Theobroma cacao as a replacement species for Caffea arabica in Central American farmlands of under 1000 meters in elevation

Coffee farmers of the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and to a lesser degree Colombia are increasingly faced with a difficult decision looming in the horizon with regards to the economic sustainability of their farming practices in the near future. The vegetal and atmospheric realities caused by climate change disturbing coffee farms in areas under 1000 meters of elevation on the one hand, and the economic pressures produced as a result of an increasing demand for premium Arabica coffee produced in high altitudes on the other – 1000 to 2000+ meters – are increasingly threatening the sustainable future of mono-cropping in coffee farms of Central America. While farmers of higher altitudes are increasingly incentivized to perfect their production of specialty coffee, owners of small low altitude traditional coffee farms that average around just over 2 hectares of land under production are facing serious climatic issues in the near future with the respect to rising global temperatures. In the ensuing discussion, the argument will analyses the potential of cacao plant to either replace Caffea arabica or serve as a diversification crop during a transition period from coffee to cacao, as many of the productive lands of the aforementioned low lying areas are becoming increasingly unsuitable for cultivation of coffee. On the one hand, the argument will focus on vegetal qualities of Theobroma cacao as a well-positioned replacement for Caffea Arabica. On the other, the research will discuss the logistical suitability of this replacement as a result of the similarity of post-harvest processing, and the relatively analogous supply chains shared between green coffee and raw cacao beans.

A recent report by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture indicates that Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are in the fore front of the full impact of climate change with regards to suitability of land under cultivation of coffee. Climate models indicate that by 2050, the majority of the low lying areas – under 1000 meters of elevation – of Mesoamerica will, in all likelihood, experience an increase of 2 to 2.5 degrees in Celsius in mean annual temperature. Moreover, the majority of the region will experience between 5 to 10 percent differential in annual precipitation. (CIAT)

CIAT Table1
Table from CIAT

Given that Caffea arabica is incredibly sensitive to climatic stress, the changing mean annual temperatures will cause a tremendous challenge for coffee farmers in the region. Higher ambient temperatures speed up the ripening process of coffee cherries and therefore result in poorer cup quality. In a region where coffee production is the predominant source of agricultural GDP especially among the small farming families, the degrading quality will directly impact household income as the resultant green bean will certainly fall outside of the 80 percentile mark determined for high premium yielding specialty coffee. (CIAT)

Global map of production of coffee based on species and its consumption – Produced by Author

Moreover, given that coffee is a native plant of the understory layer of southwestern highland forests of Ethiopia, it has biologically adapted to steady and slow vegetal growth. The primary production of coffee in Latin America however takes place in full sun where the coffee plant is in effect growing and producing cherries at much higher rate than it is biologically accustomed to. This differential in growth and production cause a tremendous increase in susceptibility to diseases such as leaf rust disease. Increasing mean temperatures and increasing photosynthetic production as yielded by climate change will, in all likelihood increase the potential in Caffea arabica’s susceptibility to leaf rust disease.

Diagram explaining coffee plantation according to its natural habitat on the top, versus commercial modern plantations in the bottom

Given the narrow climatic conditions that the coffee farms operate within, and given the social and economic structures that comprise the coffee agriculture in this region of the world as one of the few place where rustic or semi-rustic polyculture agroforestry systems persists within a closely knit network of small farm producers, a number of global organizations such as CIAT have invested interest to conduct research as a potential model for combating climate change induced stress in agriculture in other regions of the world. As a result, in all likelihood, there will be an increasing amount of research, initiatives, and funding available for programs that support polyculture or replacement of coffee with other suitable crops. (Coffeelands, Responding to) However, it is important to take into account that many farmers in this region of the Mesoamerica have been farming coffee on lands averaging around 2 hectares using traditional wet mill processing and patio drying for more than 150 years in successive generations. A systematic diversification or complete change in agricultural crop of choice in this region of the world may take more than just research, as local, governmental and international support with regards to implementation and education will certainly be necessary in order to achieve a successful transition. In Nicaragua for instance, majority of farmers do not call themselves cacao farmers, although many small farmers do cultivate and harvest cacao as third or fourth crop. One of the main issues with respect to the potential for cacao as the primary crop in this region is the incorrect attitude that cacao is a low maintenance crop. Many coffee farmers have a small number of Theobroma cacao plants that they harvest as a third crop with very little adequate post-harvest handling. They typically sell the raw and often poorly fermented cacao bean in local markets. As a result, the poor quality of cacao produced and sold using these practices undermines the full capacity of the species as a major source of agricultural income for these small farmers. (Cacao Bisiesto, Cacao in Nicaragua)

The reality of climate change with regards to the production of coffee is not only limited to disease susceptibility and cup quality in that the rising temperatures could easily shift the altitudinal range of the crop upwards over time. Using a simple method of plant classification according to the age old system devised by Alexander Von Humboldt, it is easily recognizable that all species migrate with regards to their range across the global latitudes, as well as across a vertical range in accordance to their altitudinal habitat. These habitats are not fixed and therefore as the global temperatures change over time, the territorial range of species move accordingly. As a result, Von Humboldt first proposed that plant species should not be classified based on nativity to specific regions, but rather in accordance to their altitudinal tolerances. This method of classification is of particular importance to tropical agriculture, and it should be noted that Von Humboldt prioritized altitudinal ranges over latitudinal ones in that latitudinal temperature variations are much less noticeable than changes across elevation in the tropical Central America as a result of extreme topographies and climatic systems created by the Andes.

Drawing by Alexander Von Humboldt explaining the altitudinal range of different dominant species

For instance, given that every 100 meters of change in elevation will result in an approximately 0.5 degrees of Celsius change in temperature, it is easily deducible that with the given predictions of 2 to 2.5 degrees change by 2050, the production of high quality coffee could certainly move up the mountains by 400 to 500 meters in elevation. (Coffeelands, Knocking on) More importantly, as the production range of lower quality coffee will adjust accordingly, the resultant 400 meters in elevation change will encompass much larger territory across lower altitude foothills that have less altitudinal differential across the terrain. As a result, coffee farmers are faced with three primary choices. They may diversify and eventually completely change to a different polyculture of agricultural regime. Alternatively, many farmers could decide to rely heavily on a losing battle of subsidized disease resistant research that supplies specific Arabica strains resistant to leaf rust. Thirdly, the emerging generation may choose to leave farming with migration from rural areas to heavily populated cities.  While option two is a temporary solution at best, option three is not only economically inconceivable, but from an ecological perspective the deserted agricultural territories will experience massive soil erosion and potential landslides as a result of the susceptibility of the volcanic soil in these areas that is ironically very fertile but extremely fragile in the face of erosion. Luckily, Theobroma cacao is an incredibly well suited plant for the circumstances of these conditions. Cacao thrives in warm temperatures, deep soils with abundant organic matter. The species love the evenly distributed rainfall pattern of low lying tropical lands with a minimum of 1200 mm of precipitation per annum. (Coffeelands, responding to) More importantly, given that cacao is a native of riparian zones of the tropics, it has evolved to develop an unusually long tap root for a tropical plant. As a result, Cacao plant is extremely well positioned to combat soil erosion in these areas of the Central America. Moreover, Cacao, much like coffee is produced primarily by farmers that share very similar socio-economic profile to that of coffee farmers. 90 percent of cacao is produced by small family owned farms ranging between 1-5 hectares in size. (Coffeelands, Responding to) Above all, perhaps the most important statistic is Cacao plant’s altitudinal range with an optimal elevation band of 100 to 600 meters above the sea level, making cacao a perfect diversification or even replacement plant for low altitude coffee lands that will eventually fall outside of Caffea arabica’s production range.

Diagram explaining suitable soil make up for cacao plant’s deep tap root morphology

A secondary but perhaps more crucial factor from a socio-economic perspective are the similarities that coffee and cacao share with regards to post-harvest processing and the market structures with regards to production and supply chains. The post-harvest processing for coffee in Central America is predominantly based on wet mill processing and fermentation, with an extremely small group of farmers, mostly in the south and in Brazil relying on dry fermentation. The main driver in this split is the marketability to consumers in the Northern Hemisphere where most of coffee enthusiasts and everyday drinkers are used to the clear, crisp and to some degree bright profile of Latin American high altitude coffee. Dry fermented coffee results in a much fruitier and a much earthier coffee in that coffee cherries are not de-pulped before fermentation. This difference and the need for a wet mill is perhaps the only primary difference in the post-harvest processing of coffee and that of raw cacao beans. Both crops need extensive flat spaces for drying and fermentation with the possibility of utilizing movable trays for both industries. Although the knowledge required to perfect the fermentation process of each crop is fundamentally different, with adequate support and education, small coffee farmers of under 1000 meters of elevation could very easily diversify or completely switch to cacao production.

As previously mentioned coffee is predominantly produced in this region of the world within family owned farms averaging approximately 2 hectares in size. Cacao is also produced within farms of similar make up ranging from 1 to 5 hectares in size. Both crops are produced by an aging demographics with the average coffee farmer and the average cacao farmer both at around 55 years of age, with an increasing number of individual farmers whose children are more and more likely to refrain from continuing the familial trade, in part due to the diminishing profits of the bulk production of both crops. As a result, many metropolitan areas in Central America, West Africa, and East Asia have experienced a massive migration boom of predominantly young workforce encouraged by their previous generation to abandon the agricultural lifestyle. Another important similarity between the two crops is the emergence of a relatively new consumer base that is willing to pay a premium for higher quality raw products. In coffee, the so-called third wave which coffee enthusiast have described as post-Starbucks movement, has mobilized a robust direct trade movement in number of Latin American countries. For instance, Pedro Miguel Echavarria, the founder of Pergamino Café in Medellin is at the fore front of establishing a sophisticated coffee culture in the bustling and growing metropolis of his home town. However, the primary constituent of his growing business consists of sourcing specialty coffee directly from Colombian farms to American coffee roasters.

Cafe Pergamino in Medellin, Colombia

Although direct trade has its own shortcomings in both industries, the so-called exclusive quality that is promised through direct sourcing has resulted in emergence of local cooperatives that are more conscious of quality and DO (Designation of Origin). delos Andes Cooperativa for instance, situated near the city of Andes in Antioquia, has recently equipped itself with highly technological sorting machines that have the capacity to de-shell and process specific green coffee batches separate from one another, in order to preserve the integrity of DO. Although cacao seems to be slightly behind coffee with respect to DO, and coffee itself is tremendously behind wine with regards to DO as a marketing tool, there seems to be a growing evidence that there will be more place-specific sourcing of both products in the future as the consumer base in the Northern Hemisphere pay higher premiums for quality raw products. (Coffeelands, A Napa Valley) The issue that has particular importance with regards to this argument is the commonality of the networks of social, marketing, and trade infrastructures that regulate the supply chain of both crops. Due to this observation, a diversification strategy or complete replacement of coffee framing with cacao in areas that will eventually fall outside the altitudinal range of Caffea arabica could be a potential success.

delos Andes Cooperativa near Andes, Antioquia, Colombia

The argument put forward here makes a compelling argument for on the one hand the need to diversify and ultimately replace coffee as a monocrop in low lying farmlands of Central America. On the other, the analysis has identified Theobroma cacao as an incredibly suitable species for this replacement, in that cacao plant’s biological capacities that are matched for this vulnerable territory, coupled with the potential as a result of the overlapping trade infrastructures and post-harvest techniques with that of coffee industry, makes cacao a potential successor to coffee in farmlands of lower than 1000 meters in elevation. Nevertheless, as identified by this research analysis, there are many challenges at governmental as well as farm level that would require extensive support and education through industry imitated programs. In short, the effort takes more than just sprinkling cacao plants in coffee farms.



“A Napa Valley Vineyard – a Glimpse into the Future of Coffee Farming?” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Cacao in Nicaragua.” Cacao Bisiesto. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Knocking on Coffee’s Door: Cocoa’s Case as a Coffee Farm Alternative.” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Responding to the Climate Crisis through Crop Diversification.” Coffeelands. Web. 04 May 2016.
Thelen, Jeff. “Pergamino Café: Forging a Coffee Culture in Medellín.” The Huffington Post. Web. 04 May 2016.
“Mesoamerican Coffee: Building a Climate Change Adaptation …” CIAT. Web. 4 May 2016.

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