San Diego – Harvest season had just begun in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, and the coffee plants stood ripe and ready. But there was no one working at many of the farms.
Joaquín Solórzano, 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, climate change is becoming a larger impetus for forced migration.
U.S. 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.
"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, Solórzano 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.
Coffee farming requires intense manual labor. The cherries are generally hand-picked, with workers harvesting the plants several times over a season. Workers carry heavy bags of coffee on their backs over the mountainous terrain to be weighed and transported for drying.
Some workers make as little as $5 or $6 per day.
Climate change struck Central American coffee farms hard again in 2020 in the form of two hurricanes — Eta and Iota.
According to the International Coffee Organization, landslides and flooding caused by the storms damaged large areas of the coffee regions in Nicaragua and Honduras.