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Building a Climate Resilient Future for Costa Rica’s Coffee Farming Communities

This practice note examines how climate change is threatening coffee-growing regions in Costa Rica, specifically the Coto Brus region. By 2050, absent adaptation measures, experts project that climate change will reduce the global areas suitable for growing coffee by about 50% (Bunn et al. 2015). The case study outlines key findings from this region, including main challenges and existing factors that present opportunities to enhance climate resilience, and recommends actions that key sectoral actors can take to improve the sector’s climate resilience and long-term sustainability.

Based on a literature review, interviews, a workshop and field visits with coffee farmers, government ministries, funders, and other stakeholders, this case study identified six key recommendations to increase the short-, medium-, and long-term climate resilience of the coffee sector. These are: promote promising adaptation options identified by stakeholders such as diversifying incomes of farmers and replanting farms with climate-resilient coffee varieties, with regular technical follow-up; establish baselines and monitor the impacts of adaptation measures; map out when and where coffee may no longer be viable in the coming decades, and how to support those farmers who may need to shift away from coffee; develop farmer-tailored business education; and expand peer-to-peer learning between farmers.

Despite the case study’s local focus, the lessons and experiences shared in this paper are relevant for other coffee-growing regions and countries ̶ Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and others ̶ where coffee producers are facing the effects of climate change, and hope that it will serve as a tool and inspiration for accelerating adaptation action.

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Research In Focus: How Coffee Farming Communities Can Adapt to Climate Change: Experiences and Lessons from Costa Rica

Key Findings

Executive Summary

WRI applied the framework it developed in Transforming Agriculture for Climate Resilience: A Framework for Systemic Change (Carter et al 2018) to assist Costa Rica in mapping out short-, medium-, and long-term adaptation pathways that are inclusive, equitable, and participatory. The framework underscores that, in some situations and locations, incremental adaptation measures will prove insufficient in the years to come to fully reduce growing risks from climate change impacts. In these situations, more fundamental, or transformative, changes—which may entail creating pathways toward new systems more suitable for changing climate conditions—will be needed to maintain the communities’ livelihoods in the long term. Such changes will often include shifting the mix of crops grown and livestock raised in particular areas, employing substantially new technology at broad scale, and/or altering the production landscape from one type to another.

The first year of technical assistance focused on stakeholder engagement, research, and in-country discussions via workshops to introduce the concept of transformative adaptation and establish a dialogue on climate adaptation, vulnerabilities, and impacts. These discussions were held with coffee producers, cooperatives, ministry officials, research organizations, financing entities, and the private sector, among others. Findings from these conversations would serve to inform MAG’s Coffee Program, with the additional aim of being used to inform the drafting of a national coffee strategy. The first year included a blog post to showcase transformative adaptation in action1 and culminated in a final internal report shared with ministry counterparts.

The focus of the second year of the project reflects MAG and MINAE’s desire to share the challenges and lessons learned from the coffee-growing region of Coto Brus to better inform, guide, and finance climate resilience efforts for these communities, while extracting insights for other coffee-growing regions in the country.

The Coto Brus district, located in the Brunca region, is one of the country’s eight coffee-growing areas identified by the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (Instituto del Café de Costa Rica; ICAFE) and one of the smallest contributors to national production. Coto Brus was chosen by government counterparts in response to smallholder farmers’ requests for support and because this area has been experiencing a rapid decline in coffee production and is highly vulnerable to climate change. In the second year, WRI conducted literature reviews, expert interviews, farm visits, and a full-day workshop in Coto Brus with key stakeholders.

Main Findings

  • By 2050, absent adaptation measures, up to half of the areas currently suitable for coffee cultivation in Coto Brus are predicted to become unsuitable across both low and high emissions pathways scenarios (Ovalle Rivera 2018). Central areas are projected to be more adversely affected while a few locations are projected to see an increase in suitability.
  • Efforts to increase Coto Brus coffee farmers’ resilience by addressing the most immediate climate change impacts have begun. However, few farmers incorporate adaptation into their planning and huge implementation gaps persist, despite a broad awareness of sustainable practices. According to interviewees, some farmers are further behind than others—especially smallholders with more limited resources.
  • Despite the benefits of medium- and long-term planning to accomplish the large-scale transformative changes the coffee sector will need to adapt to intensifying climate impacts, most producers and the sector are integrating smaller, short-term, incremental adjustments that might not be sufficient in the long term.


  • Promote promising adaptation options identified by local stakeholders, provide regular technical follow up, and support farmers in exploring additional medium- and longer-term measures.
  • Establish baselines and monitor the impacts of adaptation measures. Building the evidence of farms’ vulnerabilities while tracking the results of adaptation efforts can help maximize the allocation of limited resources over the short, medium, and long terms and inform where and when transformative pathways (Carter et al. 2018) will be needed. Transformative pathways are coordinated sequences of short-to-long-term actions or projects intended to prepare agricultural systems for unprecedented climate conditions. This point is particularly relevant for MAG, ICAFE, and MINAE.
  • Map when and where coffee is likely to lose viability in the coming decades and explore transformative and equitable pathways toward climate resilience, with stakeholder participation (particularly relevant for MAG, ICAFE, and MINAE). At-risk farmers should be supported to experiment with different crops, technologies, and even livelihoods like ecotourism that will serve them better over the longer term.
  • Reinforce existing institutions and enabling factors to increase the uptake of adaptation measures and build greater resilience in Coto Brus. These include strengthening farmer associations and cooperatives, as well as farmer-to-farmer learning; promoting more strategic cross-sectoral alliances; and strengthening support for programs focused on sustainable practices.
  • Develop farmer-tailored business administration skills trainings and guidance to build farmers’ capacities to manage costs and access credit and financing, so they can more easily invest in adaptation measures.
  • Create open communication channels within and across public and private entities to help bridge crucial-information flow gaps around climate risks, existing vulnerabilities, and options to support the implementation of adaptation measures. Providing producers with clear, complete, and practical information on different financing options is also essential.

Related Resource

Ovalle Rivera, O. 2018. “Impacto del cambio climático sobre la aptituddel cultivo de café en Costa Rica” (“Impact of climate change on coffee growing suitability in Costa Rica”). Cali, Colombia: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical; CIAT). Accessed through PREPdata.

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