22 August 2023

Coffee, Carbon and Communities: how Mexican growers are protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change

Up in the shaded, tropical cloud forests of Mexico, local smallholders are carefully cultivating coffee beans in the face of threats to their future. Now, scientists and communities are uniting to find security for both people and planet.

A coffee plant bears fruit in a Mexican farm

Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with ecosystems ranging from dry arid shrublands to humid tropical forests. Of over 23,000 different plant species found in Mexico half are unique to the country.  

There are few better examples of this uniqueness than the Tropical Montane Cloud Forest in the mountains of Veracruz.  It is home to around 10% of Mexican plant diversity, despite covering less than 1% of the country. 

This high biodiversity is complemented by considerable cultural richness​. Mexico has a long history of plant domestication dating back to the dawn of civilisation. More than 9,000 plants have known uses and a quarter are edible!​​ 

The challenge of our time is that climate change and human activities such as urbanization and deforestation have already reduced the natural wealth of 50% of the cloud forests to a shadow of what they once held. 

A densely forested valley hides a huge waterfall tumbling through the trees
Peering through the trees into the heart of Veracruz's cloud forest © Alejandro Guerrero
Three people stand next to a large tree, behind the tree is a huge vista view showing tree-covered hills
A visit to a shade-grown coffee farm on the UKPACT project shows the surrounding hills topped with patches of cloud forest. © Silvia Bacci, RBG Kew

The livelihoods of most families of the central region of Veracruz depend on coffee production.  

Did you know that coffee can be either shade-grown or sun-grown? Arabica coffee usually grows best in the shade, while Robusta is able to grow in the sun. They differ in their taste and the nutrition they offer, with Arabica being considered to be sweeter, smoother than Robusta.  

Generally, shade-grown coffee produces fewer beans than full-sun coffee, but plants are longer-lived and more resilient to pests and diseases. This makes it a favourite among the Veracruz ‘cafetaleros’ (coffee producers).  

Shade can be provided by a huge variety of native trees and is available here in Veracruz’s cloud forest. As healthy forest is becoming rarer by the year, however, it’s time for action to ensure these livelihoods aren’t lost.  

Coffee plants growing among a network of planted trees
Shade-grown coffee plantations in Veracruz, Mexico © RBG Kew

In 2015 our partnership with Facultad de Estudios Superiores Iztacala, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FESI-UNAM) began a new programme with the NGO Pronatura Veracruz (PVN). A six month pilot study funded by UK Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (UK PACT) Mexico and the UK Embassy in Mexico aimed at enhancing carbon sequestration (storage) in shade-grown coffee plantations in the State of Veracruz.  

Storing more carbon in the land available is a key part of reversing climate change, but how do you increase that carbon storage power? 

What if the trees shading the coffee plants could themselves be better carbon storage, and help provide improved livelihoods for Veracruz’s people too? What if we could help conserve some of Mexico’s threatened native trees along the way? 

A map of mexico shows its eastern region highlighted, indicating the project is taking place here
This project has so far operated in the state of Veracruz, on Mexico's east coast.

Conserving Trees with the Local Community  

The team began with a list of 50 local tree species. Each received a rank based on factors like their carbon capture potential, or if they provided extra benefits like food or textile resources.  

The next step was to take the list to the people.  

Workshops were organised where the ‘cafetaleros’ selected tree species that would bring the greatest benefits to them if planted in their ‘cafetales’.  

Interestingly, women generally prioritised trees used as a source of food, while men chose trees that would enrich the soil with nitrogen, helping coffee plants to grow. Differences like these are a keen reminder of how crucial it is to represent the full breadth of perspectives in any kind of conservation planning.  

Coffee farmers lean over a table on which there are photos of different types of plants, and the potential benefits they bring.
Small holder coffee producers ranking the selected species based on multiple criteria © Alejandro Guerrero Lara

From theory to action  

Seven tree species remain from the original 50. Only those with both excellent carbon storage power and the best benefits to coffee growers make the final cut: Persea schiedeana Nees, a type of wild avocado locally known as “Chinini”, is a perfect example of tree able to sequester high quantities of carbon while providing different services, due to its edible, medicinal, and environmental uses.

While the storage of these chosen species’ seeds both in Mexico and at Kew opens new research on carbon capture and climate change resilience, the short-term future will see trees donated to the communities of Veracruz.  

At the end of a short but impactful six months, the research team visit a cloud forest nursery with growing trees destined for this project, and a buzzing coffee plantation set to benefit from it.

The plantation’s owner, Don Ramón Suárez Itza, captures the project’s vision in a single sentence.  

‘No money could ever convince me to fell a tree, because I recognise the value of that single tree, not only for its benefits, but also for its intrinsic value: this is our identity, our wisdom, our legacy.’ 

From here, we begin the project’s second phase. A scale-up to other communities in Mexico, with new questions, greater ambitions, and more cause for conservation optimism ahead.  

A branch breaks out into a collection of small needle-like red flowers
One of the species selected in the workshops is Erythrina americana Mill., commonly known as ‘Gasparito’ or ‘Colorín’, which has edible flowers that are used in many local recipes. © Alejandro Guerrero


The project ‘Enhancing carbon sequestration in shade-grown coffee plantations in the State of Veracruz, Mexico’ is led by the RBG Kew in collaboration with FESI-UNAM and in alliance with the NGO PNV in Mexico. It is funded through the UK PACT programme of the UK government in Mexico

Thank you to the coffee producers of the municipalities of Coatepec, Huatusco, Totutla who took part in this project.

Further information

Kew Project Page

UK PACT website 

Project Website 

For more information you can contact: 

Tiziana Ulian t.ulian@kew.org (Senior Research Leader, Principal Investigator) 
Michael Way m.way@kew.org (Conservation Partnership Coordinator, Co-Investigator) 
Maraeva Gianella m.gianella@kew.org (Latin America Projects Coordinator)
Elizabeth Bell e.bell2@kew.org (Project Officer – Mexico) 

A panel at a conference in Mexico

Check out this project's full visual story

A 20-minute feature including interviews with Veracruz's 'cafetelaros'

Read & watch