On the slopes of the Sierra del Merendón, a rural belt of mountains in northern Honduras, José Vásquez, a WWF agronomist, wanders through rows of banana, melon and citrus trees. Vásquez once grew pineapples. “If I went into the pineapple business now, I would apply my new knowledge of the environment. I would do things differently.”
Vásquez, along with his colleagues at WWF and The Coca-Cola Company, are trying to make sure today’s farmers do exactly that—apply environmental knowledge to farming. Agricultural runoffs like pesticides, fertilizers and topsoil are some of the greatest threats to the Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest reef in the world and home to hundreds of fish species, marine turtles, sharks and coral. While curbing the agricultural impacts on the reef requires a multi-pronged approach, one of the most successful initiatives leverages a technical look at the skies.
Forecasting a Better Future
Vásquez and the farmer agree that today is not the best day to use pesticides. While the sun is shining now, rain is predicted, and the downfall would wash the toxins off the plants, polluting the groundwater and forcing the farmer to buy and apply more pesticides. Waiting will save the farmer precious time and money, and will reduce the impact to the surrounding ecosystem and, ultimately, the reef.
The information comes from the Aguas de San Pedro (ASP) weather station, just one of approximately 60 stations in the region. The Coca-Cola Company funded two stations to help preserve and manage critical aquifer recharge zones as part of its partnership with WWF. The vast weather station network plays an integral role in protecting the environment and improving the livelihoods of local farmers.
Each station measures a series of meteorological indicators including humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, solar radiation, precipitation and evapotranspiration. The data is sent by text message to a central server. The information is later made available to subscribers through an online platform, where users can conduct analyses, enter additional information manually and run spatial models that help inform decisions. Representatives trained by WWF are part of the system that transforms the stations’ data into real-time, targeted advice for farmers, such as when to apply fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and when to plant, irrigate and harvest crops.
Weather modeling not only helps farmers reduce runoff by forecasting the best time to apply pesticides, it also helps them reduce fertilizer by increasing the accuracy of applications and conserve fresh water by informing irrigation schedules. At a global level, agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawal. If farmers know when and where it's going to rain, they can reduce the amount of water tapped for irrigation.
It saves crops, too. Ninety percent of all crop losses are due to weather. Access to accurate information from weather stations can help reduce weather-related crop damage, especially when combined with additional precision agricultural techniques.
The results are so successful that entire industries in the region have embraced weather stations. Three regional stations function primarily for the sugarcane industry, which uses them to predict and manage pests, diseases and irrigation.
Adapting to Climate Change
The Coca-Cola Company and WWF partnership has institutionalized the use of more precise climate information, and through training and support, has empowered local staff to use the technology for more than conservation. In an age of increasingly extreme weather events, the data is proving useful for adaptation.
For example, both AZUNOSA, a Honduran sugar producer, and Landivar University in Guatemala use weather stations to monitor the risk of floods in their local communities and watersheds. As weather continues to become less predictable, and time-tested methods no longer can be relied on, these stations, and the methodologies connected, will prove essential to helping farmers continue to grow food for a growing planet.
“All of this contributes to the bigger picture: a healthier, better managed, more sustainable river basin,” Vásquez says. “More information and cross-sector conversations help everyone make better decisions about water. Together, we can accomplish so much more.”