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date: 16 May 2022

Environmental History of Coffee in Latin Americafree

Environmental History of Coffee in Latin Americafree

  • Stuart McCookStuart McCookDepartment of History, University of Guelph


Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.


  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • Environmental History

The Environmental History of Coffee in Latin America

Most of the world’s coffee is produced in the Americas, as it has been since the mid-18th century. Latin America’s coffee is cultivated in a mosaic of tropical highlands contained within a vast area that ranges from Brazil in the south to Mexico in the north, and from Peru in the west to Puerto Rico in the east. Within this area, coffee has been produced in three major regions, each defined by a combination of geography and history. The first region is the Caribbean, where the coffee plant was first introduced in the early 18th century. It was the home of plantation coffee in the Americas, produced by slaves. The second region is Brazil, which has been the world’s largest single producer of coffee since the mid-19th century. Brazil produces much of the world’s commodity-grade arabica coffee. The third major coffee region is the Cordillera, an archipelago of coffee zones that encompasses nine major producing countries along the mountainsides of the American Cordillera, from Peru north to Mexico, including Central America and Colombia. Although these countries are not traditionally considered as a group, the term “Cordillera” highlights their shared environmental and economic history, at least with respect to coffee. Coffee farmers in the Cordillera—unlike those in Brazil—have historically focused on quality rather than volume (although Colombia was the world’s second-largest producer of coffee for most of the 20th century). They produce some of the world’s highest-quality, wet-processed arabica coffees, known as “milds.”

In each of these regions, coffee has been cultivated in many different ways; these have been constantly evolving since the moment coffee was first introduced to the Americas. The structure of individual coffee farms, and broader coffee regions, have always been acutely sensitive to a wide range of ecological and social factors. Farms are, of course, shaped by volatile biophysical factors such as soil fertility, topography, temperature, rainfall, diseases, pests, and weather. Farmers and scientists have constantly introduced innovations to coffee farming: new varieties and species of coffee, new forms of planting and managing the coffee agroecosystem, and new fertilizers and fungicides. Coffee farms have also been shaped by social factors, particularly the relative abundance of labor for maintenance and harvesting. Often, small and medium farms in the Americas have been more successful than large farms, largely because they were less dependent on wage labor. Farms were also shaped by a complex set of legal and institutional infrastructures in each country, which defined patterns of land tenure, labor (slavery, corvée labor), transportation infrastructure (ports, roads, and railroads), technical assistance, and credit. Coffee farms were also shaped by transnational and global forces—most obviously the workings of the international coffee market (especially the price for “C” contracts on the New York market), but also international commodity agreements (the Interamerican Coffee Agreement, and the International Coffee Agreement). Finally, farms have been shaped in complex ways by a host of organizations and institutions at all levels, from national institutions such as the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, to transnational and international organizations (the International Coffee Organization), bilateral aid organizations (USAID, GTZ, CIRAD), NGOs such as the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute, and transnational corporations such as Nestlé. The structure of any coffee farm at any given moment is intensely historical and encompasses both local and global processes.

Coffee in the Colonial Americas, 1720–1820

Any environmental history of coffee must begin in Africa. While in the popular imagination arabica coffee (botanically Coffea arabica) is usually associated with the Americas, the plant’s native home is in the temperate Afromontane forests of southwestern Ethiopia. It belongs to the genus Coffea, which consists of several dozen species whose native range spans equatorial Africa and Madagascar. In the wild, arabica coffee is an understory crop, which grows in the shade of taller trees. It prefers temperatures of between 15 and 24 degrees centigrade, although it can withstand warmer and cooler temperatures. It requires rain, well distributed throughout the year. When it flowers and fruits, the coffee plant produces small clusters of berries on its lateral branches. The coffee we drink is made with the dried and roasted seeds contained within those berries. The plant was first cultivated commercially across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, in Yemen. And it was from Yemen, rather than Ethiopia, that the coffee plant was first distributed across the globe. The Dutch took it to Java in about 1690. From Java, they took a single plant to Amsterdam. This single tree was cultivated at the Amsterdam Botanical Garden; in 1714 the magistrates of Amsterdam gave an offspring of this plant to Louis XIV of France. In 1718 the Dutch took one of these offspring to Dutch Guyana (Suriname), in the Caribbean. In the 1720s, the French introduced descendants from their plant to Martinique. In the following decades, the progeny of these two introductions were propagated and circulated across the tropical Americas.1

Although the coffee plant was diffused quickly through the Americas, at first it remained little more than a botanical curiosity. It first gained economic significance in the Caribbean, above all in the French colony of St. Domingue, and to a lesser extent in Jamaica and Cuba. The earliest generations of coffee farmers in the Americas learned how to cultivate coffee through a process of trial and error. The Dutch and the French were the only people in the Caribbean who had previous experience growing coffee elsewhere, and even that experience was limited. The handful of European commentaries on coffee offered little guidance on cultivation techniques. These booms depended on the forest rent—the rich soils of the newly cleared tropical forests. European planters typically cleared the forests by fire, and cultivated coffee without shade, which increased yields over the short term but contributed to soil erosion over the longer term. Contemporary observers criticized coffee planters as being wasteful. In some cases coffee lands were exhausted after only four harvests, and even good soils were also exhausted after thirty harvests. The deforestation of steep island hillsides also exposed soils to wind and rain, producing large-scale soil erosion. In St. Domingue and Jamaica, planters responded to soil exhaustion and erosion by shifting cultivation to new areas, as long as they were available. Over the short term, this extractive farming this way was highly profitable. Caribbean coffee production boomed after the mid-18th century: between 1755 and 1790, coffee production in St. Domingue expanded from 7 million pounds to 77 million pounds. For a few decades, it was simultaneously the world’s single largest producer of both coffee and sugar cane, and the world’s most prosperous colony.

The spectacular expansion was brought to a sharp halt in the early 1790s, as the French Revolution produced a series of political crises on the island, which culminated in a large-scale slave revolution and the collapse of the plantation system. The Haitian revolution created an opportunity for coffee growers elsewhere in the Caribbean; French coffee planters fled St. Domingue to other parts of the Caribbean, taking with them capital and expertise. One of these was P. J. Laborie, who in 1798 published the first detailed manual of coffee cultivation, The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo. Laborie’s manual had a profound influence on the shape of coffee cultivation in the early 19th century, both in Latin America and beyond.

19th-Century Pioneer Fronts, 1820–1905

The Haitian Revolution marked the beginning of an age of revolutions in the Americas. By 1830, most of Spain and Portugal’s mainland colonies had achieved independence. European colonialism did, however, survive in the Caribbean—in part because local colonial officials and elites feared slave revolts similar to those in Haiti. Slavery persisted in parts of the Americas, especially in Brazil and the Caribbean—although over the 19th century the slave trade was gradually suppressed, and then slavery was eliminated as an institution. Gradually, most parts of the Americas began to pursue export-led development, earning hard currency by selling primary products to the industrializing economies of Europe and North America—where coffee consumption was booming. Much of this coffee—especially Brazilian coffee—was exported to the U.S. market, which by the end of the 19th century consumed 40 percent of the world’s coffee. Innovations in transportation (railroads and steamships) and communication (the telegraph) also speed coffee to global markets, and reduce unit costs. New railroads, such as Costa Rica’s Atlantic Railway (Ferrocarril al Atlántico) helped open new coffee frontiers across Latin America, linking previously remote highlands to international trade networks.2

Over the course of the 19th century, Brazil surpassed the Dutch East Indies and Ceylon to become the world’s largest coffee producer. The Brazilian coffee boom began in 1808, when King João VI of Portugal, fleeing Napoleon, moved the seat of the Portuguese empire to Brazil and opened its ports to friendly nations. Brazil’s coffee frontier developed a distinctively intensive and destructive pattern for most of this period, shaped by a misguided perception of abundance, and planters’ political and economic priorities—specifically to produce the greatest profit at the lowest cost over the short term. This meant using as little labor (specifically slave labor) as possible, and investing as little money as possible. To Brazil’s economic and political elites, the forests of the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) seemed almost infinitely abundant. Planters believed that the best coffee grew best on soils from recently cleared tropical forests. The early planters practiced slash-and-burn agriculture on a large scale, clear-cutting the forest and burning the fallen trees. The soils and ash did indeed provide nutrients for the new coffee farms—temporarily.3

The result was an economic boom, and an ecological catastrophe. By the 1880s Brazil produced more than 80 percent of the world’s coffee—much of it going to the seemingly insatiable markets of the United States. Its coffee exports had increased a stunning 1500 percent since independence in 1822. The Brazilian novelist Monteiro Lobato famously described the Brazilian coffee landscapes as a “green wave of coffee” and wrote that the “ferocious ambition” of the Paulista planters “prefers, to the beauty of natural disorder [the wild forests], the aligned beauty of the tree that yields gold.”4 Brazilian coffee planters treated the forests and the land as nonrenewable resources. Once the forest was cleared, the coffee was planted almost haphazardly, without the same consideration of planting distances that generated so much debate elsewhere. Rows of coffee were laid out without consideration to conserving the soil. Planters were aware that contour planting and terracing could conserve soil on the hillsides, but nonetheless preferred to cultivate coffee in straight rows to make it easier for overseers to keep an eye on the slave laborers. The logic of slavery trumped ecological logic. Farmers rarely troubled to weed their farms, nor did they fertilize them with traditional manures or with the new chemical fertilizers that had been developed in Germany during the 1840s. After twenty or thirty years, the soils were quite degraded and exhausted, and productivity on the coffee farms fell off significantly. When farms were no longer profitable, they were abandoned or sold. The exhausted coffee plants were chopped up for firewood, and the impoverished lands converted to cattle pasture.5 Later in the 19th century, the Austrian agronomist Franz Dafert—observing coffee cultivation in Brazil—described this practice as raubbau, or “robbery” of the soil, and described it as “economically rational” in that it maximized profits and capital accumulation. He hoped that over the longer term, planters would invest some of these profits, in fertilizing the soils once again.6

Figure 1. Coffee monoculture under full sun. Fazenda Guatapara, São Paulo, Brazil. This farm had 800,000 trees. Public domain. From Ukers, 1922.

Large-scale coffee production in the Cordillera began somewhat later than in Brazil, starting first in the fertile volcanic soils of Costa Rica’s Meseta Central, and in the mountains of Venezuela in the 1830s and 1840s. As in Brazil, the coffee industry in Cordillera was fueled by the elimination of colonial trade restrictions (usually following political independence), and by expanding global markets for coffee in North America and Europe. The pioneering phase of coffee cultivation involved clearing and burning forests, although not as wantonly or thoroughly as in Brazil. Coffee planters in the smaller geographical confines of Central America were never fueled by the same ideology of abundant landscapes that fueled the coffee industry in Brazil. Coffee estates were at first established following the “French” model developed on coffee estates in the West Indies. The French model appears to have reached Central America indirectly, through a manual published in Cuba, and possibly also through Spanish translations of Laborie’s book. Its main features included reducing shade or eliminating it altogether, and planting coffee trees densely in rows, carefully laid out to maximize production. Estate production was not, however, the only model. From the very beginning, much of Central America’s coffee was produced by smallholders on small farms. These farms were far more ecologically and economically diverse than the estates. Smallholders often cultivated coffee alongside other cash crops and subsistence crops, often under existing forest cover or cultivated shade trees—often exotics.7

Taken as a whole then, coffee cultivation practices in 19th-century Cordillera were not as systematically destructive as they had been in Brazil. The initial clearing of the forest had the largest ecological impact. And this was significant; for much of the 19th century, coffee in the Cordillera was also a pioneering crop that built upon the forest rent. Increases in coffee production depended upon the expansion of pioneer fronts. It is difficult to measure the loss of biological diversity that must have accompanied the destruction of forests in one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas, although proportionally more of the original forest was conserved than had been in Brazil. For example, according to one recent estimate, shaded coffee agroecosystems have 60 to 70 percent of the diversity of arthropods (insects and spiders) found in the original forest. In other words, the conversion of the original forest to shaded farms would have implied a 30 to 40 percent loss in arthropod diversity.8 There were, no doubt, comparable losses in the diversity of plants and animals. Once the farms had been established, farmers in the Cordillera cultivated their coffee with somewhat more care than their Brazilian counterparts—largely through a process of trial and error. In some places, estates gradually adapted Laborie’s West Indian plantation model to the local economic and ecological conditions. On steep slopes, they planted in contours. They weeded and, as necessary, fertilized their farms. Some planters introduced shade trees on their farms, to protect their coffee plants from extremes of heat and cold, and from excess sunshine. Still, shade was not necessarily a panacea; too much shade could reduce the productivity of the coffee trees. The debate about whether to shade and how much to shade continues to the present. Sometimes they planted bananas as a supplementary food crop and rubber trees to tap as well as shade.

In the Caribbean, emancipation and the end of the plantation system transformed the landscapes of coffee production. In Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba, coffee production plummeted after emancipation. Attempts to reconstruct large-scale coffee plantations after emancipation failed almost everywhere in the Caribbean. But smallholder coffee proved to be remarkably resilient. Large specialized coffee plantations were replaced by smaller, more ecologically and economically diverse coffee gardens. These peasant coffee systems were a creative solution to a series of local and global challenges and opportunities. In Haiti, between 1809 and 1818, the government of Alexandre Pétion redistributed some 100,000 hectares of land to emancipated slaves. They opened new coffee frontiers on the mornes, the hills of eastern and southern Haiti. Reports from contemporary observes give a sense of what these farms must have looked like. “A person must be somewhat conversant with travelling in Haiti before he can discover on his road that a coffee plantation [that is, a coffee farm] is near him,” wrote James Franklin in 1828. “For my part, I could see nothing that resembled one, nor should I have known the coffee tree, growing as it did in a pyramidal form, surrounded by numberless other shrubs, had it not been for the appearance of a few red berries on its lower branches.”9

Collectively, these smallholders could produce a lot of coffee. By 1859, Haiti was (briefly) the world’s fourth-largest exporter; between 1860 and 1936, it exported an average of 60 million pounds of coffee. In Jamaica, freedmen/smallholders bought parts of former coffee estates, pruned the coffee trees, and planted shade trees and food crops, such as bananas and yams. Coffee was important to them but—unlike on plantations—their goal was not to maximize production, but rather to minimize their economic risk. By the late 19th century, Jamaica exported about 10 million pounds of coffee annually, two-thirds of which was produced by smallholders. This mixed cultivation “exposed the fallacy of the inevitability of soil exhaustion in coffee growing. One settler . . . described how with manure he brought under cultivation land that had been abandoned for fifty years by its owners as ‘exhausted.’”10 The experience of the West Indies in the 19th century shows that coffee cultivation could “develop” along many different paths, and that the arc of the coffee cultivation has not always been toward greater specialization and intensification.

Chronic Overproduction and Early Modernization (1905–1945)

By the early years of the 20th century, the global production of coffee consistently exceeded demand, driving prices downward. The economic, productivist logic that had dominated the expansion of coffee cultivation in 19th-century Latin America—one in which demand grew faster than supply—had ended. To deal with this economic crisis, the state government of São Paulo, and later the Brazilian national government, enacted programs that sought to prop up the global price of coffee by restricting coffee supplies. These programs—known collectively as “valorization” programs—entailed buying and warehousing Brazil’s surplus coffee when production was high, and releasing it onto the global market in years when production was lower. While valorization schemes did have the intended effect of raising and stabilizing global coffee prices, they also had some significant unintended effects. São Paulo’s original valorization scheme restricted production within the state, but included no effective programs to restrict production nationally. This effectively encouraged planters in other Brazilian states to continue planting more coffee, where production continued to increase at São Paulo’s expense. Second, the high coffee prices also encouraged planters outside of Brazil—especially along the Cordillera—to expand production. In effect, the Brazilian government unintentionally subsidized the expansion of its competitors. Between 1910 and 1940, in spite of these valorization schemes (or because of them), global coffee production doubled, with most of this growth taking place in the Americas. This reflected a chronic tension between what was reasonable at the level of the individual farm (produce more coffee when prices are high), and what was reasonable at larger scales (prevent overproduction and subsequent price collapses).

Coffee producers along the Cordillera could not compete with Brazil in terms of volume, so they competed in terms of quality. The coffees they produced were classed in the global markets as milds, contrasting with the harsh taste of Brazilian coffees. This quality depended only in part on the cultivar, and the terroirs of the coffee lands in the Cordillera. Quality was not simply inherent to the coffee plant; it was also constructed. It depended heavily on the care with which the coffee plants were cultivated, harvested, and processed. There were environmental implications in quality production. In general, the coffee trees along the Cordillera were better cared for, especially in areas where labor was reasonably abundant. The coffee was harvested in several passes, when the fruit was ripe. This careful harvesting contrasted with the single “stripping” of the coffee plant in Brazil, in which laborers stripped all the fruit (and often leaves) off the branches in a single pass, regardless of whether it was ripe. Quality coffee was often processed by the “wet” method, in which the freshly picked coffee was pulped by fermenting the cherries in water before cleaning. “Wet” processing required the intensive use of water; disposing of the contaminated water after processing also became a serious problem.11

Figure 2. Coffee farm in Antioquia, early 1900s. Coffee monoculture, with some trees as shade and windbreaks. From Ukers, 1922. Public domain.

While most of the producers in Cordillera increased production during between 1910 and 1940, the most dynamic of these new coffee frontiers was Colombia. At the beginning of the century, Colombia accounted for about 1.5 percent of global coffee production, mostly in the department of Santander in northeastern Colombia. Between 1910 and 1930, propelled by high coffee prices and readily available land, Colombian farmers expanded production along the slopes of the Andean Cordillera. Colombian coffee production was dominated by small family farms; large estates counted for less than 15 percent of the total. Estates could not flourish where rural labor was relatively scarce. The small farms tended to be ecologically and economically diverse; Colombian farmers cultivated complementary food crops (corn, manioc, vegetables) and cash crops (sugarcane) alongside coffee. And they tended to cultivate coffee under shade. In short, the typical Colombian coffee farm was comparatively ecologically and economically resilient. By the mid-1920s, Colombia produced more than 10 percent of the world’s coffee, making it the world’s second-largest producer after Brazil. It would hold this position for much of the 20th century—briefly becoming the world’s largest producer in the 1990s.

In most of the Caribbean, the coffee production in the 20th century remained relatively stagnant; small-scale peasant production continued to predominate. The expansion of coffee cultivation in the Caribbean—especially in the Greater Antilles—was partly impeded by regular, devastating hurricanes. In the mid-19th century, severe thunderstorms had uprooted millions of coffee trees across Cuba; after replanting, it took several years for the coffee plants start producing again. Hurricanes helped push the Cuban coffee industry into a phase of decadence, as owners of severely damaged coffee farms sold their slaves to sugar growers. Severe hurricanes struck Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico in 1898, 1926, 1928, and 1933—making it difficult for coffee farms to recover. In addition to uprooting tens of millions of trees, the hurricanes also caused massive soil erosion on steep slopes.12 Labor shortages were another chronic problem: during boom years the sugar industry siphoned off much of the labor that might otherwise have worked on larger coffee estates. Only in Cuba did the coffee industry see any significant growth, with coffee production in southeastern Cuba expanding after the crisis in the sugar industry in the early 1930s.

Intensification and The International Coffee Agreement, 1945–1989

Between 1930 and 1990, the coffee lands of Latin America were increasingly shaped by national and international institutions, and by international coffee agreements. In some countries, such as Colombia and Guatemala, coffee growers organized themselves into powerful national associations, which often shaped government policy. During the Great Depression and the decades that followed, most national governments created national coffee institutes, which oversaw coffee production and trade. These technocratic organizations set standards for coffee quality; helped manage purchasing, processing, and marketing; and provided farmers with access to technical advice and credit. Institutions such as Instituto Brasileiro do Café and the Instituto Mexicano de Café played powerful roles in shaping the course of coffee production in their respective countries.

Scientific research also became important in these years, as coffee farmers sought to sustain or increase productivity in the face of declining soil fertility and erosion, and also grappled with new diseases and pests. Beginning in the 1930s, the Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC) conducted pioneering work on coffee breeding; in Colombia, the Federation of Coffee Gowers organized a coffee research center in 1938 to address technical problems of coffee production there. And significantly, an international center for agricultural research—the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation (IICA)—was established in Costa Rica in 1942. The IICA also did important work on coffee breeding, and also the introduction of new coffee varieties from other parts of the world. The national coffee institutes, in tandem with these research organizations, promoted a new form of modernizing coffee production, known as “racionalização” in Portuguese, and “tecnificación” in Spanish. These programs encouraged farmers to completely modernize almost all aspects of coffee production.

Coffee farming in Latin America was also deeply shaped by a series of regional and global trade agreements that sought to mitigate some of the worst impacts of the boom-and-bust cycles that had plagued the industry in the first half of the 20th century. Coffee prices suffered a series of shocks starting with the Great Depression in 1929. In 1937, Brazil ended its valorization schemes, causing global coffee prices to plummet. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 cut Latin American producers off from European markets. In 1940, the United States and Latin American producers signed the Interamerican Coffee Agreement (IACA), which sought to shore up coffee prices by setting export quotas for each country, bringing supply and demand more closely into alignment. The quota system was also a key part of the International Coffee Agreement, which was signed in 1962.

These years of uncertainty shed light on an important, yet often overlooked, part of the environmental history of coffee: the abandonment or conversion of coffee farms. This process has arguably been the most significant problem in Brazil, which struggled with chronic overproduction. In some places, the combination of soil exhaustion and overproduction drove farmers to diversify away from coffee. In São Paulo, for example, in times of crisis many farmers had abandoned coffee cultivation in favor of rice or cotton. By the 1920s, the state of São Paulo was the largest cotton producer in Brazil. In Minas Gerais, corn and pasture were important alternatives to coffee. Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1940s, the area under coffee cultivation in Brazil shrank by more than a million hectares. Coffee production in Venezuela also began to shrink after 1925, as the booming oil industry drew labor away from the coffee farms in the Andean highlands. The decline in Venezuelan coffee production foreshadowed a problem that would become widespread in many places—increasing shortages of rural labor as people migrated to the growing, industrializing cities, or to more lucrative agricultural industries. Many of the most important farm-level innovations during these years were aimed at addressing labor scarcity. In the 1960s, in the wake of the International Coffee Agreement, the Brazilian Coffee Institute began programs to reduce coffee production to bring it closer in line with Brazil’s export quotas. The programs received an accidental boost in the early mid-1970s, when a series of catastrophic frosts struck southern Brazil, killing tens of millions of coffee trees. With the support of the IBC, the coffee farms of Parana were largely uprooted and converted to soy production.13

As coffee farmers grappled with soil exhaustion and erosion, they began to pay closer attention to soil management. Typically, innovations were adopted soonest in places where land was the scarcest—such as El Salvador and Costa Rica. Since the 19th century, some farmers had maintained the fertility of their soils by using animal or “green” manures—like coffee pulp and other byproducts of processing. Farmers were slower to adopt chemical fertilizers because they were expensive, and often difficult to obtain, as compared to the inexpensive green manures available on farms. In Guatemala, chemical fertilizers were first used by German farmers, who had access both to capital and to the German chemical industry. Coffee farmers in El Salvador also used chemical fertilizers to some extent before World War II, but only when coffee prices made them cost effective; when prices dropped, they switched back to organic fertilizers. They became more widely adopted in the 1950s and 1960s, with the support of the national coffee institutes. In Costa Rica, the area under chemical fertilizers tripled between 1950 and 1963. In El Salvador, during the same period, fertilizers used increased from 152 kg/ha to 256 kg/ha. In Brazil, the use of chemical fertilizers expanded quickly in the older coffee zones of São Paulo. They were less commonly used, however, on the new coffee frontiers in Paraná, where the soils were still sufficiently fertile. Planters across the Americas also devoted more attention to soil conservation, especially on modernized farms where shade was being reduced or eliminated, exposing delicate tropical soils to the sun and wind. Soil conservation measures included contour plantings, terracing, and ditches, among others. These conservation practices were, however, still far from universal, and erosion was (and remains) an urgent problem.14

The coffee plant itself was also the target for modernization. As late as the mid-20th century, most of the arabica coffee cultivated in the Americas was descended, largely unchanged, from the original plants introduced in the 18th century. Two cultivars—typica and Bourbon—dominated in most places. To be sure, farmers constantly practiced seed selection, choosing plants for productivity, quality, and adaptation to local ecological conditions. Sometimes, farmers discovered mutated plants on their farms. Most mutations were not of agricultural interest, but sometimes and occasionally, mutated plants appeared on farms. Sometimes, if the mutation was useful in some way, the plant would be propagated and circulated more widely. Some of the best known of these mutants are Maragogipe coffee, “a vigorous tree that is a giant as far as Arabicas go,” and the dwarf Caturra, which in the later 20th century became a key genetic foundation for modern arabica breeding programs.15

In the mid-20th century, coffee improvement in Latin America was institutionalized. Scientific institutions like the Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC), the IIAC, and Cenicafé began long-term programs of selection and breeding. The coffee research institutions of the Americas did not work in isolation; they regularly exchanged coffee germplasm (seeds and seedlings), information, and expertise with one another. They were also linked to coffee research globally, through the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation, and also through bilateral exchanges with institutions in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The IAC conducted pioneering work on the genetics, selection, and breeding of coffee, particularly with the object of increasing yields. Two of these new modern cultivars were adopted on a large scale. In Brazil, farmers widely adopted improved selections of Mundo Novo coffee, which yielded more than double the traditional typica cultivar. Another Brazilian innovation, Caturra, was not widely used in Brazil itself, but proved well adapted to growing conditions along the Cordillera.

Modernization programs were also driven by the growing threat of coffee diseases and pests. Since the 18th century, Latin American coffee farmers had benefited from what biologists call “enemy release.” Since coffee was an exotic plant in the Americas, coffee farmers there did not—for a long time—have to contend with the range of diseases and pests that had co-evolved with coffee in its native range in Africa. But gradually, some of these diseases and pests made their way to the Americas. The coffee berry borer (known as broca in both Spanish and Portuguese) was first discovered in Brazil in the 1926; it had possibly been introduced accidentally from Angola. The female of this tiny insect drills into the coffee cherry to the bean, where it lays its eggs. The larvae then consume the bean from within. The broca remained contained to Brazil until 1971, when it was discovered in Guatemala. Scientists contained the outbreak in Guatemala for a while, using a combination of quarantines, and programs of chemical spraying. The broca has since spread through Central America and parts of the Caribbean.16

Farmers and scientists alike were also alarmed by the appearance the coffee rust, a fungal disease, in Brazil in 1970. The rust, caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, had devastated coffee farming in Ceylon and Java in the 19th century; in the 1950s the epidemic had reached the Atlantic coast of Africa. The rust spread through all of Brazil in just two years, as winds carried countless millions of spores from one coffee farm to the next. Untreated, the disease caused massive defoliation of the coffee plant, and could easily reduce coffee production by a third. In warm and humid areas, losses could be even larger. The national and international responses to the rust were swift. In Brazil, the Brazilian Coffee Institute oversaw large-scale programs to spray infected coffee farms with copper fungicides, and later with experimental systemic fungicides. The rust was first detected in Nicaragua in 1976, and by 1983 it had spread across the Cordillera, triggering equally strong regional and national responses from governments and scientific agencies. While these spraying programs did effectively control the rust, they also represented a significant additional cost to coffee producers—the cost varying from place to place according the relative prices of coffee, and the costs of chemicals, spraying technology, and labor.

The campaigns to control the rust and broca precipitated larger programs to renovate (“rationalize,” “technify”) the coffee industry in the 1970s. Inspired in part by the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, these modernization initiatives were usually presented as complete technological “packages,” aimed at increasing production. New, high-yielding coffee hybrids were at the heart of these technified coffee ecosystems—the Mundo Novo cultivar dominated in Brazil, while the dwarf Caturra was widely disseminated across the Cordillera. These varieties could be planted much more densely than traditional varieties. These plants often grew better in the full sun, so along the Cordillera, renovation programs also called for shade to be sharply reduced or eliminated altogether.

Across Brazil and the Cordillera alike, technification programs also called for the intensive use of agricultural chemicals—fertilizers to enrich the soil, and fungicides and pesticides to control the growing array of diseases and pests that plagued the coffee ecosystem. These programs were promoted by a wide array of national and international institutions. This included familiar actors such as the Instituto Brasileiro del Café, which organized an “Executive Group on the Rationalization of the Coffee Industry”; the Colombian Federation of Coffee Gowers; and the Mexican Coffee Institute. In the Cordillera, rationalization programs were also heavily promoted by international development agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the West German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ). The agencies used agricultural credit and technical support to encourage farmers to change. Renovation programs were expensive, but proponents argued that the increased costs would be offset by increased production. While in the short term, technification did significantly boost production, in the longer term it made coffee farms more vulnerable to economic and ecological shocks. Farmers were vulnerable to sharp falls in the price of coffee, or spikes in the price of labor or chemical inputs—or combinations of these. The hybrid coffee plants produced more intensively than traditional varietals, but they also wore out more quickly and had to be replanted after eight to ten years. And national and international groups expressed growing concern about the loss of biodiversity associated with sun coffees, and the threat that agricultural chemicals posed to ecosystems and people.17

Not all coffee farmers in the Americas embraced the renovation programs. The programs were most widely adopted in places with strong national coffee institutes, with robust extension programs, and accessible agricultural credit. So renovation programs were particularly widespread in Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica, and also in certain areas of Mexico and El Salvador. Elsewhere in Central America, such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, modernization programs were impeded by civil wars. After the Sandinistas gained power in Nicaragua, they also established a coffee renovation program (CONACRA) as part of their agricultural reform. Significantly, however, many coffee farmers chose not to technify, or at least not to adopt the full package. Many smallholders continued to cultivate coffee as part of a diversified agroforestry model, in which coffee was just one element of a much more complex agroecosystem. The farmers’ decision not to adopt “improved” varieties or agricultural chemicals should not be interpreted as blanket conservativism or resistance to innovation, but rather as an alternate farming strategy. Although systems like this are often described as being “traditional,” this understates the continuing innovation and experimentation in this kind of productive ecosystem.

Sustainability in an Age of Crisis, since 1989

The global coffee economy entered a period of crisis after 1989. When the International Coffee Agreement’s quota system was not renewed after 1989, coffee prices entered a new phase of uncontrolled booms and busts, initially reflecting the release of surplus stocks onto global markets, and later by the expansion and contraction of coffee frontiers. Between 1989 and 1993, and again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, farm gate prices for coffee plummeted catastrophically, at times falling below the cost of production. These challenges were compounded by economic reforms in the early 1990s, when bilateral and multilateral lending agencies promoted “free trade” and discouraged state involvement in managing economies. The public institutions that had supported the coffee industries in Latin America either had their budgets slashed, or—in the case of the Brazilian Coffee Institute and the Mexican Coffee Institute—were closed altogether. Farmers faced more difficulty accessing agricultural credit. These economic and institutional crises produced environmental repercussions across Latin America’s coffee lands, as farmers sought to adjust to the new reality.18 The response to these changes among Latin America’s coffee producers has been complex. Since 1989, Brazilian coffee production has more than doubled, significantly contributing to the problem of global oversupply. New and historically small producers have come on board; Honduras and Nicaragua have tripled their production since 1989, and Peru’s production has more than doubled. They have expanded in part because they still had landscapes that could be converted to coffee production, and because labor costs remained comparatively low. In contrast, some of the more established producers (Colombia and Guatemala) have seen their production stagnate, while others (Mexico, El Salvador, and Costa Rica) have seen their production decline by 50 percent or more with respect to 1989 levels.19

In the Cordillera, the coffee crisis pushed producers to place an even greater focus on quality, a focus that had predated the crisis. “Quality” is an ephemeral concept—but one that makes a tangible difference in the lives of coffee farmers. In recent years, buyers have been willing to pay significant premiums for coffees from particular origins, or with particular kinds of flavor profiles. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, coffee landscapes in the Cordillera were being shaped by the emergence of specialty coffee markets in North America, Europe, and (more recently) Asia, especially Japan and South Korea. The U.S. specialty market gained strength in the 1970s and the 1980s, with the rise of the independent coffee roasters focused on quality, and of “yuppie” consumers who were willing to pay significant premiums for quality coffee—trends epitomized in the rise of Starbucks coffee chain. In 1982, some of these roasters created the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). The SCAA has devoted itself to setting standards for coffee quality, and some coffee farmers have been focusing their efforts on meeting or exceeding those standards. The payoffs can be significant; a high-quality coffee can receive double or even triple the standard New York “C” price for coffee. Where possible, coffee farmers and processors work to produce coffee that meets those demands. Some specialty farmers have been replanting their farms with heirloom coffee varietals favored by the specialty market, such as Ethiopian Geisha or Kenyan varietals. Some of these are susceptible to the coffee rust and other diseases and pests, which require chemical control under certain conditions. High-quality coffees are usually processed by “washing,” either on the farm or on a centralized mill. This process can consume a great deal of water, and the contaminated effluent from washing can present significant environmental problems.20

Figure 3. Worker tending to new coffee plants, Naranjo, Costa Rica. This farm is replanting its farm with heirloom coffee varietals, to produce high-quality coffees for the specialty market. Photo by author.

Other producers in Latin America turned to producing “ethical coffees,” such as Fair Trade and certified organic coffees. These ethical coffees represented a significant social and ecological challenge to the “modern” strategies of coffee production and trade. Organic coffee production is not the same as traditional (“organic by default”) production. In Mexico, organic coffee production emerged as a response of organized small farmers to the crisis following the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement. On the consuming end, organic coffee was promoted by social justice and conservation organizations, as well as certain sectors of the coffee market. Certified organic production is built around a set of transnational standards to which the farmers must adhere. These standards are established and monitored by international NGOs, such as the Rainforest Alliance, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (which certifies “bird friendly” coffee), among others. Organic coffee production can also be “intensive” although not in the same way as technified production. Organic coffee production standards usually include specifications about the degree and diversity of shade on the coffee farm, soil conservation measures, and the replacement of chemical inputs with organic ones. This “intensified” organic production can be almost as productive as chemical production. Organic coffee can provide farmers with as much income per hectare as “technified” coffee, once the price premiums paid for organic coffee are taken into account. In addition, it provides a range of ecological benefits, including added biodiversity, enriched soils, somewhat lower rates of soil erosion, and longer-term ecological and social sustainability. Certified organic production has enjoyed its greatest success along the Cordillera, especially in Mexico, parts of Central America, and Peru. Even so, it remains a relatively small part of total coffee production; organic production often exceeds demand, and much organic coffee is sold on conventional coffee markets at standard commodity prices.21

While certified organic and Fair Trade coffees have (understandably) received a lot of attention, the vast majority of coffee cultivated in the Americas remains “conventional” coffee. These coffees are often purchased by large transnational corporations and incorporated into supermarket blends (Maxwell House, for example) or fast-food coffees, such as McDonald’s McCafé. Conventional coffee is usually marketed on the basis of brand, rather than origin. Like their forebears, the farmers who produce conventional coffee structure their agroecosystems in ways that seek to balance economic and ecological sustainability—a balance that involves a complex range of local, national, and global factors. These farms often involve hybrid forms of coffee production, in which farmers selectively use some modern farming techniques in tandem with more traditional practices, as well as techniques borrowed from organic farming. Farm management systems can vary widely even over comparatively small areas; a study conducted in Central Veracruz identified eight principal types of coffee farms—from small farms that had high shade density and used few external inputs, to large agro-industrial enterprises that cultivated many coffee varieties and used external chemical inputs (fertilizers and pesticides). All the intermediate types varied in their strategies for managing shade, conserving soil, selecting coffee varieties, and managing diseases and pests. Most of these systems showed greater or lesser degrees of hybridity—for example, some large export growers grew their coffee under native forests and also used agro-chemicals intensively. This kind of “hybridity” is present in most of Latin America’s coffee farms.22

The specter of climate change now looms over the coffee industry. It is already having an impact on Latin America’s coffee farms and will drive even larger changes in the future. According to some climate models, changing temperature and weather patterns will likely render some 50 percent of Latin America’s current coffee zones unsuitable for arabica cultivation. Warming will tend to push Brazil’s coffee frontiers farther to the south. In the mountainous Cordillera and West Indies, warming temperatures will push arabica cultivation to higher altitudes. And it remains to be seen whether it is possible for coffee to move into these new zones. Much of southern Brazil is now cultivated in soybean, and famers will have to have some compelling reason to switch to coffee. (The soybean will, of course, be facing climate challenges of its own.) In some cases, planters may be able to adapt by shifting to robusta coffee, a lowland coffee that is much more tolerant to heat and drought than arabica.23

Climate change also has other, less obvious effects. In combination with deforestation and population pressure, climate change is severely damaging the Ethiopian forests were arabica grows in the wild. This is a tragedy in its own right, and also may be destroying valuable wild arabica genes essential for future global breeding programs. Finally, climate change can also aggravate outbreaks of diseases and pests. Between 2007 and 2013, a series of rust outbreaks—known as the “Big Rust”—wreaked havoc across the cordillera and the West Indies. In 2012, coffee production in Central America dropped by almost 20 percent. It seems clear that these outbreaks were triggered by—among other things—changing rainfall patterns and small changes in temperature, which collectively allowed for the massive reproduction of the rust.24

The mantra of “sustainability” is now omnipresent in the coffee industry; the International Coffee Organization highlights economic, social, and ecological sustainability as central to the long-term future of the global coffee industry. The sustainability paradigm has, to a large extent, supplanted the productivity paradigm that has dominated the global coffee industry until comparatively recently. The challenges of the 20th century have shown that the unfettered pursuit of productivity has created tremendous economic and ecological instability. But the switch to sustainable production will not be easy either; again, the experience of the 20th century shows that there is no single solution that will work equally well for all coffee-producing regions. Coffee prices are highly volatile, and plans for transition to sustainable production will need to take that volatility into account, so that farmers and laborers can survive through the inevitable periods of catastrophically low prices. And while farmers continue to innovate, as they have always done, they do not do not enjoy the same level of institutional support that they enjoyed in the mid-20th century. In the 21st century, coffee farmers in Latin America, and worldwide, face tremendous challenges.25

Discussion of the Literature

The general literature on the history of coffee cultivation in Latin America—especially the social, political, and economic history—is very well developed. The body of work on the environmental history of coffee is comparatively small. It has, however, been growing steadily since the mid-1980s, in parallel with the emergence of environmental history as a subfield. Geographers, especially historical geographers, have made important contributions to the scholarly literature. And since the coffee crisis of the early 2000s, researchers in many other disciplines have made contributions of their own. Collectively, this postcrisis research has painted a rich depiction of the environmental history of coffee in Latin America since the 1970s. Studies of the pre-1970 period are not as fully developed.

Growth and Development of Coffee Frontiers

Historians and geographers have studied the development and spread of coffee frontiers, since the path-breaking books of Pierre Monbeig and Stanley Stein, on the coffee frontiers in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.26 These “frontier” studies consider the forces that drove the expansion of coffee cultivation, and how coffee farms—and frontiers as a whole—were shaped by labor arrangements (slavery, sharecropping, family farms), differing forms of land tenure, relationships between farmers and the state, the development of infrastructure, and other variables. The ruthless exploitation of environments often (but not always) paralleled the ruthless exploitation of people. In Brazil, this process was often catastrophically destructive to forests and soils.27 In contrast, the development of coffee frontiers in 19th- and early 20th-century Central America was (comparatively) less destructive, although certainly problematic as well.28

Knowledge, Science, and Innovation

From the moment the coffee plant arrived in the Americas during the early 18th century, farmers (and others) have been constantly experimenting and innovating with coffee cultivation. They have manipulated coffee landscapes and (more recently) the coffee plant itself, in their quest to achieve whatever economic goal they were pursuing. Much of this innovation is difficult or impossible to recover, since it was done by small farmers who rarely left any documentary trace of what they were doing. Starting with Laborie’s Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo, some of this vernacular knowledge has been codified in texts and circulated through the Americas, where it was emulated and adapted to local conditions.29 Over the 20th century, coffee planters increasingly sought the support of scientists and scientific institutions, as they grappled with chronic problems with productivity, and new waves of diseases and pests.30 Especially after World War II, scientific institutions played a key role in modernizing coffee farming in many parts of Latin America.31

Technification and Its Impacts

The “technification” of the coffee industry—especially in the 1970s and 1980s—has received considerable scholarly attention, although little as yet from historians. Technification was arguably one of the largest environmental (and economic) transformations in coffee cultivation since the opening of coffee frontiers. Researchers have explored the technical, social, and political contexts that drove these technification programs. Much of this research is centrally concerned with the environmental and ecological damage produced by technification.32 Other studies recognize this damage, but focus more on exploring the variability of technification programs in different regions or countries, and in situating technification in the larger history of the evolution of the coffee farms.33

Coffee Production in an Age of Crisis

The collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989 coupled with neoliberal reforms (some of which began in the 1980s) have had widespread and often (but not universally) catastrophic economic and environmental consequences in Latin America’s coffee industry. New scientific disciplines—especially agroecology—have gained importance in this period, as scientists try to help farmers build economically and ecologically sustainable lives.34 New certification strategies, especially certified organic coffee, are important innovations—whose impacts researchers are only beginning to measure.35 Beyond these certified coffees, some researchers have explored the complex responses of “conventional” coffee farmers to the crisis, and the development of hybrid methods of coffee farming.

Primary Sources

Surveys of the global coffee industry can be useful entries into the environmental history of coffee. They often contain concise descriptions of cultivation in the major (and often minor) producing countries. These include Francis Thurber’s Coffee: From Plantation to Cup, and the two editions of William Ukers’s aptly named All About Coffee (1922, 1935). More recent surveys include Di Fulvio’s Le café dans le monde (1947), Coste’s multivolume Les caféiers et les cafés dans le monde (1959–1961), and Krug and de Poerck’s World Coffee Survey (1968). Most of these surveys also contain detailed country-level bibliographies that can open up avenues for further research.

Coffee cultivation manuals also offer glimpses into evolving cultivation practices. Some of the earlier manuals, such as Pierre J. Laborie’s influential Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo, were based upon practical knowledge and years of experience with coffee planting. Since World War II, many of the leading coffee-planting manuals have been written by scientists, who usually also have much experience in coffee planting. Some of the most important of these include Fredrick Wellman’s Coffee: Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization (1961), and Gordon Wrigley’s Coffee (1988). Wellman’s book, in particular, was based on several decades of field experience working in Latin America, as well as comparative work on coffee plantations in Africa and Asia. Jean Nicolas Wintgens’s Coffee: Growing, Processing, and Sustainable Production (2014) is the most comprehensive overview of contemporary coffee cultivation.

In addition to these global models, there are also country-level manuals, usually produced by planter associations or government agencies. The Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers published the first edition of the Manual del cafetero colombiano in 1932; there have been four editions since then, the most recent in 2013. Brazil’s Cultura de café no Brasil: manual de recomendaçoes went through five editions between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, reflecting some of the rapid changes that coffee farming was undergoing there. There are similar manuals for other countries. Both global and national manuals tend to present the official, institutional view of “best practices” in coffee cultivation. They are often weaker at capturing the (often widespread) farming practices that diverge from the officially recommended models. More specialized scientific studies can also be tremendously useful; Warren Dean’s excellent article on the environmental history of coffee cultivation in São Paulo built upon the work of a 19th-century Austrian agronomist, Franz Dafert, who published important work on soil fertility in São Paulo. Dean’s article is a model of how to use old scientific publications to inform environmental history.

Trade and agricultural periodicals can also be useful. One of the earliest of these is the Tropical Agriculturist, which began publication in the 1880s. Although it was published in Ceylon, this publication regularly discussed coffee farming around the globe. Over the 20th century, the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal (and its predecessor The Spice Mill) have regularly covered production issues in coffee-producing countries. At the country level, coffee producer associations and research centers also published periodicals, such as ANACAFÉ’s Revista Cafetalera (Guatemala), and CENICAFE’s Cenicafé (Colombia). Brazil’s Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, arguably one of the most important coffee research centers, has published its journal Bragantia since 1941. Among other things, it contains pioneering work on coffee breeding. The full run of the journal is available online, open access, through Brazil’s ScieLo portal. National newspapers also frequently reported on issues of coffee cultivation. Going through these newspapers can be a painstaking task, however, so it is helpful to work from bibliographies wherever possible. Some institutions had thematic newspaper clipping services: for example, both the University of Costa Rica and the National University of Costa Rica have files of stories on coffee cultivation and trade for the 1970s and 1980s, gleaned from national newspapers.

The best bet for anyone starting a national- or regional-level coffee study is to check (where possible) the national library and archives, and the libraries of the national coffee association and coffee research centers. The quantity, quality, and availability of primary archival material on coffee cultivation can vary considerably by country. All too often, important primary documents have not been preserved, or they have since been lost or dispersed, as was the case with the collections of the Instituto Brasileiro do Café after it was disbanded in 1990. Partly, the problem also lies in the genre. Technical manuals, reports, and information leaflets—which can be invaluable to environmental and agricultural historians—are often treated as ephemera, and are not systematically conserved. When doing this kind of research, it is important to develop contacts with librarians, archivists, coffee researchers, or coffee farmers. Sometimes, individuals do a better job than institutions of conserving documents.

Regional repositories also matter; for the Americas, a good starting point is the Orton commemorative library at CATIE in Costa Rica. Since the 1940s, it has collected publications on tropical agriculture from across the Americas; coffee has been an important area of research.


  • Coste, René. Les caféiers et les cafés dans le monde. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Paris: Larose, 1961.
  • Dafert, Franz Wilhelm. Principes de culture rationnelle du café au Brésil: étude sur les engrais à employer. Translated by Albert Couturier. Paris: A. Challamel, 1900.
  • Di Fulvio, Antonio. Le café dans le monde. Rome: Institut international d’agriculture, 1947.
  • Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, and Mariano Ospina Pérez. Manual del cafetero colombiano. Bogotá: Litografía Colombia, 1932.
  • Instituto Brasileiro do Cafe. Cultura do cafe no Brasil: manual de recomendaçōes. 5th ed. Rio de Janeiro (RJ): Instituo Brasileiro do Cafe—GERCA, 1985.
  • Krug, C, and R. A. De Poerck. World Coffee Survey. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United, 1968.
  • Laborie, P. J. The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1798.
  • Thurber, Francis. Coffee: From Plantation to Cup: A Brief History of Coffee Production and Consumption. 14th ed. New York: American Grocer Publ. Association, 1887.
  • Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922.
  • Wellman, Frederick. Coffee: Botany, Cultivation and Utilization. London: Leonard Hill, 1961.
  • Wintgens, Jean Nicolas. Coffee: Growing, Processing, Sustainable Production: A Guidebook for Growers, Processors, Traders and Researchers. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH, 2004.
  • Wrigley, Gordon. Coffee. New York: Wiley, 1988.

Links to Digital Materials

General Repositories

The Internet Archive eBook and Text repository is a large and growing open-access repository, particularly for English-language material published before 1925. Thurber’s Coffee: From Plantation to Cup, the first edition of Ukers’s All About Coffee, the journal The Tropical Agriculturist, and other valuable publications can be found here.

The Handbook of Latin American Studies, hosted by the U.S. Library of Congress, is an essential starting point for bibliographical research on Latin America.

For French-language primary material, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s Gallica is a good starting point.

The International Coffee Organization publishes useful documents on coffee, although many of these are now available by subscription only.

Scientific Publications

The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) has made its publications, which include a valuable collection of original research on coffee since 1940, available through its digital library

For coffee research in 20th-century Latin America, consult the catalog of the Orton Commemorative Library, of the Center for Tropical Research and Teaching (CATIE).

The Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, one of Latin America’s oldest and most important coffee research centers, has made the full run of the journal Bragantia, available online.

Cenicafé, the coffee research center of the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, makes many of its publications available through the Cenicafé website.

Publications of ICAFÉ, Costa Rica’s Coffee Institute, and CICAFE (the Costa Rican coffee research institute) are available on the ICAFÉ website


The International Coffee Organization Blog.

CRS Coffeelands Blog, from an NGO focused on coffee and development in contemporary Latin America.

Daily Coffee News regularly explores current issues in coffee production.

Further Reading

  • Bacon, Christopher M. Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Fair Trade, Sustainable Livelihoods and Ecosystems in Mexico and Central America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
  • Brannstrom, Christian. “Coffee Labor Regimes and Deforestation on a Brazilian Frontier, 1915–1965.” Economic Geography 76.4 (2000): 326–346.
  • Dean, Warren. “The Green Wave of Coffee: Beginnings of Tropical Agricultural Research in Brazil (1885–1900).” The Hispanic American Historical Review 69.1 (1989): 91–115.
  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. University of California Press, 1997.
  • Gallini, Stefania. Una historia ambiental del café en Guatemala : La Costa Cuca Entre 1830 y 1902. Ciudad de Guatemala: Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Guatemala, 2009.
  • Guhl, Andrés. Café y cambio de paisaje en Colombia, 1970–2005. Medellín: Fondo Editorial Universidad EAFIT, 2008.
  • Hall, Carolyn. El cafe y el desarrollo historico-geografico de Costa Rica. San Jose: Editorial Costa Rica, 1982.
  • International Coffee Organization. “Assessing the Economic Sustainability of Coffee Growing.” London: International Coffee Organization, September 15, 2016.
  • López-López, Maximiliano, and Wilson Picado Umaña. “Plantas, fertilizantes y transición energética en la caficultura contemporánea de Costa Rica. Bases para una discusión.” Revista de Historia 65–66 (2012): 17–51.
  • Martínez-Torres, Maria. Organic Coffee: Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2006.
  • McCook, Stuart. “Global Rust Belt: Hemileia vastatrix and the Ecological Integration of World Coffee Production since 1850.” Journal of Global History 1.2 (2006): 177–195.
  • McCook, Stuart, and John Vandermeer. “The Big Rust and the Red Queen: Long-Term Perspectives on Coffee Rust Research.” Phytopathology 105.9 (2015): 1164–1173.
  • Monbeig, Pierre. Pionniers et planteurs de São Paulo. Paris: A. Colin, 1952.
  • Naranjo, Carlos, Mario Samper K., and Paul Sfez. Entre la tradición y el cambio: evolución tecnológica de la caficultura costarricense. San José, Costa Rica: Escuela de Historia, Universidad Nacional, 2000.
  • Perfecto, Ivette, Robert A. Rice, Russell Greenberg, and Martha E. van der Voort. “Shade Coffee: A Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity.” BioScience 46.8 (1996): 598–608.
  • Picado Umaña, Wilson, Rafael Ledezma Díaz, and Roberto Granados Porras. “Territorio de coyotes, agroecosistemas y cambio tecnológico en una región cafetalera de Costa Rica.” Revista de Historia no. 59–60 (2009): 119–165.
  • Rice, Robert A. “A Place Unbecoming: The Coffee Farm of Northern Latin America.” Geographical Review 89.4 (1999): 554–570.
  • Rice, Robert A.Noble Goals and Challenging Terrain: Organic and Fair Trade Coffee Movements in the Global Marketplace.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 14.1 (2001): 39–66.
  • Samper K., Mario. “Modelos vs. prácticas. Acercamiento inicial a la cuestión tecnológica en algunos manuales sobre caficultura, 1774-1895.” Revista de Historia [Costa Rica] 30 (1994): 11–40.
  • Samper K., Mario. “Trayectoria y viabilidad de las caficulturas centroamericanas.” In Desafíos de la caficultura en Centroamérica, edited by Benoît Bertrand and Bruno Rapidel, 1–68. San José, Costa Rica: IICA, PROMECAFE, 1999.
  • Samper K., Mario. “The Historical Construction of Quality and Competitiveness: A Preliminary Discussion of Coffee Commodity Chains.” In The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500–1989, edited by W. G. Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik, 120–153. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Samper K., Mario, and Steven Topik. Crisis y transformaciones del mundo del café: dinámicas locales y estrategias nacionales en un periodo de adversidad e incertidumbre. Bogotá: Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2012.
  • Stein, Stanley J. Vassouras, a Brazilian Coffee County, 1850–1900: The Roles of Planter and Slave in a Plantation Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.


  • 1. Gordon Wrigley, Coffee (New York: Wiley, 1988), 38–51.

  • 2. Steven Topik, “The Integration of the World Coffee Market,” in The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500–1989, ed. W. G. Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 37.

  • 3. Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (University of California Press, 1997), 168–190; Topik, “The Integration of the World Coffee Market,” 31.

  • 4. Quoted in Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand, 245.

  • 5. Warren Dean, “The Green Wave of Coffee: Beginnings of Tropical Agricultural Research in Brazil (1885–1900),” The Hispanic American Historical Review 69.1 (1989): 91–115; Stanley J. Stein, Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee County, 1850–1900: The Roles of Planter and Slave in a Plantation Society (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), pt. 4.

  • 6. Dean, “The Green Wave of Coffee: Beginnings of Tropical Agricultural Research in Brazil (1885–1900),” 99–100.

  • 7. Mario Samper K., “Trayectoria y viabilidad de las caficulturas centroamericanas,” in Desafíos de la caficultura en Centroamérica, ed. Benoît Bertrand and Bruno Rapidel (Agroamerica, 1999), 1–68.

  • 8. John H Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto, Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2013), 157.

  • 9. Mats Lundahl, Peasants and Poverty: A Study of Haiti (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 560.

  • 10. Gisela Eisner, Jamaica, 1830–1930; a Study in Economic Growth. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1974), 226.

  • 11. Mario Samper K., “The Historical Construction of Quality and Competitiveness: A Preliminary Discussion of Coffee Commodity Chains,” in The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500–1989, eds. W. G. Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 120–153.

  • 12. C. Krug and R. A. De Poerck, World Coffee Survey (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1968), 245–246, 250, 258; Antonio Di Fulvio, Le café dans le monde (Rome: Institut international d’agriculture, 1947), 192.

  • 13. Maxine Margolis, “Natural Disaster and Socioeconomic Change: Post-Frost Adjustments in Paraná, Brazil,” Disasters 4.2 (June 1, 1980): 231–235.

  • 14. Krug and De Poerck, World Coffee Survey, 206, 229–230, 289.

  • 15. Frederick Wellman, Coffee: Botany, Cultivation and Utilization (London: Leonard Hill, 1961), 75.

  • 16. André Felipe Cândido da Silva, “A campanha contra a broca-do-café em São Paulo (1924–1927),” Historia, Ciências, Saúde—Manguinhos 13.4 (December 2006): 957–993.

  • 17. Ivette Perfecto and John H Vandermeer, Coffee Agroecology: A New Approach to Understanding Agricultural Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, and Sustainable Development (London: Routledge, 2015); Andrés Guhl, Café y cambio de paisaje en Colombia, 1970–2005 (Medellín: Fondo Editorial Universidad EAFIT, 2008).

  • 18. Steven Topik, John M. Talbot, and Mario Samper, “Introduction: Globalization, Neoliberalism, and the Latin American Coffee Societies,” Latin American Perspectives 37.2 (2010): 5–20.

  • 19. Production data from United States Department of Agriculture. Foreign Agricultural Service, “Production, Supply, and Distribution,” PSD Online,

  • 20. William Roseberry, “The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States,” American Anthropologist 98 (1996): 762–775.

  • 21. Robert A. Rice, “Noble Goals and Challenging Terrain: Organic and Fair Trade Coffee Movements in the Global Marketplace,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 14.1 (March 1, 2001): 39–66; Maria Martínez-Torres, Organic Coffee: Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers (Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2006).

  • 22. Carlos Guadarrama-Zugasti, “A Grower Typology Approach to Assessing the Environmental Impact of Coffee Farming in Veracruz, Mexico,” in Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Fair Trade, Sustainable Livelihoods and Ecosystems in Mexico and Central America, eds. Christopher M Bacon et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 127–154; Guhl, Café y cambio de paisaje en Colombia, 1970–2005.

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