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CIAT in Central America

Since the 1980s, CIAT has been present in the region, building together with partners and collaborators a research agenda that responds to the needs and pressing challenges that smallholders face. The current focus topics in food security and nutrition are more productive and sustainable livestock, climate change, agro-ecology, and linking farmers to markets.

A temperature rise of 3 °C by 2030 is the most conservative forecast for Central America. It is estimated that nearly 75% of the region’s crop land shows some level of degradation, putting at risk the food security of 52% of rural people, who depend on staple crops such as maize, sorghum, and beans, and livestock, mostly mixed rainfed production systems highly vulnerable to climate variability.

Transitioning from being a victim of such variability to strategically coping with the effects of climate change, from non-inclusive markets to more equitable value chains, and from natural resource degradation to sustainable production systems is a major part of the challenge agenda faced by the farming families responsible for 50% of Central America’s agricultural production – the most important economic activity of 60% of this region’s rural people.

Five research lines

Since the 1980s, CIAT has been present in the region building, in close collaboration with partners and stakeholders, including national governments, a research agenda responsive to the pressing needs and challenges faced mainly by small- and medium-scale farmers. These are the main topics in CIAT’s current agenda:

Food and nutritional security

HarvestPlus, a long-term global program – led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and CIAT – has contributed in this area particularly through the delivery of improved bean, cassava, and rice varieties, among other crops. In the case of beans, improved varieties have been enriched with iron, an essential element, with the aim of reducing the current rate of children under 5 years old suffering from anemia, which ranges between 19% and 34%. HarvestPlus also promotes a diversified food basket to contribute to global nutritional security.

Besides developing biofortified, non-biofortified, and nutritionally enriched varieties, characterized by high yields, resistance to pests and diseases, as well as tolerance to low-fertility soils and drought, HarvestPlus has also devoted efforts to strengthen its private and public partners’ capacity, especially in regards to technical assistance.

More productive and sustainable livestock
Livestock is the productive activity that uses most of the land. In Central America, there is wide degradation of land under grazing and steady deterioration of forage productivity, which in turn affects livestock rearing.


Over the past 15 years, CIAT and its partners have identified and developed production system options based on more productive forages, offering alternatives for adaptation to vulnerable conditions and for mitigation of the effects of land degradation, as well as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, with the last being of special significance for the design of the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) for the livestock sector in Costa Rica and Colombia, with a different focus: how can tropical forages benefit the environment?

LivestockPlus, one of CIAT’s strategic initiatives, becomes relevant to this context to benefit smallholder farmers, by improving their livelihoods. Sustainable intensification through the implementation of sustainable livestock systems based on the use of improved forages and on-farm forest conservation increases productivity, reduces the footprint of livestock production, and restores ecosystem services. This approach has been adopted in El Salvador and Nicaragua, with the aim of promoting the development of livestock value chains in Central America.

Climate change is also an opportunity

Central America is a region highly vulnerable to climate change. Its agricultural sector shows high sensitivity to climate variability, particularly along the Dry Corridor, which encompasses parts of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, where nearly 10 million people face long drought spells and increased influence of outbreaks of pests and diseases.

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) began to work in Central America in 2013 with a focus on four thematic axes: climate-smart agriculture (CSA), whose pillars are adaptation, mitigation, and productivity; creation and strengthening of climate information systems and protection networks; identification of low-emissions agricultural development options; and capacity training in agricultural and climate policymaking, integrating the gender dimension.

The integration of these thematic axes takes place in the so-called climate-smart villages (CSVs) located in climate change hotspots, where researchers and communities test different practices adapted to the territory’s specific needs. Today, there are CSVs in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Similarly, CIAT promotes inclusion of climate risk in different value chains across the region. This is made possible by a coordinated effort with the Linking Farmers to Markets research team, mainly with CSA tools to foster participation of the private sector through portfolios of practices and technologies accepted and tested by farmers.


Adopting and harnessing environmentally friendly agricultural technologies to increase resilience in production systems in the face of climate change is a novel approach that Nicaraguan producers are using to diversify their production systems while strengthening resilience in their farms and contributing to biodiversity conservation and protection, and use of ecosystem services. Our efforts have focused not only in working with smallholder producers, but also in building local partners’ capacity to better respond to these needs, as well as developing tools to enable more efficient dynamics between CIAT and its collaborators.

Linking farmers to markets, teamwork for the benefit of all

The Linking Farmers to Markets research team aims to enable farmers to access markets, through an inclusive business model in which all the value chain actors can equitably benefit and profit. To that end, the team of researchers has focused on the following strategic lines of work:

  • Development of learning cycles around inclusive business, using the LINK methodology, in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
  • Characterization of the local basic food basket to understand how traditional agri-food systems work, and improve them through public policy or collective action among the market actors.
  • Equitable integrated rural development with a gender dimension.
  • Participatory development of codes and common certification practices for smallholder coffee farming households.
  • Impact assessment of FairTrade USA on farmers, large-scale farm workers, and the entire system of fair trade market in Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Peru, to get a better understanding of this new certification model and contribute to making smallholder farming more inclusive and competitive.
  • Climate-smart value chains: double-purpose livestock, coffee, cocoa, and crops for local consumption with a view to protect the environment for future generations.
Gender and impact assessment
In addition, gender and impact assessment are cross-cutting themes in CIAT’s research agenda. Our work in gender seeks to bring into sharp focus constraints, needs, and effects of the existing dynamics between men and women within households. In parallel, we assess the economic, social, and environmental impacts of CIAT and its partners’ interventions on these dynamics and the wider society.

Nicaragua, a hub of the CGIAR System in Central America

Nicaragua, together with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Vietnam, is one of the six countries defined by the CGIAR System as a site integration country for the CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs), during their second phase 2017–2022, and the national research agendas.

Seven of the current 15 CRPs converge in Nicaragua: Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics; Policies, Institutions and Markets; Forests, Trees and Agroforestry; Water, Land and Ecosystems; Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security; Livestock and Fish; and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

What we have accomplished together

Thanks to a joint effort with regional partners, CIAT has achieved remarkable scientific impacts, including the development of 16 grass cultivars and 10 legume cultivars between 1983 and 2005, released in Central America and Mexico. The 22 rice varieties released by the genetic improvement program, led by the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR), account for 60% of the area sown to rice in Costa Rica and 44% in Panama; and ANAR 2006 is the second rice variety most cultivated in Nicaragua – to mention a few examples of what can be achieved working as a team with partners in the region.