Coffee Farmers Forced to Migrate
Most people are aware of the concept of fairly traded coffee, but less aware that the coffee industry is in the middle of a major crisis that's forcing many coffee farmers to abandon their land and crops.
Some reasons for the crisis include unsustainably low coffee prices and the destructive effects of climate change on coffee crops. Coffee farmers who have held land in their families for decades are left with little choice but to migrate in search of a better standard of living.
There has been extensive research into the interconnected relationship between climate change and migration. Based on studies, it is estimated that 1.2 billion people may become climate refugees by 2050.
"The combination of poor coffee prices and inhospitable environments for growing coffee have meant that many coffee farmers have been forced to abandon their crops and homes in an attempt to give themselves the opportunity for a better life."
This article explores how coffee farmers are being forced to leave their homes and their livelihoods as a result of the climate crisis and what it means for future generations if we fail to take action now.
Amanpour and Company (PBS): The Great Climate Migration Has Begun, May 24, 2021.
Overview of the situation
The coffee crop must be grown in highly specific conditions. It grows at high altitudes with precise climate and soil conditions. Rainfall and temperature are essential for a good crop harvest, and any changes in the level of precipitation or temperature can have devastating effects on farmers.
To maximize the chance of a successful yield, coffee growers must invest in their business in addition to the crop itself. This means purchasing expensive tools, paying farm laborers, and paying to process the beans before sale. They do this often and with no guarantee of return on investment.
"It is estimated that there are 25 million small coffee farms worldwide, producing 80% of the world's coffee, with approximately 125 million people dependent on those crops for their livelihoods."
The "Coffee Belt," where most coffee is grown, consists of tropical regions in South and Central America, the Caribbean, African, and Asia. Many coffee-producing areas are disadvantaged regions where poverty or internal conflict is widespread. It is estimated that there are 25 million small coffee farms worldwide, producing 80% of the world's coffee, with approximately 125 million people dependent on those crops for their livelihoods.
One reason for the current crisis in the coffee industry is because of how coffee is sold worldwide. Coffee is one of the world's most popular commodities and is bought and sold on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), headquartered in New York.
In theory, when there is a good harvest of coffee, the price of coffee will go down, and farmers will receive less money per pound of coffee. Vice versa, if there is a poor harvest, the price of coffee should increase that year due to scarcity.
"Despite coffee being of the world's most popular drinks (for an industry worth over $400 billion), it is estimated that over 5 million smallholder coffee farmers are living below the international poverty line on $3.20 per day..."
However, this is not always the case. Commodities can be bought and traded speculatively, meaning that traders can buy contracts based on the future price of coffee. These transactions often result in farmers receiving less and less money for their crops, to the point where it becomes no longer financially viable to remain a coffee grower. In fact, many farmers have gone into debt from investment costs in their farms and the poor return on the price of coffee. Coffee farmers will usually not make more than 1-3% of the retail price consumers pay for coffee.
Despite coffee being of the world's most popular drinks (for an industry worth over $400 billion), it is estimated that over 5 million smallholder coffee farmers are living below the international poverty line on $3.20 per day, with the most significant levels of poverty seen in regions of Africa and Oceania.
"...60% of coffee species are at risk of extinction ... it has been estimated that by 2050, approximately 50% of the land currently used to grow coffee will no longer be suitable for growing coffee crops."
Coffee crops and climate change
A stark report published in 2019 found that 60% of coffee species are at risk of extinction. The global average figure for plants at risk of extinction is 22%, meaning that coffee plants are at serious risk. The report identifies some of the main drivers of this trend, including habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, and unsustainable agricultural practices.
As well as this, it has been estimated that by 2050, approximately 50% of the land currently used to grow coffee will no longer be suitable for growing coffee crops. This is due to changing temperature and climate conditions which will disrupt the ability of farmers to continue to grow the crop.
With warmer and more humid conditions, new forms of crop diseases and pests (such as the coffee borer beetle) have begun to thrive. Between 2012 and 2017, a deadly rust fungus that destroys coffee plants caused over $3 billion in lost output.
Although the rust disease has the potential to wipe out whole farms, it can sometimes be managed with expensive pesticides and careful elimination techniques. However, experts have stated that the current epidemic of the disease is being exacerbated by climate change. Coffee farmers are in agreement. One coffee farmer in Guatemala, Elmer Gabriel, told The Atlantic the reason why the problem is so much worse is because, "The rains have been heavier. The dry season, it's longer, and the winds are much more strong. It's due to climate change.
"In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the US border from Central America over the course of the next 30 years."
Migration to the US
The combination of poor coffee prices and inhospitable environments for growing coffee have meant that many coffee farmers have been forced to abandon their crops and homes in an attempt to give themselves the opportunity for a better life.
It is not surprising that many migrants from Central or South American make the dangerous trip to the United States. In recent years, the movement of people northwards has been greatly publicized, with the so-called "caravan of migrants" making headlines.
In 2020, two major hurricanes devastated large parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. In Honduras, the cost of the damage amounted to $10 billion, with nearly half of its population affected through loss of home or injury. A combination of all these factors has meant that people in these regions have little choice but to leave their home countries in search of refuge in the US.
Jorge Reyes, a farmer from Honduras, told The New York Times, "If we are going to die anyway, we might as well die trying to get to the United States.
In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the US border from Central America over the course of the next 30 years. In February 2021, there were approximately 97,000 people apprehended at the border, with a significant portion of people coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
The Biden administration has announced a number of programs designed to support citizens in these countries and reduce inbound migration. In 2019, almost 850,000 people were granted US citizenship, but despite the hopes of many who make the journey, the route to US citizenship is one fraught with difficulties.
"Many of the people being displaced come from countries that have produced very small amounts of CO2 emissions ... Bangladesh created 0.29% of global emissions in 2019, but 2.5 million of its citizens were recently displaced ... mostly as a result of coastal flooding."
Climate change refugees
The concept of environmental or climate change refugees is not a new one, but the last number of years has seen a significant increase in climate change displacement.
A report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found that over 10 million people had been displaced from their homes due to climate change in the six months between September 2020 and February 2021.
Many of the people being displaced come from countries that have produced very small amounts of CO2 emissions. For example, Bangladesh created 0.29% of global emissions in 2019, but 2.5 million of its citizens were recently displaced from their homes, mostly as a result of coastal flooding.
We already know that climate change will affect the most vulnerable regions worse than more well-off countries, but we must take decisive action to mitigate its worst effects.
"Like with the broader issue of climate change, there is a lot that we can do as consumers, but everyone must play their part."
Actions we can take
It is clear that we must have serious conversations about how we approach the topic of climate justice, especially when it comes to some of the most vulnerable groups of people in the world.
If you are concerned about the impact your morning cup of coffee is having on farmers and the planet, here are some actions you can take:
- Get involved with World War Zero's mission -- enlist, engage, and mobilize while we are in this crucial time for climate action.
- Ensure that your coffee is sourced from a reputable and ethical supplier. Look beyond some of the common catchphrases on coffee labels and ensure that farmers are receiving a fair price.
- Where possible, choose to patronize local coffee shops that have direct partnerships with coffee farmers.
- Ensure that your coffee habits are not contributing to excess production and waste: if you use pods, make sure that they are recyclable. If you use ground coffee, use them as compost or as fertilizer.
- Learn more about the topic from the National Coffee Association USA's industry resources.
Like with the broader issue of climate change, there is a lot that we can do as consumers, but everyone must play their part. In this way, we can ensure that no person is exploited on the supply chain, and that we adapt flexibly and responsibly to the climate challenges we face.