How smallholder farmers in Central America adapt to climate change

Three people in maize field

In Central America, most agricultural production is done by smallholder farmers who cultivate small plots of land (usually <5 hectares) for subsistence and income generation. Smallholder farmers are important both for the production of staple foods, such as maize and beans, as well as for coffee, which represents 9% of the exports in this region and directly supports the income of 1.8 million families.

Many smallholder farmers are struggling to maintain agricultural production due to changing climatic conditions. Across the region, rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns have resulted in flash floods, landslides, drought and disease outbreaks that have reduced crop production and negatively impacted farmer livelihoods. Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they depend on rain-fed crops, are located in marginal, environmentally fragile landscapes where their farms are exposed to a variety of climatic hazards, and have limited financial or technical capacity to adapt to changing conditions.

Policy makers across the region are increasingly recognizing that helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change will be critical for maintaining agricultural production, ensuring food security and alleviating poverty, and are exploring how to most effectively develop policies and programs that enhance the adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers. However, policy action is limited by the lack of information on which farming communities are most vulnerable to climate change, how smallholder farmers are being impacted by climate change and what options are most effective at helping them adapt to climate change.

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CASCADE uses Ecosystem-based Adaptation as vital part of project implantation

CASCADE is working to fill these knowledge gaps and support the development of adaptation programs for smallholder farmers. With funding from the International Climate Initiative of the German Ministry for the Environment (BUMB), the project focuses on understanding the vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change, identifying effective adaptation strategies that can help them adapt to climate change, and promoting the incorporation of these strategies into policies, programs and capacity building activities. The project is being conducted in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, with activities led by Conservation International, Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enzeñanza (CATIE) and French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).

Two people sitting in front of a hut

Specific focus is on the potential use of Ecosystem-based Adaptation, the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy, to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change. This approach takes advantage of existing resources, is low-tech, can be easily adopted by smallholder farmers, and provides important co-benefits to farmers, such as the continued provision of water and other ecosystem services. EbA practices in agricultural systems range from the use of shade trees in coffee systems to buffer temperature extremes, to the use of cover crops to prevent soil erosion during extreme rainfall events, to the conservation of riparian forests to ensure continued provision of water to farms and households.

To generate the information needed for policy action, the CASCADE project has used expert consultations, mapping exercises and technical workshops to understand the vulnerability of smallholder farmers to climate change and to map the locations of subsistence and coffee smallholder farmers with the lowest capacity to adapt to climate change in all three countries. These maps have been shared with policy makers to help them identify which smallholder farming communities are in most urgent need of adaptation support.

Person measuring tree trunk

Smallholder farmers are particular vulnerable to climate change

The project has conducted modeling work to understand the expected impacts of climate change on agriculture and ecosystem service provision. Preliminary results suggest that the impacts of climate change on smallholder farmers will be significant. By 2050, the number of people in Central America under water stress, scarcity or absolute scarcity will increase by 33%, the area of land suitable for coffee production and bean production will decrease by 11% and 12%, respectively, and 65% of the region will suffer a reduction in the number of pollinator species, compromising coffee pollination.

Person measuring tree height

Surveys of smallholder farmers indicate that climate change is already affecting farmer livelihoods. Of the 890 smallholder coffee and maize farmers surveyed by the project, 95% reported that they have perceived changes in climate during the last decade. Preliminary results indicate that smallholder farmers are already feeling the impacts of climate variability and extreme weather events, with 32% reporting declines in food security, 78% reporting declines in crop production, and 44% reporting reduced income generation from agricultural activities. Roughly half of farmers interviewed are already changing their agricultural management practices to adjust to changing condition, including the use of Ecosystem-based Adaptation strategies (particularly the use of shade in coffee).

View above mountains

Currently the project is characterizing the extent and diversity of EbA strategies on smallholder farms. In particular, the effectiveness of different types of shade within coffee plantations has in important role: How can they regulate disease and pest outbursts related to climate change? To what extend can the different types support maintaining coffee yields? What other and additional ecosystem services can help make farmers more resilient to climate change? Together, these studies will provide unique and policy-relevant information on the effectiveness of EbA strategies in helping smallholder farmers cope with the impacts of climate change.

The CASCADE project is already helping to raise awareness of the urgent need to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change and of the important role that Ecosystem-based Adaptation can play in helping these farmers become more resilient. The project has already produced important, new scientific information on the expected impacts of climate change impacts on crops, ecosystem services, and smallholder farmers in the region, with 5 scientific papers, 1 infographic (in National Geographic) and 3 policy briefs published, and with many additional publications underway on the adaptation practices that farmers use. The project is currently organizing a special edition of the journal Climatic Change, which will include 12 papers on the impacts of climate change on Central American agriculture and ecosystems (of which 8 include CASCADE authors).


Project members are also actively sharing information and discussing the implications of these results with a wide group of stakeholders, including policy makers, extension agents, technicians, scientists and farmers. To date, the project has organized 3 national level workshops with technicians and policy makers, 6 community-level workshops, and 3 expert meetings, and presented results in numerous scientific and policy events. All of the project results are currently being integrated into the development of capacity building materials which extension agents and technicians can use to promote the use of Ecosystem-based Adaptation with smallholder farmers across the region.

By combining robust scientific work with detailed policy analyses, stakeholder outreach and capacity building, the CASCADE project is playing a critical role in creating the scientific evidence and enabling conditions to promote the use of Ecosystem based Adaptation as a key strategy for improving smallholder farmer resiliency to climate change across the Central American region.

Two people talking