Central American Coffee Rust on the Rise

Los Angeles Times
June 7, 2014

ASSOCIATED PRESS
FRAIJANES, Guatemala
For years, Hernan Argue-ta’s small plot of coffee plants seemed immune to the fungus spreading elsewhere in Central America. The airborne disease that strikes coffee plants, flecking their leaves with spots and causing them to wither and fall off, failed to do much damage in the cooler elevations of Guatemala’s mountains.
Then the weather changed.
Temperatures warmed in the highlands and the yellow-orange spots spread to Argueta’s plants. Since the warming trend was noted in 2012, the 46-year-old farmer said his family went from gathering a dozen 100-pound sacks of coffee beans each month to just five.
Now Argueta is among the region’s thousands of coffee farmers fighting the fungus called “coffee rust” in hopes they’ll continue to supply the smooth-flavored, aromatic Arabica beans enjoyed by coffee lovers around the world. But with no cure for the fungus, and climate conditions expected to encourage its spread, they are bracing for a long, hard battle to survive.
Argueta, like many farmers, is replacing his old trees with new coffee plants that better resist the rust, and cutting back existing trees in the hope that they’ll spring new foliage. It will be two to three years, however before the new plants produce the bright red cherries that hold the valuable beans. Argueta has had to seek out construction jobs to get by.
Coffee rust first hit Central America in the 1970s. For decades, coffee growers simply coped with the blight and lower yields. But as rust spread to the highlands, the problem demanded action. Last year, Guatemala declared a national emergency, with officials estimating that rust had affected 70% of the nation’s crop.
In neighboring El Salvador, the rate of infection is 74%, according to the London-based International Coffee Organization. In Costa Rica, it’s 64%; in Nicaragua, 37%; and in Honduras, 25%.
The spread of rust has prompted growers to adopt new measures, such as “stumping,” the practice of pruning trees of all infected vegetation in hopes of encouraging them to regrow with greater vibrancy. They are also using fungicides and installing shade covers, which appear to help keep the fungus at bay.
Rust also has hit farms in Southern Mexico, which produces much of the region’s shade-grown coffee, and where the government is leading a sweeping replanting project.
With many rural towns dependent on coffee production, observers fear widespread job losses. Producers in the Guatemalan highlands have lost, on average, between a third and 60% of their income in the last year, according to the United Nations. The National Coffee Assn. of Guatemala says some 100,000 direct coffee jobs have dried up.
The United Nations is providing emergency food aid to 14,000 Guatemalan households that have lost income due to rust. The government estimates 160,000 homes need such help.
Argueta, however, is not giving up. Just as he has “stumped” his trees, hoping to coax them to start all over, he is ready to begin anew.
On a recent day in Fraijanes, a town southeast of Guatemala City, he and other growers lined up for new, rust-resistant seedlings that the government is handing out. “This variety is going to be better,” Argueta said. “That, in itself, is a blessing.”