestry is a system which strategically integrates different types of trees within coffee farms,  creating a microclimate within the plantation. These microclimates promote increased biodiversity and soil enrichment, and they reduce erosion and water pollution, leading to increased carbon storage and lower temperatures. 

How Does Agroforestry Make Coffee Farms More Resilient to Change? 

Reintroducing trees or other woody perennials into monoculture coffee farms generates benefits for both the coffee plantations and the farmers. Agroforestry leads to increased biodiversity, increases water availability and restores soil health and productivity.  

As trees are introduced into the plantations, soil health is restored because a trees’ deep root network can retrieve nutrients from deeper levels of soil; the nitrogen fixation capabilities of trees also promotes soil fertility by adding nitrogen into the soil ecosystem. 

Structurally, the addition of trees recreates the canopy-like environment in which Coffee Arabica  naturally thrives. The shade provided by tree canopies act as windbreaks, protecting soil from erosion overexposure to changing weather conditions, while also lowering soil and air temperatures. The positive effects of shade tree additions to coffee plantations have been proven in various studies; for example, a study by the Wageningen University & Research found that by introducing 50% tree shade cover in certain Brazilian regions prone to unstable weather conditions, mean temperatures can be reduced and 75% of the area can be kept intact for coffee production. Further, by increasing ground cover and soil nutrient availability, agroforestry systems reduce water runoff and soil evaporation, making more water available for plant production in all soil layers. 

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How Does Agroforestry Make Coffee Farms More Resilient to Change? 

Globally, there are an estimated 25 million farmers who generate income through coffee farming. As coffee can only be cultivated once a year and yield is significantly impacted by climatic changes, coffee farmers are vulnerable to external factors such as price volatility and weather changes. By maximising conditions for coffee plantations, agroforestry provides for a better quality and higher crop yield, stabilising the farmers’ main source of income. Agroforestry also diversifies the income stream of coffee communities, who can harvest other crops or benefit from their secondary products to generate year-long income opportunities. Additionally, crops such as fruits and nuts can be used for personal consumption, providing an added benefit of food security. 

A case in point is Amazon’s Apuí Region Agroforestry Project (‘The Apui Project’) , which has implemented a system of agroforestry since 2012. The Institution of Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Amazon (Ideasam) gave each farmer funding to rehabilitate a hectare of coffee plantation; this included 10,000 seedlings from plants of Amazonian origins. Amongst the species were varieties of trees such as Jatobá and Mahogany; these species have bark that can be used for wood, oil, fruits and nuts that can be harvested to generate extra income.  

Apuí Coffee farmer Ronaldo de Moraes, explains how implementing agroforestry improved his  families’ livelihood, saying, “We used to harvest just a little and sell cheap — hardly earned anything…  Now, we sell at higher prices and things are a little better. We can buy what we need to care for our crops and buy things for our homes, like a refrigerator or a stove.”  

The benefit of the Apuí Project is reflected in the growth of the region’s average coffee yield,  which grew from 8 bags per hectare when the project began to 15 bags per hectare as of 2020. 

Despite the clear benefits of implementing an agroforestry system in conventional coffee farms, there are also many challenges to the successful transition to this system. Amongst the challenges are the lack of funding and educational resources to prepare farmers for the significant change in agricultural  practices, as well as the need to customise flora and fauna to each unique region.  

However, from the various studies and coffee farmers’ first-hand accounts, it is clear that agroforestry provides for a much more resilient, biodiverse system for coffee plantations, one that maximises the soil, the farmers’ livelihoods as well as the taste of coffee.