Diversity within Diversity: Assessing Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems in Mesoamerica


There are 25 million smallholder coffee farmers around the world, many of whom have integrated fruit trees and honey production into their coffee fields for generations. Their farming practices are diversified because they incorporate vegetable crops into small fields of corn and beans called milpas, and by growing a variety of crops and small livestock (i.e., chickens) in home gardens.

With the use of such diversified activities, coffee farmers alter their livelihood strategies searching for suitable economic viability and household subsistence, naturally impacting gender relations, income streams, and community resilience. In coffee, farmers must innovate on the margins to devise strategies for improving their lives; however, they continue to be particularly vulnerable under conditions of high-risk climate changes and inequitable market conditions indicative of the coffee region and market.

Path Towards Food Sovereignty

Knowledge of best practices in agroecological diversification is a promising path towards food sovereignty for the small scale coffee farmer, who is marginalized from price decisions of their commercial crops. As a major principle within Agroecology, farmers use diversification to manage risk, enhance soil quality and fertility, varied forms of productivity, generate alternative income streams, and improve diets with broader flexibility.  We want to learn what forms of diversification strategies contribute to food security, gender equity, and climatic resilience.

Participatory Action Research Project

To explore this in more depth, our collaborative team of scientists, farmers, coffee cooperatives, and NGOs designed a participatory action research project called: Assessing diversification strategies in smallholder coffee systems in Nicaragua and Mexico. A multi-national collaborative designed to co-create knowledge of diversification activities (apiculture, milpa, etc.), and how different combinations of these activities result in either more or less successful livelihood strategies. Together we want to create a deeper knowledge on what factors matter most, and how to effectively support coffee producers and farmer cooperatives in making the best decisions about where to invest their precious resources.

Agroecology brings together universities, coffee cooperatives, and NGOs to co-produce knowledge through a social engagement and participatory process for learning about the distinct types of diversification strategies used by shade coffee farmers to build a deeper understanding of the impacts of such varied diversification activities on farmers, their families, and their communities.