The Coffee Diversification Project

By Rose Cohen

The international market price for coffee has dropped to less than $1/lb—the lowest price since 2006. The 24 million coffee farmers around the world cannot cover their costs of living, much less the cost of production at this price. In addition to volatile markets, farmers confront the volatility of climate change. Erratic rainfall and disease outbreaks threaten crop production. High risk and low pricing begs the question—is it worth the labor to harvest?

Honey Bees: Raising bees for honey production (Las Segovias). Photo: Alejandra Guzman

The Coffee Diversification Project brings together farmers, farmers’ cooperatives, and university researchers to learn more about how farmers incorporate multiple activities into their coffee farms to make it worth the harvest. How do diversification activities such as raising bees or planting corn strengthen food security, gender equity and climate adaptation, while creating dignified livelihoods for small farmers and their families?

This project places two of our coffee cooperative partners — CESMACH and PRODECOOP — at the forefront. CESMACH is a farmers’ cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, with more than 600 members, nestled alongside the El Triunfo bioreserve. PRODECOOP is a farmers’ cooperative in Las Segovias, Nicaragua, with more than 2,000 members, that has made significant strides in ending seasonal hunger among their members.

Promotor conducting household survey about diversification with farmers in their corn field (Las Segovias). Photo: Maria Eugenia Flores

Together with researchers and students from the University of Vermont, Santa Clara University, Universidad Nacional Agraria, and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, we have been collaborating on participatory and action-oriented research.

At the heart of this project are teams of young coffee farmers, called facilitadores or promotores, who work alongside researchers. These teams build and share skills, becoming teachers of agroecology and community organizers. They deepen their knowledge of the land their community cultivates as they survey, interview, and conduct workshops with more than 100 farming families in Mexico and Nicaragua. Farmer experience guides this research, co-creating relevant analysis and results that support cooperatives’ strategies to diversify and exert more control over their future.

This project is important because I have the opportunity to listen to coffee farmers. They share what life is like for a campesino. It is not easy, and they have a lot of responsibilities. They have been impacted by [financial scarcity] and disease outbreak. …But they diversify their production. In some households, we know people who have two or three more activities [besides growing coffee, based on] what nature provides in their parcels.

— William Salomon Roblero Lopez, farmer, member of CESMACH,
facilitator for the coffee diversification project

Calendar documenting rainfall, planting and harvest of different crops, disease outbreaks, and cash availability (Chiapas). Photo: Linda Lonnqvist

One thing is clear: our cooperative partners leverage the power of strong organization and agroecological farming practices to create dignified livelihoods. Small farmers organize into cooperatives use people power to negotiate better prices, demand their right to a dignified livelihood, and build solidarity across the supply chain. Alternative supply chains have emerged through these efforts, guaranteeing fairer prices and long-term transparent relationships, both critical for challenging a capitalist market system stacked against small farmers.  Furthermore, cooperatives support their members in agroecological diversification so they are not wholly dependent on a cash crop for export. This means small coffee farmers draw upon a long history of knowledge and practice to cultivate coffee forests that integrate nitrogen-fixing shade trees, fruit trees such as oranges and cacao, and bee hives for producing honey.

Harvest Food: Farmers with facilitadores analyzing diversity of food crops, including wild greens (Chiapas).

They supplement their coffee production with backyard fowl, vegetable home gardens and parcels where they grow corn, beans and a variety of nutrient-rich greens.

We have much to learn from our cooperative partners about creating economic alternatives based in community, shared abundance and well-being. The Coffee Diversification Project will deepen our understanding about how agroecological diversification is an integral part of creating alternative economies. Coffee farmers face a difficult road ahead, but through solidarity and shared learning we can ensure that agroecology has a deeper impact, increasing farmer autonomy in the food system.

The Coffee Diversification Project’s First Intercambio

From November 19-23, 2018, the project’s 1st cross-site research and learning exchange, or Intercambio, took place in Nicaragua. Mexican farmers, cooperative leaders, university researchers, students and youth traveled to Nicaragua to visit farmers’ fields, share each other’s diversification activities and dialogue about what has and hasn’t worked. 


Rachel Northrop covered the First Cross-site Farmer-to-Farmer Research and Learning Exchange, as well as the overall project, for Fresh Cup magazine. 

Her article, Diversified Agroecology, was published in the February 2019 issue. 

Read Here

Meeting Katya Romero

By Linda Lonnqvist

Katya Romero

During the first day at CII-ASDENIC’s meeting center, we met coffee farmers, cooperative coordinators, university students, community researchers, and academics. After visiting PRODECOOP’s tidy offices we dove straight into dialogue and analysis about the project’s research questions, gender policy at each cooperative and quotations gathered from participants about the most significant change experienced during the first half of the project. With such a diverse range of people it was fascinating to hear the different points of view. For example, Katya Romero’s perspective, an engineering student at Universidad Nacional Agraria who is writing her thesis on water accessibility as part of the Coffee Diversification Project. She measures flow in rivers to address the lack of water faced by small farmers for domestic and agricultural use. Access to water can shape the decisions a farmers makes about how to diversify their production. After day 1, Katya told me that the Intercambio opened her eyes to several issues—the importance of youth participation and differences in gender equality between Nicaragua and Mexico. She’d also realized that farmers are giving us time they don’t have when we visit to do interviews. This resonates with one of the Project’s central commitments: ensuring research is relevant for farmers and is shared through popular education materials that are accessible to the cooperatives’ youth, women and men.

Campesino a Campesino: Farmers Learning from Each Other

By Alejandra Guzmán Luna

At 3 am in mid-November 2018, five Mexican farmers began the journey of a life time. They traveled from their small communities in the Sierra Madre del Sur, located in Chiapas to the nearest city four or five hours away, finally reaching Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. There they joined a researcher from El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (EcoSur) and two CAN project managers who work closely with the team of facilitadores at CESMACH. They all flew to Estelí, Nicaragua, to participate in the 1st Intercambio of The Coffee Diversification Project. For the farmers, this was the first of many firsts. One very long journey and two planes later, the Mexican coffee farmers met fellow coffee producers from Nicaragua and began to discover how much they shared in common.

While the farmers were shy at the beginning, all that changed during the visits to farmers’ fields. During the Intercambio, we were organized into three teams to visit three different locations. The team I belonged to visited the San Antonio Cooperative located in the community of San Lucas.

During our tours of two farms the conversation between Mexican and Nicaraguan farmers was non-stop and the mutual learning was constant: how do you deal with rain in order to keep your bees producing? How can you mix cacao and coffee plants in the same plot? How can you protect plants from leaf-cutter ant? These are just a few examples of the discussions. The diverse answers to the same question demonstrated the highly specialized knowledge and experience of each farmer.

Don Alvaro

One of the farms we visited was Don Alvaro’s, a farmer-experimenter participating in the Project. He is conducting an that tests the best time to plant his coffee. Don Alvaro has also planted yuca (Manihot esculenta) because it is very resistant to the dry season and does well in a very strong rainy season. “It’s a way to deal with climate change,” he explained.

Don Alvaro’s farm is a model of diversification. He grows a small amount of coffee in his backyard, has a milpa planted with native food crops, fruit, a couple of pigs, and a rainwater collection system. He uses different methods to protect his farm’s soil. Don Alvaro also raises poultry that he sells in his community. He’s able to sell organic chicken meat at lower prices than the conventional market, and still turn a profit for his family. Don Alvaro glows with pride when he talks about his work. His skill in cultivating a diversified farm makes it possible to feed his family of seven.   

The Coffee Diversification Project asks: How does agroecological diversification strengthen food security, gender equity and climate adaptation, while creating dignified livelihoods for small farmers and their families? Did our trip to Don Alvaro’s help move us forward? Apparently so: on the return trip, a young farmer from Mexico told me about his plans to diversify his own farm based on what he learned from Don Alvaro’s experience, work, and perseverance.

The project Assessment of Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems (No AF 1507-086: No FDNC Engt 00063479) is supported under the “Thought for Food” Initiative of the Agropolis Foundation (through the “Investissements d’avenir” programme with reference number ANR10-LABX-0001-01), Fondazione Cariplo and Daniel & Nina Carasso.

The first Cross-site Farmer-to-Farmer Learning Exchange was made possible by the Thought for Food” Initiative, as well as Equal Exchange, a fair-trade worker-owned cooperative based in the United States that purchases coffee from both CESMACH and PRODECOOP, a partnership with Grow Aheads crowd funding campaign (a consumer advocacy non-profit contributing to the movement to build a just economy that benefits and empowers all people especially those traditionally marginalized), and in-kind contributions from all 8 project organizations.