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Decoding the Coffee Curse

Monday 15 December 2014 by Scott BennettDecember 2014originNews

Scott shares his insight into the recent coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America and discusses concerns arising from the fallout in the December issue of Cafe Culture magazine.

Last year saw the coffee industry rocked by the worst outbreak of coffee leaf rust (CLR) since the disease first appeared in 1976. A state of phytosanitary emergency was declared in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru also badly affected.

Home to more than 351,000 growers, coffee is embedded in the culture of Central America and provides a livelihood for more than two million people in the region. The CLR epidemic has had a profound impact on society and the economy of Central America.

The crisis dominated industry news for the first half of the year as production estimates rapidly declined and differentials began to rise. The issue was hard to avoid. The scale of the situation was difficult to appreciate from half way across the world and it was not until a visit to Central America in February of that year that the real significance weighed in.

Travelling through affected regions, we were confronted with desolate fields and silhouettes of trees pushing out of the ground. Speaking to farmers we learned that some were spraying up to six times due to the reduced lifespan of the fungicides. Heavy pruning was commonplace with many trees being reduced to stumps in the ground. Apprehension was widespread amidst the community and many producers were seriously considering abandoning parts of their farms in pursuit of more profitable crops. Others were hoping that the trees would recover and invested all they could, economically and emotionally, into saving their farms.

Coffee Leaf Rust is hardly new to Central America and has affected coffee trees in varying degrees ever since its first appearance in the 1970s. Usually it can be contained through the use of fungicides. This epidemic, however, took the coffee community by surprise. 

Why was this outbreak so severe? A pivotal factor contributing to the scale of the crisis was the altitude of the areas affected. CLR was appearing at unprecedented elevations. Previous to this epidemic, the disease had been recorded at maximum altitudes of 1000 metres above sea level (MASL). Producers were now encountering the disease at elevations of 1500 - 1800 MASL. These trees were amongst the worst affected as producers had not employed precautionary measures and as such were caught off guard. The rapid spread of the infestation has been attributed to the effects of climate change; consistently humid conditions and persistent light rainfall providing the perfect microclimate for the disease to travel.

Farmers were forced to act. It became a question of risk. Should farmers persevere with varieties that command high premiums and attract international markets; or plant a rust resistant variety with the guarantee of crop? This loaded decision ultimately fell on the shoulders of producers who, at that time, were otherwise engaged with the short term concern of surviving the new crop year. The epidemic prompted a significant migration wave. Not only were producers affected but also farm workers. With the destruction of their livelihoods, many were forced to emigrate.

The issue captured the attention of international organisations around the world. Industry leaders promptly responded to the crisis; holding emergency summits and establishing action plans. The World Coffee Research Program, in coordination with the Regional Cooperative Program for the Technological Development and Modernisation of the Coffee Industry (PROMECAFE), held the “First International Summit on Coffee Rust” in Guatemala in April 2013. This event has been the largest gathering on the issue to date and aimed to unite all relevant stakeholders with the combined goal of designing a comprehensive response to CLR. Shortly after the summit, SCAA hosted a dedicated program at the annual Symposium in Boston. In November, Sustainable Harvest launched the inaugural ‘Let’s Talk Roya’ event held in El Salvador. Governments and coffee organisations hosted origin specific events and implemented response initiatives.

Now, nearly twelve months on, the issue of CLR is not as prevalent in industry discussion as it once was however the effects of the outbreak remain for farmers in the region. The quantifiable consequences of the crisis are beginning to surface, with regional export calculations and production yields for the 2013/14 coffee year* now accessible.

According to reports from international trade house I & M Smith, total production from Mexico and Central America for 2013/14 was 16.02 million bags, a decline of 13.4 percent from the previous coffee year. This decline is significant, however it is well below the estimated 30 - 50 percent drops that were mentioned at the height of the crisis. This suggests that response strategies are working and, perhaps with the combination of increasing prices and state subsidies, farmers are succeeding in their fight to keep the infestation under control.

Although the numbers signify progress at the coalface of the crisis, unfortunately this data cannot be generalised to all affected producers across the board. These reports portray macro level statistics which are often skewed by large producers who experience lower yield losses and reduced incidence levels. It is likely that the situation for a typical smallholder producer differs greatly from the data described.

Recent reports from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) suggest that some smallholder farmers are resorting to atypical negative coping strategies to deal with the financial consequences of the outbreak. These strategies range from slight to extreme - such as eating less and working more, to pulling children out of school and selling assets. The immediate appeal of such measures is attractive in the short term however the implication of these can be very costly in the long term.

FEWS NET has also warned of severe food security issues across the region in early 2015. According to the latest report, the effects of CLR, in combination with an ongoing drought and rising prices of food staples, have the potential to prompt a rapid deterioration of food security requiring a level of humanitarian aid not seen in the region since Hurricane Mitch hit in 1998.

It is clear there is no overnight solution to the CLR crisis. Increased awareness and discussion of the issue have been a step in the right direction however we are now faced with the colossal task of dealing with the fallout and ensuring that we continue to offer our support to those in need.

Moving forward, it is imperative the discourse surrounding CLR continues. It may no longer be front page news but the crisis remains very real for the families whose livelihoods depend on overcoming it.

*The coffee year runs from October until September. 

First published in Cafe Culture Magazine, Issue 38 December 2014.

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