BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Coffee farmers in Central America are struggling to tackle the worst epidemic in nearly 40 years of coffee leaf rust, a climate change-linked disease that has slashed coffee production by hundreds of millions of dollars, cut wages and put coffee pickers out of work.
Coffee rust or roya, a fungal disease that attacks the leaves of coffee plants with rust-coloured spore dust, has infected coffee plantations across Central America and the Caribbean since the outbreak started in late 2012.
“The loss in coffee production in Central America for this crop year, 2014, is estimated at $250 million,” Mauricio Galindo, head of operations at the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from London.
In Panama, 86 percent of coffee plantations are affected by roya, followed by 74 percent in El Salvador and then Costa Rica and Guatemala, he said.
Two million people in Central America and the Caribbean, mostly small coffee farmers living in rural areas, depend on coffee growing as their main source of income.
With falling output this year due to the roya outbreak, coffee producers are hiring fewer seasonal coffee pickers and paying lower wages, threatening hundreds of thousands of livelihoods and export revenues in some of Latin America's poorest countries.
To make matters worse, growers with little coffee to sell are missing out on the bounty of skyrocketing coffee prices, which have surged more than 60 percent so far this year.
The drop in Central American coffee supplies is one reason for the higher price, but fears over drought damage to the crop in the world’s top coffee grower Brazil have been the main driver of the rally.
CLIMATE AND CROPS OUT OF ORDER
Coffee rust first appeared in the region in the 1970s, and climate change is a factor behind the virulent spread of the moisture-loving fungus, scientists say.
“Scientists close to the ICO link the fungus to climate change, which is causing higher temperatures and increased precipitation. Coffee leaf rust thrives in these conditions,” Galindo said.
Coffee farmers in Central America report roya is now infecting plantations at a higher altitude - above 1,000 to 1,200 metres - whereas in the past it did not tend to flourish above 800 metres.
“Due to changing climatic patterns, the fungus is expanding to higher altitudes where coffee is grown,” Galindo said.
“Some farmers may not understand climate change as such, but they see change, they see it rains more and that things on their plantation are not what they used to be and are out of order. They live off their coffee plantations and they know better than anyone the effects of climate change.”
TACKLING COFFEE RUST
The disease is also more likely to strike plantations with coffee trees older than 15 years, poor upkeep and pruning, and inadequate fertilizer use which has thereby weakened trees' defenses.
Coffee leaf rust, caused by the Hemileia Vastatrix fungus, appears as powdery orange spores that cling to the back of leaves, causing them to fall off. The fungus also leads to poor bean quality and makes coffee bushes prone to other diseases. Farmers need to start from scratch in worst hit areas by replanting with new coffee trees.
Fungicide can contain the spread of roya, but many small coffee growers in Central America lack the money and training to apply fungicide correctly to infected coffee bushes.
“Once roya arrives it never leaves but you can control and contain it,” Galindo said.
NEW COFFEE VARIETIES
Coffee farmers in Central America are looking to Colombia, where roya-resistant trees have been planted.
“In Colombia, the new variety is just beginning to bear fruit as we speak,” Galindo said.
Cenicafe, Colombia’s farmer-funded National Coffee Research Centre, has developed 30 to 40 variations of the Castillo roya-resistant tree - named after deceased Cenicafe researcher Jaime Castillo who developed their first such plant.
Coffee buyers in North America are concerned that consumers will taste the difference in their cups of coffee made with the new cross-bred variety, Galindo said.
He noted that the biggest challenge now is to provide seeds of the roya-resistant trees to nurseries and distribute seedlings to farmers across Central America.
Central America faces more financial hurdles than Colombia, which has more institutional support through Cenicafe and the coffee growers' federation to coordinate its roya outbreak response, including bulk purchase of discounted fungicide. Furthermore, the Colombian government has since October 2012 paid a subsidy to bolster coffee growers’ incomes.
“There are some emergency programmes in place in Central America against roya and agronomists are visiting plantations to help coffee farmers. But there is no country in Central America that has the real resources to offer cash-in-hand subsidies like in Colombia,” Galindo said.