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Cultivation and processing of Amazonian coffees

Processing coffee is an artisanal activity that is performed on the farm and requires only a moderate amount of infrastructure and know-how. Credit: © hack78 / Shutterstock/com

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

There are two major cultivated species of coffee: arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora), each with a multitude of varieties adapted to a broad range of ecological conditions. Arabica represents seventy per cent of global production, while robusta represents about thirty per cent. Traditionally, arabica has been cultivated as ‘shade coffee’ grown at higher elevations, while robusta is ‘sun coffee’ cultivated at lower elevations. There are exceptions, including arabica varieties grown without shade at higher elevations and with shade at lower elevations. Both species of coffee are cultivated in the Amazon.

Elite coffee varieties tend to come from arabica trees grown under shade at optimum altitudes, which vary by latitude but range between 750 and 1,500 meters above sea level. Harvesting and post-harvest processing practices are also important for maintaining quality in elite coffees.
In the Andes, arabica is the predominant coffee cultivar. Colombia is third largest producer of coffee and is well known for its high-quality elite arabicas.

However, most Colombian coffee is grown in the Magdalena watershed, while in Venezuela production  is concentrated in the mountains overlooking the Caribbean coast. The largest producer of arabica in the Amazon is Peru (Human Modified Landscapes (HML) #37, #38, #42, #43, #45), followed by Bolivia (HML #33) and Ecuador (HML #48). Robusta was once widely cultivated in Amazonian Ecuador (HML #49 and #$50), but after about 2000, Ecuadorian smallholders began shifting production to oil palm or cacao. Robusta is cultivated sporadically in lowland Peru (HML #40, #41, #44, #46) and Chiquitania Bolivia (HML #29).

Coffee production trends in Amazonian territories of four countries. Cultivated area is decreasing in Rondônia, Brazil, but yield increases have kept production relatively stable. Ecuadorian producers have abandoned the cultivation of [robusta] coffee in Ecuador’s Amazonian provinces, where growers are switching to cacao and oil palm. Price volatility linked to weather events in other regions (mainly Southern Brazil) causes periodic windfalls for Amazonian and Andean producers. Source: FAOSTAT, IBGE/SIDRA.

In Peru, coffee is commonly cultivated on small farms that also produce food crops and livestock; more than 85 per cent of production originates on 150,000 family farms with coffee groves smaller than five hectares. Coffee is a cash crop harvested once a year over several weeks. Family labor is key to its success because it allows small farmers to absorb the fluctuations of price volatility; however, it also limits their ability to expand production.

Commercial farms cultivating larger extensions obtain better yields, but since they rely on contract labor, they are also exposed to greater price risk from international markets. Net income varies depending upon production strategy but gross annual revenues between $US 1,000 and $US 1,500 are possible with yields of about 700 and 900 kilograms per hectare. The coffee sector exported about $US 670 million in 2016, roughly two per cent of total Peruvian exports. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, coffee generates some 855,000 jobs in Peru, the vast majority of which are on-farm jobs performed by family members.

The arabica coffee plant grows in a climate zone subject to weather fluctuations that can greatly impact yield and, in some cases, lead to large-scale die-off of plantations. When this type of event hits one of the major producing countries, particularly Brazil, price hikes can dramatically improve incomes. Many Peruvian coffee farmers go years with only marginal rates of return, but a price spike will provide a windfall that justifies what is essentially a long-term investment.

Producers may lose their investment due to local weather events, such as drought or exceptionally humid years, or a disease outbreak. Coffee plantations across the Americas suffer from a coffee rust known as la roya, a fungal pathogen that can quickly devastate a plantation. Peru suffered from an outbreak of coffee rust in 2012/2013, which reduced harvests and forced growers to replant infected groves with resistant varieties.

Conventional and traditional producers in Peru represent about seventy per cent of total production and typically do not participate in certification programmes, choosing instead to emphasize yield, maximize income over the short term and reduce risk from plant pathogens. Entrepreneurial growers who adopt shade or organic practices tend to participate in growers’ associations in order to improve market access via a certification programme. Shaded, organic, certified beans pay a premium of about ten per cent when compared to traditional coffee beans. These growers often obtain assistance from NGOs or alternative development programmes.

Coffee beans are separated from the fruit (top) and then dried in ovens or in the sun. Image by Martin Nabert /

The Brazilian coffee industry generates about 25% of global coffee production. Arabica is the main coffee crop, with production in the states of Paraná, São Paolo and Minas Gerais contributing about eighty per cent of national production, all of which is outside the Amazon. In Amazonian Brazil, production is concentrated in Rondônia, where robusta varieties are cultivated by about 22,000 smallholders, each with plots between four and ten hectares in size. It is also cultivated in Acre and in the smallholder communities of Northern Mato Grosso. Referred to by Brazilians as conilon, this non-elite coffee is an important part of the smallholder production model in Rondônia, contributing about $US 150 million annually in gross revenues. The total area under cultivation has declined over the last couple of decades from more than 200,000 hectares in 2005 to less than 95,000 hectares in 2016; however, yields climbed from 550 kg/ha to 1.2 tonnes/ha over the same period.

According to agronomists with the Brazilian extension service, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA), the potential yield for robusta varieties in Rondônia is ~4 tonnes/ha when grown with irrigation and optimum nutrient management. Depending upon the price, which varies greatly from year to year, a small farmer in Rondônia can generate revenues of between $US 1,100 per hectare to more than $US 6,300. The feasibility of this production system depends partially on family labor, though less so than in the Andes.

The global coffee market has experienced significant changes over the last decade. Global demand for mass-market coffees has increased by an order of magnitude (x 10) due to changes in consumer preferences in traditionally tea-drinking nations such as China. Simultaneously, coffee-drinking counties, like the US, have increased consumption of elite coffees. Peru and the other Andean countries are focusing on the elite coffee market, and many producers are adding value to their production by embracing certification and organic production paradigms.

These countries have large areas of idle land located on landscapes with current growing conditions capable of producing premium coffee beans that are highly competitive in global markets. Nonetheless, climate change threatens the long-term viability of existing plantation landscapes, and growers may be forced to ‘migrate upward” into intact montane and cloud forest habitat. If so, that would provoke widespread deforestation, the main driver of which would be climate change in combination with the ongoing demand for elite coffees from arabica varieties grown under ideal climate conditions.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 3 here:

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