The Coffee Country
Roughly the size Ohio, Guatemala is one of the world’s largest coffee producers and “has the highest percentage of its crop classified as high quality.” Some of the nation’s best coffee is actually produced within its western highlands near the well-known Lake Atitlán.
Although the demand of Guatemalan coffee has significantly increased over the years, multiple environmental issues like climate change have impacted its agricultural systems as well as rates of coffee production.
Along with the hundreds of farms across Guatemala that have been impacted by climate change, local farms near Lake Atitlán have been particularly hit hard by the domino effects of climate change including disease, drought, and pests.
While Santo Tomas Perdido, a farm located within the heartland of a nature reserve just south of Lake Atitlán, successfully thrives in the face of these challenges, its owner Charley has expressed the complexity of issues that coffee farmers (and all farmers in general) are facing in the local region, Guatemala, and around the world.
Thirty years ago, Charley, decided to take over his long-standing family farm and start growing coffee. Thirty years after growing his first coffee bean, Charley has become a part of the growing global coffee industry and approximately 95% of the Arabica coffee from the farm is sold to Starbucks.
“Coffee is not only the business of coffee,” Charley said. “It is in medicines, sodas, and many other products.”
Along with coffee, Santo Tomas Perdido has been distinguished for its cheese and honey that is sold and distributed in the area. While most of the coffee from the farm is sold to the global coffee monopoly, Starbucks, local coffee shops such as Crossroads Café, in the nearby town of Panajachel, also sell Charley’s coffee.
Luckily, we had the chance to tour Santo Tomas Perdido and learn about the ways in which Charley runs the farm in the midst of a growing number of challenges. The farm spans nearly 2200 acres and includes a private natural reserve that Charley works to conserve.
“Although it is important that we produce, it is also important that we conserve our beautiful surroundings,” Charley said.
Since all forms of agriculture can significantly impact biodiversity, Charley believes that agriculture and conservation must go hand in hand.
Hiking through the cloud forests (a type of rainforest) that comprise a third of the property, it is evident that the area is rich with biodiversity and species variation.
According to Charley, one can find about 250 species of Guatemalan birds (there are 735 species of birds in Guatemala) in about two hours while standing on the property’s nature reserve.
Unfortunately, the decision to instill these conservation practices has not been necessarily met with open arms.
Charley explained that the USDA chairperson in Guatemala threatened to find a way to close the farm down if Santo Tomas Perdido continued to keep its nature preserve and beekeeping farm.
Along with threats of closure, pathogens and other diseases have also jeopardized the farm and its production.
“The consumption of coffee is growing in the world,” Charley said. “However, problems like nematodes and coffee rust are also affecting coffee plantations around the world.”
Only two years ago, Guatemala’s ex-president, who has been recently jailed for fraud, declared a national emergency over the rising impacts of coffee rust, stating, “the fungus that has hit other Central American countries is affecting 70 percent of this nation’s crop.” Furthermore, the coffee rust is primarily affecting Arabica coffee, which is the type of coffee that is predominantly used for consumption.
Many farmers within Central America never saw coffee rust until three years ago and multiple studies prove that climate change has directly contributed to the onslaught of diseases like coffee rust.
Since the process of climate change leads to fluctuations in climate seasonality and predictability (generally hotter and longer dry seasons and shorter and drier wet seasons), the optimal conditions to supplement the growth of diseases and other pathogens are set.
Coffee rust cannot survive in temperatures less than 10 degrees Celsius; however, rising temperatures enhance the incredibly fast reproductive rate of the coffee rust fungus.
As the fungus grows at accelerated rates, it can colonize coffee leaves more efficiently and therefore, the process of effectively combatting the disease becomes all the more complex.
In order to prevent the spread of coffee rust, fungicides have been applied on the farm. However, deciding to use fungicides was not necessarily an easy process and Charley continues to apply them sparingly.
“The best biological measure of environmental health is bees,” Charley said. “Even though we use some fungicides, we make sure that bee populations still thrive.”
Along with the utilization of pesticides, the increasing use of fungicides has a direct correlation with the plummeting bee populations and health around the globe.
With this in mind, the farm beehives have been placed in a separate location far away from where the fungicides are sprayed.
While Charley did not want to resort to using fungicides, he explained that he could not seem to find another way around it.
According to Charley, it costs around $6500 to plant one hectare (2 acres) of coffee and if he cannot manage to produce at higher rates, he cannot manage to pay for labor or other finances. Farming is a cost-intensive process and these costs can be incredibly challenging to keep up with.
This year, Santo Tomas Perdido is producing three times as much coffee as it was previously; yet, this is not the case for the majority of farmers across Central America.
Last year, a devastating drought in Brazil caused farmers to lose nearly one-fifth of the country’s usual 55 million bags of coffee.
Coffee is the principal source of economy for most Central American nations, and hundreds of thousands of people also depend on coffee either directly or indirectly. Overall, the success of the coffee industry has major implications on poverty levels and the standard of life for millions of people.
Unfortunately, coffee rust is not the only eminent threat to the progress of coffee production in Central America.
Wind is a critical factor in the coffee production process and due to the impacts of climate change, the speed and severity of winds has amplified and significantly increased.
Around the farm, wind speeds can pick up over 40 kilometers per hour and has previously devastated large swaths of coffee plants across the land.
While Charley explained that wind has major implications on the farm and its overall success, he found a bit of humor in the fact that he typically discusses the weather with others on a daily basis.
“As you can see weather is really important here and you will find that we are always talking about it,” Charley laughed.
Under harsh weather conditions, it can be nearly impossible for workers to harvest. During the harvest season in October, each individual grain of coffee must be picked. This extremely labor-intensive process becomes all the more demanding when rapid winds come into play.
There are people that have been working on the farm since its very beginning and Charley expressed his appreciation and gratitude as he expressed how important their contributions have been.
For example, during times of peak production, the average harvest for one person is 350 pounds. And harvesting is just a part of the process.
Once a pasture is planted, it is cut it every 30–35 days in order to replenish the soil and recycle nutrients. Furthermore, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, and potassium are added to balance the soil due to crop production.
In a sense, the Santo Tomas Perdido farm is its very own ecosystem within the context of a larger one. Vast bands of cloud forests with two running rivers comprise the outskirts of the property and exemplify the rich biodiversity of the land and of the nation.
On the few occasions where Charley has seen the rare quetzal, the nation’s bird, flying across the farm, he has been reminded of this rich biodiversity and how important it is to his farm and his country.