A Fulbright Garcia-Robles Grant Supports SCaRP PhD Student Thomas Douthat’s Research on Governance and Resilience in Coffee Clusters

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The next time you decide to buy a particular coffee, be it Maxwell House, a Mexican cooperative blend, a single origin Tarrazu from Costa Rica, you are participating in a discursive circuit with thousands of coffee roasters, traders, millers, and small farmers in countries as diverse as Rwanda and Vietnam. What you decide to drink and what companies decide to market to you has tremendous consequences for local agricultural economies. Not only has coffee played a crucial role in the economy of many tropical countries, but it has also been linked to environmental services such a biodiversity and hydrological conservation, cultural preservation and regional tourism.

The geography of coffee production was at one time as stable as the typical American “cup of joe” was generic.  Coffee producing countries limited exports to stabilize prices for farmers, much in the way that OPEC does with oil. However, since the 1990s the coffee industry has undergone tremendous changes that have impacted where coffee is grown, the routines of production, and how it is marketed internationally.  

Moving from a fairly generic commodity crop, now coffee is regarded as a specialty item differentiated by eco-friendliness, fairness to producers, and taste profile. Equally diverse are the range in prices received by modern producers, the lowest prices are set by large producers in Brazil and Vietnam, while the highest values are set by high quality producers that follow refined processing techniques. Modern producers are not only faced with this growing completion, but also have to compete in the current market and adapt to growing threats related of climate change and disease. For example, in 2013 prices plummeted to a ten year low (before rebounding in 2014), and since 2012, the International Coffee Organization estimates that coffee leaf rust has caused nearly a half a billion dollars in losses to local farmers and seriously impacted the agricultural workforce. 

So what allows coffee producing regions to remain resilient in the face of these challenges?

This is the question that drove Thomas Douthat, a fourth year PhD student from School of City and Regional Planning, to Chiapas, Mexico. With the support of a Fulbright Garcia-Robles Fellowship Douthat is currently undertaking research on resilience in coffee clusters.

Douthat's research focuses on how the economic structure of coffee clusters impacts resilience. This involves testing the impact of agglomeration on long-term land use, measuring and comparing knowledge networks between coffee mills in different areas using social network analysis methods, and creating case studies of collaboration and adaptation in areas that are dominated by either cooperative or private transnational coffee intermediaries. This research will help to understand how local conditions impact the way different agricultural clusters interact with global value chains.  These value chains govern the distribution of a product’s value from producers, to exporters, to final retail outlets. Strategies that allow producers to obtain more of the end value of a product are important for rural development. 

Understanding how local coffee clusters can achieve resilience in the face of climate change and global market forces is an important question for regional development in developing regions.  Not only has coffee played a crucial role in the economy of many tropical countries, but it has also been linked to environmental services such a biodiversity and hydrological conservation, cultural preservation and regional tourism. As such, the importance of coffee has parallels to that of wine in rural California or dairy in Vermont, except coffee grows in regions where sustainable growth is exceptionally important for biodiversity and poverty concerns. Coffee can therefore be regarded as a poster child of sustainable development initiatives. 

Douthat’s research in Mexico follows fieldwork in Costa Rica, and is sponsored by a Fulbright Garcia-Robles grant. This program is a bilateral initiative between Mexico and the United States, and it has permitted Thomas to spend February to November, 2014 as a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a public research institution in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chis. He hopes this study will be a useful tool to develop regional development policies in coffee growing countries and knowledge about how to create resilient agricultural clusters.


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    Jessie Brandon
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    Fletcher Moore
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