Field visit in Colombia: Cultivating Climate Resilience

Colombia grows some of the world’s finest coffee. The tropical climate and rich mountain soils are key to the success of a product that is exported and enjoyed around the globe. But the livelihoods of many smallholder farmers who produce this valuable crop are precarious, and climate change is adding ominously to their difficulties. Yet less than 2% of global climate finance goes to smallholder agriculture.

Root Capital, a long-term partner of the Trafigura Foundation, is helping rural communities and businesses to adapt to a shifting climate and make livelihoods and coffee supply chains more resilient.

Trafigura Foundation Programme Manager  Laura Frühwald recently visited Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region to see both the challenges and the solutions first hand.

The Trafigura Foundation has had a partnership with Root Capital since 2018 that has included projects in several Latin American countries. The Foundation’s current grant to Root capital supports cocoa farmers in Peru. What was the purpose of your visit to Colombia?

It is one thing to read project reports and take part in videoconferences from a glass-walled office in Geneva, but quite another to see first-hand the economic, social and environmental challenges that people face on the ground. While still just a snapshot of reality, these trips are valuable because they help us forge closer connections with the people we are working with and for.

The trip was an opportunity to better understand Root Capital’s overall model, which is a global one, and how it is adapted to local contexts and the specificities of each value chain. In the case of Colombia, the idea was to get a first-hand appreciation of Root Capital’s wider activities to build climate resilience for vulnerable communities, which is a key focus of the new strategy that the Foundation launched last year.

What did you learn during the trip?

I previously worked in peacebuilding, so know Colombia as a country that has gone through a peace process. But I didn’t fully appreciate just how biodiverse it is, how many different ecosystems are found there. From Bogotá, we travelled north to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is one of the few places in the world where you have a high mountain range right next to the sea. And it is in this quite unique ecosystem that farmers are growing coffee.

Then there are the challenges that these farmers face. Some are economic or political, but others are clearly related to climate change. It was sobering to see how the interplay of these pressures is making people’s lives more difficult.

Like many crops, coffee is sensitive to the timing, duration and intensity of wet and dry seasons. Droughts, intense rains and frost have a direct impact on the crop, and this volatility is being exacerbated by climate change.

Rain clouds looming over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in what is normally a dry season

Is climate change affecting Colombian coffee farmers in less obvious ways?

It is. This season, farmers in the Sierra Nevada say their coffee was ready two months early, but they struggled to even collect it. The coffee crop ripens in different parts of Colombia at different times. Seasonal workers move around the country to help with the harvest, and they just weren’t available in the north when they were needed.

Many of these remote communities rely on roads that are difficult to travel even in normal times. Intense rains can make those roads impassable just when the farmers need to bring their coffee to the collection centres to dry. If they cannot get the coffee down the mountain, it just sits and rots on the farms. This kind of loss can be devastating for households and communities.

We need to understand the full complexity of the situation facing rural producers, and to take it into account in the solutions we develop with our partners. There is no silver bullet. Any intervention needs to be carefully adapted to local circumstances and may itself need to change over time.

Add in the volatility of global commodity prices, and you begin to see the breadth of the challenges facing coffee farmers in Colombia and vulnerable communities in many other places.

How is Root Capital boosting the resilience of these farmers?

Root Capital is working in two ways. First, they are helping coffee businesses, most of which are cooperatives, to access finance. They are providing low-interest loans to businesses to enable them to improve and grow. They are also looking into how innovative financing can be made available for climate adaptation.

Root Capital also provides advisory services, including on ways to build climate resilience. The solutions they develop with their clients are based on careful risk assessments, and vary widely depending on the specific circumstances, location and needs of the coffee producers and businesses in that area.

Adaptation solutions might be focused on the crop level, such as the introduction of climate-resistant strains or different fertilizer regimes that are also more eco-friendly. They can also work at the livelihoods level, helping farmers to diversify their sources of income and become less dependent on coffee. In the Sierra Nevada, for example, that can mean building out infrastructure for ecotourism.

A Colombian farmer explaining how he has grown organic coffee and diversified into ecotourism to meet the challenge of climate change

How does Root Capital’s approach fit with the Foundation’s new strategy?

The strategy emphasizes climate adaptation, healthy ecosystems and sustainable livelihoods, and Root Capital’s efforts to boost the resilience of smallholder farmers are well aligned with these goals.

We know that the people most affected by climate change are in communities that depend on agriculture. So working with smallholder farmers on climate resilience is really important for these communities to secure their livelihoods. But obviously agriculture and farming also have huge impacts on nature and ecosystems, so doing it right is a chance to enhance also the resilience of ecosystems. Sustainable practices can ensure more stable livelihoods and protect the environment at the same time.

We are currently in talks with Root Capital and other new and existing partners about the most effective ways to support sustainable development on a large scale and for the long term while also allowing nature to thrive, despite the challenges of climate change.

Are you optimistic that coffee farming in Colombia can overcome the challenge of climate change?

People in the communities affected most by climate change are ready to do their part. One farmer we met was reforesting part of his land, even though it reduces his crop yield, because he said it was his duty to help restore the environment for future generations. Climate adaptation needs time and resources. It is up to us to do our part to support communities like these to build a more viable future.