CRS Helps Farmers Battle Coffee Leaf Rust

Coffee plant

Green coffee cherries of new plants in Nuevo Amanecer, Pochuta municipality, Chimaltenango Department, Guatemala. Photo by Silverlight for CRS

Guatemalan coffee is world famous for its rich, understated taste. It is exported to North America, and Europe as signature blends by companies such as McDonalds, Starbucks, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. In fact, the whole Central American region produces rich blends which are exported globally. However, this important crop, valued around the world, is under attack, and subsequently so are the small-scale producers that derive their livelihoods from the sale of coffee beans. The assailant is the innocuously named, coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix).

Coffee leaf rust is a fungus which attacks the leaves of the coffee plant. The orange-yellow blotches which develop on the leaf´s surface appear like rust spots. It is a very aggressive pathogen, and it can spread rapidly across a plantation, leaving a trail of defoliated plants in its wake when its advance is unchecked. There are various ways to combat the leaf rust ranging from replacing older plants with new seedlings, using more resistant seeds, integrating other productive crops into a coffee monoculture, and the use of fungicides. However, all of these methods require a sizeable investment, something which is often out of reach for small-scale producers living below or near the poverty line.

In Guatemala, CRS works with poor coffee farmers (less than 2 acres of land) who are part of the Cooperative Todos Hermanos. Todos Hermanos was founded in 2008 through the efforts of CRS and the local bishop. The cooperative has grown in recent years to include over 400 members. Farmer members provide their coffee to the Cooperative where it is processed, packaged, and exported to the US or Europe as Fair Trade coffee by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. These Signature and Fair Trade blends exported by the Cooperative are sold at prices up to 30 percent above the usual 100lb sack price. This added income is pivotal in supporting these families´ daily lives. The Cooperative, with the assistance of CRS, also works with farmers to diversify their income sources. Through the recent implementation of home gardens, chicken coops, and vegetable production plots, the cooperative is trying to move families away from over-dependence on coffee income so that when there is a shock, like coffee leaf rust, they are less affected.

Unfortunately, the Cooperative´s primary work is currently in jeopardy thanks to the outbreak of coffee leaf rust. The leaf rust is expected to reduce yields by up to 15 percent this year and by a staggering 40 percent in 2014. Day labor as coffee harvesters on the region´s mega farms accounts for 32 percent of unskilled labor demand in Guatemala. Falling yields could result in a 10% loss of labor demand. An income loss of this magnitude, a result of the widespread fall in yields, will set farmers back years, and prevent them from investing in improving their coffee plantations and continuing diversification activities.

CRS proposes to work with farmers to prevent further damage from the leaf rust while also building their resilience to future outbreaks. The CRS-led integrated approach will focus on expanding livelihood opportunities and rebuilding and securing farmers´ primary income source while also protecting the natural environment. This combination of defenses is the best way to help farmers weather the current storm while at the same time preparing themselves for a more prosperous and resilient future.

This week at the international coffee rust summit, CRS will lead group discussions on how to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the epidemic on coffee farmers. For more on leaf rust and coffee from the smallholder perspective, visit CRS Coffeelands blog.

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