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Originally published May 5, 2014 at 8:08 PM | Page modified May 6, 2014 at 12:41 PM

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Fast-spreading fungus cripples Central American coffee farms

A plant-choking fungus called coffee rust, or la roya, has swept across Central America, withering trees and slashing production everywhere.


The New York Times

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SAN LUCAS TOLIMÁN, Guatemala —

When coffee rust attacked the farms clinging to the volcanic slopes above this Mayan town, the disease was unsparing, reducing mountainside rows of coffee trees to lattices of gray twigs.

During this past year’s harvest, Román Lec, who grows coffee on a few acres here, lost half his crop. This year, he borrowed about $2,000 for fertilizer and fungicide to protect the plants, as he did the year before. But the disease returned and he lost even more.

“There are nights when you cannot sleep, thinking how to pay back the money,” said Lec, 65.

A plant-choking fungus called coffee rust, or la roya, has swept across Central America, withering trees and slashing production everywhere. As exports have plunged over the past two years, the effects have rippled through the local economies.

Big farmers hire fewer workers to pick the ripe coffee cherries that enclose the beans. Smaller farmers go into debt and sell livestock or tools to make up for the lost income. Sales fall at local merchants. Teenagers leave school to work on the farm because their parents can no longer hire outside help. At the very end of the chain are the landless migrant workers who earn just a few dollars a day.

“If you frame this in terms of everyone that is connected to the economics of coffee, it’s a very serious problem,” said Roberto de Michele, a specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank who is based in Guatemala City.

The coffee rust has spread far and fast, driven by higher temperatures in the region that have allowed the fungus to thrive at higher altitudes. Many experts say climate change is largely to blame for the shifting weather patterns.

The economics of the business have added to the farmers’ plight. After years of low coffee prices, smaller farmers could not afford to replace aging coffee plants, which have proved more vulnerable to the rust’s attack.

“There was nothing to hold it back because the farms were in very poor shape,” said Maja Wallengren, a coffee expert based in Mexico.

The trouble here is just one of several factors that are pushing up prices in the global commodity market, increases that may carry over to supermarket shelves and the specialty coffee houses that sell the high-grade Arabica coffee for which Central America is known. Market prices have risen 70 to 80 percent since November, driven mostly by drought in Brazil, the world’s largest producer.

In Central America, the pain is acute. Four million people there and in southern Mexico rely on coffee for their living, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Twenty percent of the half-million jobs in Guatemala directly tied to the crop have already disappeared, estimated Nils Leporowski, the president of Anacafé, the country’s coffee board.

“Roya has exposed the depth of the social and economic problems in terms of people’s vulnerability to the market and to climate change,” said Peter Loach, the Guatemala director of Mercy Corps, an aid agency. “What makes it different and complicated is that it’s a slow-onset natural disaster over two to three years.”

This year, the lean season, when food supplies run out for the poorest farmers, started two months early, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a monitoring service, because of falling coffee earnings and reduced corn yields over the past couple of years. Forecasts of irregular rainfall this summer raise additional concern.

As the coffee rust has taken hold, farmers have been spending much of their time and money trying to fight the disease by spraying fungicide, replacing or cutting back old plants, and managing the shade trees that filter sunlight and appear to reduce the spread of the rust.

“People are scared of the roya,” said Nicolás Leja, who farms about 7 acres in plots in San Antonio Palopó, a nearby municipality. He pruned his trees and sprayed fungicide, but it proved futile. He has lost as much as 60 percent of his production over the past two years.

Instead of hiring four workers for the harvest as he usually does, he relied on extra labor from his 18-year-old son, who put off plans to study medicine.

The changing fortunes of Guatemala’s small farmers raise the question of whether some of them should continue to grow coffee at all or, instead, should switch to food crops. Some say they could not make the change even if they wanted to.

“Beans and corn don’t grow well here,” Leja said, pointing at the steep hillside. “The coffee income is very important. It pays for corn and beans.”

The latest epidemic of coffee rust began in Central America three years ago. It spread rapidly last year, prompting most governments to declare states of emergency. Last year’s harvest fell 15 percent in Guatemala, and neighboring countries had losses as big and even bigger. Export figures suggest that Guatemala’s harvest this year has fallen an additional 10 percent.

Nobody has escaped. Guillermo Ríos, a midsize producer who grows coffee on 37 acres near the Mexican border in Huehuetenango, said he had sprayed fungicide four times and managed to limit the outbreak to just 10 percent of the plantation.

While rust hit Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, the outbreaks were contained at lower altitudes. This rust outbreak has advanced to the highest altitudes, including the steep slopes here around Lake Atitlán. Rising temperatures and extreme weather, like flooding, have encouraged roya’s spread, said Ana Ríos, a climate-change specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

With the changing conditions, the industry is intensifying efforts to breed varieties that are resistant to rust and heat stress while maintaining their quality. But the research is only beginning, and it may take 25 or 30 years before resistant hybrids reach farmers, said Leonardo Lombardini, the deputy director of World Coffee Research at Texas A&M University.

“The problem is that farmers are struggling and also the climate is changing rapidly,” Lombardini said. “The window of climate conditions for Arabica is relatively narrow.”

Researchers are also growing plants from seeds collected all over the world and sending them to different countries for field trials to see where they thrive. That should give farmers who do not have much money to invest some assurances that when they replace their old trees, the new ones will be productive.

In the meantime, the priority is returning the farms to health.

Guatemala’s agriculture ministry provided small farmers with fungicide last year, although many complained that it reached them too late or that it was not enough. Others simply sold it. The government has increased the amount of money in a fund to provide low-interest loans to $100 million and extended it to 2026. The fund had only $28 million when the measure was approved last fall.

“The coffee here is positioned for its quality like the wines of France,” said José Sebastián Marcucci, Guatemala’s vice minister of agriculture. “The majority of coffee comes from the small producers. I hope that they can be motivated.”

With help from Anacafé, the government is showing farmers how to prune and replace their trees. They also plant beans and vegetables between the coffee seedlings to provide food while they wait three years for them to start producing.

More and more farmers are listening. Servando Santos, 56, the manager at the San Miguel Integrated Agricultural Cooperative in Tzampetey, said he fought off the rust by spraying fungicide, using fertilizer and controlling the shade over his plants. “You have to adapt to the roya,” he said. “You have to make friends with it.”



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