Coffee Break

Disease threatens coffee farmers’ livelihoods in Central America

Farmer in front of coffee plants holding bean

The top coffee-producing country in Central America, Honduras faces huge losses to its coffee crop. © 2012 V. Agreda.

Coffee yields in Central America are in a nosedive, thanks to a disease known as coffee rust. Caused by a fungus, coffee rust starts by attacking the leaves and can eventually kill the whole plant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Honduras will be most severely affected in 2013, losing almost 180 million kilograms of coffee to the disease. Guatemala’s coffee producers, also hard hit, declared an emergency in February. The disease has spread throughout Central America, where the total harvest could fall by 20 percent. Losses are expected to reach about US$600 million in value.

Likely causes for the outbreak include changing rainfall and temperature patterns, relatively old coffee plants, and lack of prevention efforts (many small-scale farmers lack knowledge about the appropriate use of fertilizers). No matter what the cause, says Maximo Torero, director of IFPRI’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division, the coffee crisis demands careful responses to both the agronomic and human challenges.

Jobs at Risk

With harvests plummeting, coffee rust threatens to have serious consequences for the laborers who depend on income from the coffee farms. Some analysts believe that the disease will increase demand for labor for maintenance activities, but this effect will likely be outweighed by the decreased demand for labor owing to falling coffee production.

Laborers and small-scale coffee farmers who experience large drops in income will need to be linked to temporary labor programs, such as public works programs, or to existing transfer programs, says Torero. “These people can work,” he points out. “They just need insurance to help them get by and smooth the shock to their income.” Given the tight government budgets in Central American countries, these safety net measures should be targeted to the most vulnerable—a topic on which IFPRI has a large body of research.

Rebuilding the Coffee Sector

Restoring a healthy coffee industry in Central America will require carefully thought-out measures. As coffee rust kills off the coffee plants, plantations may need to replace much of their stock of plants. Fungicides can help control coffee rust, but when applied inappropriately, fungicides don’t work and can even worsen environmental problems. “Use of fungicide needs to be matched with better training for farmers on how to use it correctly,” says Torero, “and this won’t happen quickly.”

Some farmers, says Torero, may see the coffee rust outbreak as an opportunity to move away from growing coffee. This is not, however, a decision to be made hastily: “Conditions might not be appropriate for other crops, and farmers may need different skills to grow other crops,” says Torero. “It takes time to make an adjustment like this.”

A longer-term solution, he argues, will involve improving farm management to grow more resilient coffee plants and strengthening links to markets. Contract farming arrangements, for example, can help farmers improve their practices, reduce their crop’s vulnerability, and keep the coffee flowing.

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