Focusing on the little things during three days in the field in Nariño.
Focusing on the little things during three days in the field in Nariño.
Since last fall, I have been directing the CRS Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador. As I transition into a new role with CRS, I am hiring my replacement. I will continue to work on the Borderlands project in an advisory role, but we need someone else to lead it.
The successful candidate will live in Quito. Work with talented staff in Colombia and Ecuador. Collaborate with researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture to push the frontiers of our understanding of smallholder farming systems. Coordinate the activities of a small group of committed industry allies to create new opportunities for determined farmers in Nariño, Colombia, and the Northern Amazon in Ecuador.
In Colombia, this means pioneering new approaches to farmer organization and coffee processing and helping develop new channels to market for farmers producing some of the finest high-grown Arabica in the Americas. In Ecuador, it means helping Robusta farmers insulate themselves from the volatility of commodity-market pricing by exploring emerging markets for quality-differentiated Robusta.
It is an amazing opportunity.
Read the full job description and apply here.
Our work in the coffeelands over the past 10 years has focused on small-scale family farmers, but we recognize that the seasonal laborers who pick coffee, often migrants, are arguably the most vulnerable actors in the coffee chain. And there are a lot of them. According to PROMECAFE data, more than 1.7 million people work on the annual coffee harvest in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The harvest is normally the most reliable and profitable source of work for unskilled labor in the coffeelands, but this year there wasn’t enough work to go around. Next year, by all accounts, it is going to be even worse.
As we plan a response to the coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America, we are working to get a better handle on a population we haven’t historically served, and a clearer sense of the impacts of the crisis on farmworker income.
The International Coffee Organization (ICO) released its report on the coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America earlier this month, citing official (and updated) figures from PROMECAFE on the impacts of the outbreak. They include estimates of the number of jobs lost and the total economic losses to rust in the countries mentioned above (220,444 and $465 million, respectively), but there are no official numbers regarding the economic losses to farmworkers specifically.
Today, we advance some rough working estimates for the first time.
There has been a lot of talk in recent months about coffee leaf rust in Central America, including plenty here on this blog. After months of talking with farmers, collecting data in the field, participating in international events, conferring with leaders in the coffee, government and research sectors, and investing private resources in a small-scale response in Guatemala, we are taking decisive steps toward responding to coffee rust region-wide.
Last week I met with colleagues from across Central America to begin planning in earnest how CRS might be part of the collective response to rust. The key product of the workshop was this strategy map.
With apologies to my doppelganger Michael Stipe for the title of this post, I cannot get this R.E.M. lyric out of my head after huddling in El Salvador for a week with colleagues from Central America to plan a response to the coffee rust epidemic.
During the final day of the First International Coffee Rust Summit last month in Guatemala, I remarked that while participants seemed to embrace the idea that the coffee rust epidemic is an emergency on an intellectual level, it didn’t feel like we were in crisis mode. The words “emergency” and “crisis” were on everyone’s lips, but they were not pronounced with the fierce urgency that I associate with their use.
I chalked up the gap between the language and the mood to the fact that we were all dog-tired: the event came hot on the heels of the SCAA Symposium and Expo, and most of the participants flew directly from Boston to Guatemala City.
Then it hit me again last week in San Salvador, that feeling of cognitive dissonance that comes when you seem to be hearing one thing and seeing another. During a break in the meeting I walked next door to Viva Espresso for a cup of coffee, where the scene looked like this.
In the background, members of the Viva Espresso team gather to watch their colleague William Hernandez compete in the World Barista Championship in Melbourne. The mood at the time the photo was taken was one of excited anticipation. When William completed the brilliant routine that advanced him to the second round, it was jubilant. In the foreground, the front-page story on coffee rust in that day’s edition of La Prensa Gráfica, the country’s paper of record. The headline reads, “Rust affected 74% of Salvador’s coffee fields.” The article closed with a sobering quote from a 64-year-old coffee picker who expects, as we all do, that the impacts of coffee rust next year will be even worse than they were this year: “I don’t know what we are going to eat.”
Three years ago during the 2010 SCAA Expo, I gave this presentation on hunger in the coffeelands. At that time, the issue did not have the kind of traction in the industry it does now. Many people in the audience were still struggling to reconcile the extraordinary success of “sustainable coffees” in the marketplace with chronic seasonal hunger at origin. I knew about the lean season because I had seen it first-hand as an international development professional who had lived and worked in coffee communities in Central America on and off since 1995. But I didn’t ask people to take my word for it.
Instead I showed them fewsnet.net, a website all of them had paid for but none of them had ever visited, where this calendar marked the annual hunger season with the same kind of reliability as the annual rainy seasons.
FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning System Network, is a project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded by your tax dollars. As the name indicates, it monitors hunger in countries that are chronically food-insecure or vulnerable to famine in order to avoid humanitarian catastrophes.
FEWSNET is one U.S. government-funded program that is playing a vital role in planning the response to the current coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America. But it is not the only one.
The coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America has gotten people talking about diversification. At the First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala last month, participants advocated passionately (and persuasively) for diversification of coffee genetics and coffee farms. There is a third type of diversification that wasn’t discussed in depth but remains critical to the long-term financial viability of small-scale farms in the coffeelands: diversifying income beyond agriculture.
At the conclusions of the First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala last month, the noted coffee agronomist Peter Baker confided to me that he did not think the event answered the most important question: “The Beyoncé Question.”
I was confused.
He elaborated: “It’s a line from one of her songs: ‘Who run this mother?’”
It looks like we will know the answer soon–the UN is hiring a coordinator for the coffee rust emergency response program, and it is moving fast. Candidates have just a week to submit their applications.
See the terms of reference here.
For more information regarding this opportunity, contact Miguel Gómez, Director of the Regional Unit for Sustainable Rural Development in Central America and the Dominican Republic at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The application of climate science to coffee has generated an inconvenient truth: the map of the coffeelands in Mesoamerica will be redrawn over the next 40 years, and by 2050 the specialty coffee map will likely be much smaller than it is today. Against the backdrop of the current coffee rust epidemic in Central America, farmers beleaguered by increasing threats to production and persistent market volatility may be asking themselves whether renovating their coffee fields is a good investment. Especially for farmers at lower elevations, climate science suggests that the right answer may be no. Farmers who opt out of coffee will need a road map to navigate their transition to new livelihoods strategies, and the kinds of technical support that will keep them from going hungry and degrading Central America’s fragile ecosystems in the process.
The program at the First International Coffee Rust Summit that recently concluded in Guatemala was filled with experts who addressed many different aspects of the current coffee rust emergency: the epidemiology of coffee rust, origins of this year’s outbreak, methods for controlling it, the social and economic implications for farmers and their communities, strategies for responding, innovative mechanisms to finance the response, etc.
One issue that did not get a lot of airtime: the implications of coffee rust for Central America’s fragile ecosystems.