18 Oct 2022

Honduran coffee farmers hope for a brighter future

Susannah Henty, Senior Media and Comms Manager, Fairtrade Foundation

Anyone working in coffee will know that Honduras is an important origin. Honduran coffee has been a good news story, it is an important export, and it is well regarded worldwide for its flavoursome speciality beans, but it is under threat from climate change.

According to the World Bank, Honduras remains one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the Western Hemisphere, with a quarter of its population living in extreme poverty even before the two big shocks of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and Category 4 hurricanes Eta and Iota. With little to fall back on, following years of low prices, many coffee farmers struggled to be resilient in the face of disaster and felt they had no choice but to migrate north.

One cooperative is receiving visits from a local priest who blesses the board members of Fairtrade certified cooperative in Santa Bárbara, as they try to manage the debts that have risen since the storms when they couldn’t sell as much coffee and landslides caused acres of farmland and coffee bushes to slip away.

Today any signs of healthy coffee flowers in the high altitudes of Honduras is a precious sight for many smallholder farmers in the region who lost crops in the tumultuous storms. A year and half on, they are still praying for a way to recoup their losses. The mountainous region should provide the perfect conditions for Honduran coffee to thrive, but it is at ever-increasing risk of plant diseases which are among the many effects of climate change.

One farmer, Eliezer Oseni Valle, lost two acres of his farm when it slipped down the mountainside leaving a three metre drop at the back of his house. Rebuilding a retaining wall to prevent further land loss was expensive in materials and months of labour and meant he couldn’t work on his remaining plot, so he’s now concerned about future production as growing a quality crop requires a huge amount of care. The Fairtrade Premium, investment on top of the coffee sold, allows cooperatives to carry out social, environmental or economic programmes that support farmers and opportunities to improve their productivity, for example through training on farm management and providing seeds or other agricultural inputs.

Farmers in La Paz are also seeing their plants rot or succumb to infectious diseases following periods of hot weather and in contrast very heavy rainfall. Many are concerned about the rise of ‘coffee rust’, or La Roya, which spreads quickly and means farmers have to cut down swathes of bushes. It is therefore vital that businesses continue to work with Fairtrade to ensure farming communities have the support and the resources to remain resilient in adapting to the climate crisis. The cost of replanting coffee and trying varieties that are more resistant to funguses is high, it includes labour, purchases from nurseries and fertilisers. It can take three years of pruning, cultivating other crops to provide shade and plant management before a farmer is rewarded with a good harvest.

But Miriam Yaneth Rodriguez Villatoro is hopeful. She recently replanted an area of her farm in Puringla, which is at a high altitude of La Paz, after benefitting from technical advice at COMSA. Based in the city of Marcala, the Fairtrade cooperative has employed a biologist and through the Fairtrade Premium has been pioneering organic agricultural techniques with 1,400 members, including Miriam, who are based in the surrounding countryside. Honduran coffee farmers in the region have suffered a lot of damage from drought to flooding and increased humidity that allows disease to spread, and Miriam says the cooperative is helping her to combat this and get the best from her farm.

The laboratory and training facilities are also made available to other organizations interested in taking part in the programme which awards diploma qualifications, thereby extending their reach beyond Fairtrade certified groups. In addition, COMSA also runs vital services, including supporting children’s education and managing the local waste and recycling for the whole community. This has been made possible because of long term contracts and partnerships the cooperative has established with UK businesses that source their coffee from these Fairtrade cooperatives.

In recent years there has also been a growing interest in sustainability solutions in the coffee sector, however in many regions farmers see little value from coffee and face most of the risk. As a social justice organization, Fairtrade has practical solutions for business that support communities to be more resilient, as well as campaigning and advocating for change to address the inequalities in trade.

Re-evaluating sourcing, procurement and looking at what you can do as a responsible business to push for more equitable and strong supply chains tackles a key driver of poverty and increases people’s resilience to the climate shocks they’re suffering more frequently.

So grab a coffee and let’s drink to that.

This article was originally published in Business Fights Poverty on June 11 2022.