Cocoa farming in booms after climate change wreaks havoc on coffee crops

Soaring temperatures in Central America due to climate change are forcing farmers to pull up coffee trees and replace them with cocoa plants, spurring a revival in the cultivation of a crop once so essential to the region’s economy it was used as currency.

Farmers across the region, known for its high-quality arabica beans, are still recovering from a devastating coffee leaf rust disease known as roya that wiped out crops over the past three years.

Now, with lower-altitude areas of farmland becoming unsuitable for coffee cultivation as temperatures heats up, many growers have switched to cocoa, which thrives in the warmer weather.

“In the lower part of all the coffee properties, they have to look for another alternative because coffee is no longer viable due to climate change. So, the alternative, as I see it, is to sow cocoa. Why? Because it has the best price (in the market), there is less investment required to sow and renew a 0.7 hectares of coffee you need $5,000 dollars and to sow 0.7 hectares of cocoa you need $1,500 dollars,” said Roger Castellon who is harvesting his first cocoa crop on his 420 hectare farm in the northern Nicaraguan department of Jinotega.

The quiet shift across Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala is already discernible in data: next year, coffee exports from the region will fall for the third straight year to 9 million 60-kg bags, the lowest level since the 1981/82 crop year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, cocoa production and exports have steadily risen, albeit from a low base. In Nicaragua, cocoa exports between January and August were up more than 80 percent from the same period last year at 5,300 tonnes.

“Coffee is no longer for this region, the yields aren’t good, they require more investment while for cocoa we are at an excellent altitude for it. This farm is between 300 (984 feet) and 500 metres (1640 feet) above sea level and that’s the best for cocoa,” said Roberto Mairena, who owns a cocoa farm in Nicaragua’s Matagalpa department.

Diomenes Lopez, who heads a cocoa cooperative in the region, said the switch to cocoa crops has benefited both the environment and production capacity.

“We have implemented the sowing of cocoa crops as an alternative and we have seen the benefits of the cocoa plants. The cocoa plants are environmentally friendly, we reforest the basins and we can produce at the same time,” he said.

A coalition of NGOs and government agencies hopes to expand cocoa production in El Salvador to 10,000 acres in five years, up from just 100 in 2014. Even in Honduras, where the recovery from roya has been a success, the government is requiring its growers to substitute 8 percent of coffee land to cocoa, recognizing the long-term threat of higher temperatures on crops. Last year, European chocolate maker Ritter Sport bought a plantation in Nicaragua which it hopes will eventually supply 30 percent of its needs.

To be sure, the region will not supplant West Africa as the leading supplier of the main ingredient in chocolate anytime soon.

But high global prices are providing an incentive to farmers to switch. The region’s nascent cocoa industry will also ease concerns about long-term stable supplies amid weather scares and the potential for civil strife in Ivory Coast and Ghana.