The early signs of coffee rust, a blight worsened by the impacts of climate change, on a coffee plant in Guatemala’s dry corridor. Photo: Lauren Markham / The WorldPost

By Lauren Markham
16 February 2017

JUMAYTEPEQUE, Guatemala (Huffington Post) –  Junior Dario “J.R.” Henriquez* started thinking about heading north on the long, hard migrant trail to the United States when the coffee plants started withering. Drought and a pernicious fungus called roya ― coffee rust ― were wreaking havoc on the plantation here, where J.R. worked as a day laborer. An especially debilitating drought had suffocated this part of Guatemala since 2014 and the rust, which proliferates in lower altitudes, higher temperatures and among stressed plants, was spreading across the leaves like an accumulation of stains. Instead of full blooms of coffee berries packed thick on the branches like spangling beads, the plants were paltry and sparse, the leaves wilting on the branches.

The manager of the farm where J.R. was working announced he was cutting workers one day in 2015. There was little to do on the dwindling farm. J.R. kept his job but several of his friends, including his younger brother, lost theirs. Even J.R. was infrequently called to work. Weak crops meant less work, and less money. There used to be plenty to do around here during the harvest, so the young men who had been laid off looked for work on the other farms. All they found were more dry plants and thin harvests.

Despite being less than two hours from Guatemala City, the lush and tropical capital of the country, the hills that curl through the Santa Rosa region where J.R. and his friends are from, look more like the brown, gasping loam of Northern California, where I’m from. This region is known as the “dry corridor,” and it stretches from southern Guatemala into northern Honduras and El Salvador. When I visited in January it hadn’t rained since October, and it likely won’t rain again until at least April, maybe May or June. The conditions in January were more like they should have been in April, in the last stretch of pre-rain: the soil dry and flaking, already thirsty for the rain still months away.

Even after all that I’d read and heard, I was unprepared for the state of the blighted coffee plantations I visited. The desiccated earth scattered down the hillside easily beneath my steps, and the air felt torrid and listless. The coffee rust had taken over most plants. Many appeared stressed beyond saving. Only a few berries clung to some branches. Others had dropped their rust-infected leaves, and some were entirely bare ― just thirsty sticks poking up from the earth, waiting.

Across the dry corridor, communities rely on subsistence farming for survival. Due to the drought and irregular rainfall of the past several years, the region has experienced crop losses of between 50 and 90 percent. According to the United Nations, as of June 2016, an estimated 3.5 million people ― a third of the dry corridor’s population ― required humanitarian assistance as a result.

Most people in Santa Rosa grow and sell coffee, and though some have supplemental food crops, many rely entirely on it for income. The deterioration of the coffee-growing environment has a massive impact on Guatemalans’ ability to make a living, and to buy food. According to ANACAFE, the Guatemalan national organization of coffee growers, more than half a million Guatemalans rely directly on the coffee harvest for employment.

In addition to the drought, between 2010 and 2014 alone, coffee rust caused an estimated $500 million in damage throughout Central America’s coffee harvest. The fungus has long been a problem for coffee farmers but is made worse by climate change. Because of rising temperatures, the rust is moving to higher and higher elevations; without significant and vigilant remediation, it decimates crops. Erratic rainfall doesn’t help — the normal early rains help wash away the fungus from the leaves, and well-hydrated plants are less stressed and more resistant to disease. These climatic changes, coupled with poor agricultural practices like crop crowding and poor fumigation, create optimal conditions for coffee rust and other plagues. For years, coffee farmers in Central America would simply plant their crops and go back later to harvest the beans. Today’s conditions require much more vigilant agricultural practices. [more]

Drought And Climate Change Are Forcing Young Guatemalans To Flee To The U.S.



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