When Sergio Alvarez, a senior coffee developer at Starbucks, returned to the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico for the first time since he was a child, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Lining the roads were fields of coffee trees decimated by coffee rust, their leaves dotted with holes and flecked with the life-choking orange fungus. And the blue-green mountains he remembered were licked with flames, their billowing smoke clinging to the hillsides.
“Coming back after all of these years,” Alvarez said. “I was able to see the real effect and impact of climate change. I could really see that the landscape is changing. It’s happening all over the region.”
In the town of Sierra Moreno, farmers used to produce 50 bags per hectare each year. Now they are producing three.
Farmer Luis Dominguez describes the impact as a total catastrophe. “The rust disease happened four years ago, and we couldn’t produce anything.”
Tatiana Ramos, executive director of Conservation International-Mexico, sees a clear link between coffee rust and climate change. “Most of the production was lost in a lot of countries and the reason why these fungi were so aggressive was due to the drastic changes in weather in the region,” she said.
Farmers who are not able to produce enough coffee to support their families could be driven higher up the mountainsides in search of a more suitable climate, damaging the protective buffer zones and protected forest. It’s a vicious cycle.
About 400 miles southeast of Chiapas, the Pacheco family in Jalapa, Guatemala found themselves struggling with many of the same challenges.
“Leaf rust entered the country of Guatemala in the year 2012,” says Kevin Pacheco, a fourth-generation coffee farmer. “Before the rust appeared, we had better coffee plantations. So, it is a big problem.”
A 2016 donation to the Pacheco farm of 6,000 rust-resistant trees, as part of Starbucks’ One Bag for Every Tree initiative (now the 100 Million Trees program), is helping. So far, more than 30 million trees have been donated in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. This year in Guatemala, the trees produced their very first harvest.
“Besides the changing climate, there have been diseases and pests. We adapt to them,” said Pacheco.
More than 25 million coffee producers around the world are facing the impacts of a changing climate. Conservation International and Starbucks, joined by more than 130 other organizations, are working to help – with a mission to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. Today, 99 percent of the coffee Starbucks buys around the world is verified under its Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, which has helped farmers improve their environmental performance and weather the impacts of climate change for more than 15 years.
“When you see the logo of Conservation International on a bag of Starbucks, I think it truly means that we need to take our work in coffee-producing countries around the world very seriously,” said Alvarez from Starbucks. “Every cup of coffee we serve is doing good. But that alone isn’t enough. It’s the love of people, nature and coffee that can make the real difference.”