New vulnerability assessment shows how climate change could redraw the agricultural map of Central America

Climate change could transform the agricultural landscape in Central America, with key crops like beans and export-quality coffee losing suitability, and potentially dire impacts on farmers and rural livelihoods, according to a new study.

The findings add to the mounting evidence that rising temperatures and longer, more intense dry seasons will severely affect agriculture in one of Latin America’s poorest regions unless measures are taken to prepare and adapt.

“Climate change could redraw the agricultural map of Central America,” said Peter Laderach, climate scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and one of the authors of the study, published today in Climatic Change.

“What will be key is how prepared farmers across the region are for the changes to come, their ability to adapt, and how soon they can act. Our study is the most through assessment yet of the likely impacts in Central America and the vulnerability of local populations.”

The researchers used crop and climate models to assess the likely impact of climate change by 2050 in 1,000 municipalities across Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

They found that the effects will vary widely, requiring nuanced responses from policymakers.

But on average, the results showed that bean, coffee – the region’s most valuable export crop – and banana will suffer the greatest decreases in suitability. The most severe changes are expected in municipalities in the Dry Corridor, a drought-prone area spanning the four countries, and home to approximately 10 million people.

Meanwhile maize, cassava, upland rice and sorghum are expected to respond positively to climate change in all the countries studied. But the authors warn that while some areas may become more suitable for these crops, some are protected areas such as forests or important water recharge areas.

The authors also stress that even though some crops will gain in suitability, farmers might still struggle to make the transition. “If farmers have to switch crops, that’s a major decision that can require significant financial outlay and risk,” said study leader Claudia Bouroncle, of the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Centre (CATIE). “Many won’t have the means to make the change.”

To address this, the scientists also assessed the vulnerability of farming communities in each municipality, and their “adaptive capacity” – their ability to respond to the situation. They hope the findings will help policymakers prioritse their investments in climate change adaptation.

“Our results suggest that a full spectrum of adaptation activities must be considered in the region,” continued Bouroncle. “In areas where crops will suffer the greatest reductions in suitability, adaptation pathways require major responses at the farm and supra-farm level that could include restoration of degraded lands, rearrangement of land uses across territories and, livelihood diversification. But if we review the ongoing adaptation initiatives in the region, we can see that most of them are too narrow, focusing on changes in practices and technologies within the current systems.”

The team are hopeful their approach can be refined and applied in other climate change-prone parts of the world.

CATIE’s Pedro Imbach, a climate change and ecosystems services scientist and co-author of the study, said: “Our approach can be applied in other countries or regions to identify spatial priorities for adaptation using widely-available data. We suggest refinement of the climate change impacts in terms of changes in crop productivity related to climate variability, the inclusion of social, cultural and natural assets in the characterization of the adaptive capacity and a focus on agricultural landscapes”.

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Call to Action

  1. Conduct Municipality-level Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments in other parts of the world – many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America could benefit from this kind assessment. It could help policymakers develop nuanced, spatial priorities for adapting agriculture to climate change.
  2. Further refine the CCVA approach to include additional variables such as social, natural and cultural assets.

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