Long-term testing of Agroforestry Systems with coffee

High technology coffee production in Central America has achieved efficient yields for selected groups of producers who produce coffee under the best conditions. In recent decades, the tripling or quadrupling of yields has been achieved at the expense of some ecological processes such as nutrient recycling systems and food webs.

Diverse sectors, including financial entities, scientific groups, environmentalist and even end consumers, have questioned the high technology system that is dependent on large inflows of synthetic inputs for several reasons. These reasons include: First, the high cost of purchasing the inputs plus variable prices for the coffee produced have increased economic vulnerability, even for successful producers. Second, the model is no longer viable for many small-scale coffee growers with limited resources. Third, there is concern, particularly in the context of climate change, about the loss of biodiversity due to the elimination or simplification of shade in coffee plantations. Finally, high pesticide and fertilizer usage has caused soil degradation along with increased environmental pollution in watersheds that are water sources for rural and urban populations.

Coffee growers have carried out several actions to reduce costs, facilitate access to specialty markets and diversify their sources of income. This study aims to identify the ecological processes and interactions that can form the basis for the development of sustainable coffee farming. Better yields from these processes would enable designing a system that uses ecological efficiencies to reduce costs, improve quality and generate additional income.

With the aim of providing basic knowledge for the promotion of sustainable coffee farming and filling significant information gaps about agro-ecological interactions and productivity, in 2000 CATIE established two long-term experiments in Turrialba, Costa Rica (moist lowland zone) and Masatepe, Nicaragua (dry lowland zone).

These trials, with the collaboration of different national and international institutions, have allowed the development of different studies on topics such as soil fertility and life forms, production, environmental services, pests and diseases, etc. Each trial is comparing the evolution of different coffee production systems (full sun, systems associated with different types of trees, and conventional and organic management at different levels). The behavior of different coffee varieties is also being evaluated; for example, in Costa Rica we are studying Caturra Costa Rica 95, F1 hybrids (Centroamérica and Milenio), and others, while in Nicaragua varieties such as Catrenic, Pacas, CARO, PARO and the F1 hybrids are being evaluated.

For more than a decade, these trials, unprecedented in the world, are continually generating a series of data and analyses that are available to scientists, technicians, students, producers and decision-makers.