Blight sweeping Central America coffee plantations puts thousands out of work – Climate change causing rust fungus to spread to higher elevations that once were too cool and dryPosted by Jim at Tuesday, June 04, 2013
By Tim Johnson
3 June 2013
SAN PEDRO YEPOCAPA, Guatemala (McClatchy) – Across Central America, even as rains arrive, many coffee plantations contain only spindly, nearly defoliated bushes, the result of a blight known as coffee leaf rust whose devastation, so far, has yet to affect the prices of premium highland coffee that baristas serve around the developed word.
But while Americans have yet to feel its effects, the blight may soon prove to be as disastrous as any earthquake or volcanic eruption to afflict Central America. Already, it’s knocked nearly half a million people out of work and driven up crime. And the crisis is only beginning. It may soon send a stream of new migrants toward the United States, speed up deforestation and invigorate illicit narcotics production.
It also serves as a bellwether on climate change, which appears to be causing temperatures to rise, taking plagues and infestations to higher elevations that once were considered too cool and dry for the rust fungus.
At the San Pedrana Cooperative on the flanks of the Fuego Volcano southwest of Guatemala City, this country’s capital, Miguel Angel Xia turned over a leaf to display the orange, dust-like fungus that sucks nourishing sap from coffee leaves, killing the bushes.
“Rust has been around for 30 years,” Xia said. “But it was always at 3,000 feet or below. And now, it’s up to 5,000 feet. It never would’ve been this high before.”
“No one imagined that it could thrive in that environment and go airborne,” said Christian Wolthers, a past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America who imports green coffee from his base in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Coffee rust has changed history in centuries past. The fungus blighted crops in the British colony of Ceylon in the 1870s, decimating coffee exports to London and helping turn the British into a nation of tea drinkers.
Since then, fungicides have kept coffee rust under control when it reappears.
But this time is different, experts say. The aggressive outbreak has extended to more than 70 percent of coffee bushes in Guatemala and El Salvador, 64 percent in Costa Rica, and lesser amounts in Nicaragua and Honduras, according to a May 13 report by the International Coffee Organization. Regional coffee production fell 17.1 percent in the past October-to-March season, and it is likely to fall 30 percent to 40 percent in the coming season, which begins in October.
In Central America, with a total population of 41 million, nearly 1 million seasonal and permanent coffee workers are expected to lose their jobs next season.
“Each of these jobs are providing for six people. You do the math,” said Maja Wallengren, an independent coffee analyst based in Mexico City who predicts that the disruption to families will be far greater than just the economic costs. “It’s not something you can get under control in a year.”
Other agricultural sectors, such as sugar and palm oil, cannot pick up the slack from unemployed coffee workers, and since devastated coffee farms are often clustered together, pockets of unemployment soar.
“You’re going to see a lot of migration,” said Alejandro Keller, who is the fourth generation of his family to grow coffee at the Finca Santa Isabel, a large organic farm an hour’s drive from Guatemala City.
“You’ll see more people emigrating to the United States and Mexico. You’ll see more people here at traffic lights asking for money,” said Gerardo Alberto De Leon, marketing manager for a coffee growers cooperative known as Fedecocagua, headquartered in the capital.
It is a sentiment echoed by Nils Leporowski, president of the National Coffee Association, a body that includes government officials and representatives of 90,000 growers in Guatemala.
“The social and economic impact is terrible. It is big, really big,” Leporowski said. “It has us very worried.”
First off, unemployed coffee workers can turn to crime just for survival, he said. “We’re already seeing this.”
Some small coffee farmers, reeling from the devastation of their plots and without savings to pay for fungicide, are turning to other crops. In areas of Guatemala like San Marcos Department, along the Mexican border, those crops include marijuana and poppy, which provides the opium latex used to make heroin.
“Some will stop producing coffee and will produce other crops, including illicit ones,” Leporowski said.
Guatemala is likely to never return again to producing 4.8 million 100-pound bags of coffee that it grew just two years ago, he said. As small farmers flee from coffee to other crops, they will chop down some of the shade trees needed to protect Central American coffee from the tropical sun, leaving cleared mountain fields subject to erosion, which in turn will add sediment to rivers that originate in the highlands.
“There’s going to be an environmental impact as well,” Leporowski said. [more]