Joaquin Solorzano, a coffee farmer and advocate for Nicaraguan growers, pointed at the cherries on a cluster of coffee plants visible from the winding mountain highway that was eerily empty during the 2019 harvest.
“Look, it’s red,” Solórzano said. “It should be picked, but no one is picking it right now because they won’t get much money for it. Most of the coffee falls.”
With coffee production in other countries driving down prices and droughts and storms wreaking havoc, coffee farmers in Central America have had to make tough choices in recent years.
Coffee is one of the many industries around the world feeling the pressures of climate change.
And, as people lose their livelihoods, access to food or even their homes, climate change is becoming a larger impetus for forced migration.
US immigration laws aren’t equipped to grapple with whether someone fleeing the effects of climate change should be given refuge. But as those effects worsen, the United States is already seeing Central American coffee workers arrive at the border and ask for help.
The disappearance of coffee workers can have a ripple effect on other jobs in a region, leading to even more displacement.
“All of the north of the country depends on coffee — the economy depends on coffee cultivation,” said Aura Lila Sevilla Kuan, former president of the Asociación de Cafetaleros de Matagalpa in Nicaragua.
Droughts weakened the Nicaraguan coffee harvest in 2016 and 2017, and the drier-than-usual soil meant that, when rain did come, it damaged the plants, Solorzano said.
Owners went into debt because the harvests yielded less than what they had invested. Now they are stuck in a cycle of shrinking their production to try to make ends meet.
Unemployed Nicaraguan coffee workers most often migrate to nearby Costa Rica, though some have tried coming to the United States. Coffee workers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala more often choose to head north rather than south.
Balbino Pais, manager of Finca Las Colinas, a younger farm in the Matagalpa area, said he’s heard from workers who have left that wages are better in Costa Rica, but many return because they can’t find year-round jobs.
Miguel Martinez, who had nearly a decade of experience working coffee farms, tried working in Costa Rica and El Salvador before giving up and coming back to Nicaragua. He eventually found work with Pais.
Coffee farming requires intense manual labor. The cherries are generally hand-picked, with workers harvesting the plants several times during a season. Workers carry heavy bags of coffee on their backs over the mountainous terrain to be weighed and transported for drying.
Workers are generally paid based on how much coffee they pick, some making as little as 5 or 6 dollars per day.
Justo Pastor Osegueda, owner of Finca Los Altos, another farm in the region, closed down for about two months in 2019, letting go of most of his workers in order to save money. It was the first time in 29 years as an owner that he had ever done that, he said.
When he was ready to hire more workers again, many had left for Costa Rica. Some ended up coming back. They were disillusioned by their experiences abroad, he said.
Climate change struck Central American coffee farms hard again in 2020 as two hurricanes — Eta and Iota — slammed into the region in November.
According to the International Coffee Organization, landslides and flooding caused by the storms damaged large areas of the coffee regions in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Initial reports estimated that as much as 15% of the land used for growing coffee in Nicaragua was affected.
Many are predicting that these latest natural disasters, paired with the economic devastation of the pandemic, will lead to an increase in Central American migration in 2021.