Costa Rican Coffee Farmers Fight Climate Change with Technology

    Last year, Costa Rica sold 60,000 tons for 350 million dollars. Its main destinations are the United States, Belgium and Germany

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    On his small coffee farm in Costa Rica, Johel Alvarado introduced technical innovations to confront his greatest enemy: decreased rainfall.Located 40 km northwest of San José, on the side of a ravine in the town of Grecia, his four-hectare coffee plantation now has an irrigation system that compensates for the lack of water and allows him to stay in business.

    “It is a little more difficult year after year to achieve the same amount of production,” but “by innovating, we can see that climate change does not affect us as much,” the 52-year-old farmer explains.

    The reduction in rainfall, which was previously abundant, generates dust on their property, but the plants look green thanks to the use of technology applied to irrigation.

    Since the 19th century, coffee has been an emblematic export product of Costa Rica, which last year sold 60,000 tons for 350 million dollars. Its main destinations were the United States, Belgium and Germany, according to the state Coffee Institute (Icafé).

    Drought challenges

    More than 25,000 families of small and medium-sized producers make a living from this activity, which faces challenges due to the decrease in rainfall: in 2010, 2,907 millimeters of water fell and in 2023 only 1,759, according to data from the University of Costa Rica. In 2016 it was only 952 millimeters.

    “Braving climate change”

    In Costa Rica, only the “Arabica” species of coffee is produced, with high quality, intense aroma and pleasant acidity, but its crops are very vulnerable to climate change.

    This led Alvarado to “try to innovate a little bit” and “do things different” to “achieve more sustainability and a little more income.”The farmer takes water from a spring that runs in the upper part of his plantation and pumps it through a drip irrigation system to his coffee plantation. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, by 2050, 50% of the world’s coffee area could disappear due to the global increase in temperature.

    Other local coffee growers are also incorporating technology

    This is the case of Eduardo Rojas, who manages a 50-hectare coffee plantation in Sarchí, a town neighboring Greece, where they invested $232,000 in 2020 in technical irrigation, liquefied fertilizers and system automation.

    This allowed them to increase productivity: in the 2023 harvest, of about 100 tons, for each hectare they obtained 43.5 bushels of coffee (46 kilo bags), while the national average is 20.

    At first “I didn’t believe it could be done,” says Rojas, who has been in this business for more than 40 years.Four years later he does not hesitate: “People who have farms like this in very harsh climates (…) need to get involved in these projects,” says the 62-year-old administrator.

    “From plant to plant”

    With climate change “the challenges are constant”, as pests and fungi such as rust or rooster’s eye evolve and become more resistant, explains Harold Gamboa, a specialist at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).

    However, “the solutions are at the hands of the producers”, since “the success of a better product of better quality (…) is accompanied by constant technological development,” he adds.Icafé, the governing body of coffee growing in the country, develops varieties in the laboratory that can better adapt to current field conditions.

    Carlos Acuña, a geneticist at Icafé, cares for seedlings of 20 varieties in a greenhouse in order to make crosses “from plant to plant” and obtain more resistant specimens.“This information about the ability of plants to resist these environments must be transferred into materials (varieties) with high quality,” the 40-year-old researcher said.

    In the laboratory, biotechnology engineer Érika Méndez genetically analyzes varieties to predict which will resist best.“By studying the DNA of different plants, we accelerate the achievement of the best characteristics in nature in a single plant,” explains the 28-year-old scientist.

    “Creative examples”

    Away from the laboratory, Jesús Valverde opted for a natural method in the face of less rain to protect a 13.5-hectare family coffee plantation in the town of Naranjo, near Sarchí: fruit trees that provide shade and maintain humidity for the coffee plants.“We have increased production per area” with this “microclimate,” comments the 59-year-old farmer.

    In addition, the dry leaves that fall from the trees fertilize the soil and reduce heat, a kind of “biological technology” that maintains the humidity of the substrate and favors the action of fertilizers.“I was ahead of climate change,” the coffee farmer proudly said.

    Resonance Costa Rica
    At Resonance, we aspire to live in harmony with the natural world as a reflection of our gratitude for life. Visit and subscribe at Resonance Costa Rica Youtube Channel
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