Palm Cultivation Helps Struggling Coffee Farmers in Mexico

Palms growing alongside coffee in the shade of standing forest near the village of Sierra Morena in Chiapas, Mexico.

Palms growing alongside coffee in the shade of standing forest near the village of Sierra Morena in Chiapas, Mexico. (© Siddhartha Alvarez Jaramillo)

This weekend, millions of churchgoers across the globe will celebrate Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palm fronds. In the United States, some of those symbolic fronds originate in Chiapas, Mexico, where they have helped to improve the lives and livelihoods of rural farmers.

When I traveled to Chiapas last year, my main goal was to learn more about sustainable coffee production in some of the villages that CI has supported by promoting more environmentally-friendly practices and providing loans to small- and medium-sized businesses. However, in Sierra Morena, a village home to 200 people in the buffer zone of El Sepultura Biosphere Reserve, the story turned out to be much more complex.

We arrived in Sierra Morena after a long drive from dry, dusty Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. As I got out of the car in front of a one-room schoolhouse with Tweety Bird painted on the front, I rejoiced in the cooler temperatures that come with higher elevation. A group of men from the village came out to greet us, and we soon set off for a tour of their coffee plots.

Girl in front of one-room schoolhouse in Sierra Morena, a village in the buffer zone of El Sepultura Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. Sierra Morena's 200 residents are highly dependent on coffee production for their livelihoods.

Girl in front of one-room schoolhouse in Sierra Morena, a village in the buffer zone of El Sepultura Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. Sierra Morena's 200 residents are highly dependent on coffee production for their livelihoods. (© CI/Photo by Miguel Angel de la Cueva)

For most families living in Sierra Morena, coffee is their primary crop, grown in the shade of the forest. Indeed, getting to the coffee required much ducking under branches and scrambling up steep hillsides covered in loose leaf litter. Once we reached one of the farmer’s plots, I was surprised to see many small palm trees (genus Chamaedorea) growing alongside the coffee in the forest understory.

The farmers explained that they have been cultivating palms for 15 years for sale to buyers in the U.S. Most of the palms are distributed on Palm Sunday, though some are sold as ornamental plants. Like coffee, these palms thrive in low sunlight, so they can be grown in the shade of standing forest. And also like the coffee in this village, the palms are grown sustainably; farmers only harvest the plants once they reach a certain size, a practice that sets them apart from many Palm Sunday palm producers.

Recently, the farmers in Sierra Morena reached a deal with one buyer, who now purchases their entire crop annually. During the two harvest periods (one before and one shortly after Easter), farmers harvest the palms before dawn and bring them to a small warehouse in the village, where many of their wives and daughters package the plants for shipment.

This is more than just a nice story about making palm production more sustainable; at its heart, this is a story of farmers taking action to protect themselves from crop failure and the inevitable impacts of climate change.

The main road through the village of Sierra Morena in Chiapas, Mexico. The forests surrounding the village protect coffee and palm tree plots from strong sunlight.

The main road through the village of Sierra Morena in Chiapas, Mexico. The forests surrounding the village protect coffee and palm tree plots from strong sunlight. (© CI/Photo by Molly Bergen)

As many recent news stories have emphasized, climate change is making coffee more difficult to grow in the places where it has traditionally flourished. When I talked with farmers in Chiapas, almost all of them mentioned that the weather has been more unpredictable in recent years. Temperatures fluctuate, rain falls at the wrong time, and coffee production plummets. The farmers here are proud of their coffee, but they all seem to agree that they are not producing as much as before.

In addition to mitigating the impacts of climate change through planting trees and other practices, another solution is to become less reliant on one source of income. In Sierra Morena, farmers with failing coffee crops can fall back on palm production to get them through a difficult season. The palms may be affected by climate change as well, but in any case, economic diversification provides a sort of insurance policy against disaster.

As environmental destruction — and the poverty issues closely connected with it — continues around the world, working in conservation can sometimes be disheartening. But when I hear stories like this — stories that reveal the often unknown yet beneficial connections between a farmer in a remote village in Mexico, a coffee drinker in Paris, and a Texas churchgoer — it reminds me that along with the challenges, our globalized world has also created many opportunities for positive change.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team. To learn more about how your actions impact Mexican farmers — and vice versa — check out our Team Earth story: “Chiapas: Coffee, Climate and Conservation in Mexico.”

Comments

  1. sebastian says

    interesting how farmers use palm trees as an aditional income source and at the same time they protect the enviroment, this practice is very common among coffe growers, in Colombia, my natal country, is also a trend.

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