Last Thursday night, our six-year-old son came running up the stairs from his bedroom not long after we had tucked him in, frightened by the sounds coming from his window. When we took him outside to see what was causing the sound, his eyes opened wide — millions of tons of black volcanic sand raining down from the sky and covering every surface in sight. We spent all day Friday digging out. (Even now as I write this, five days after the Pacaya Volcano erupted, I can still hear the scrape-scrape-scrape of shovels on the pavement outside as people continue the clean-up.) Then Saturday, Tropical Storm Agatha rolled through. The rains have stopped but the damage — the extent is still not clear — has been done: more than 100 people killed, more than 100,000 displaced, mudslides and flooding, bridges out, border crossings and airports closed and untold damage to coffee and other crops.
Early estimates indicate that although this storm was less severe, it will cause material damages similar to those caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005.
Given that coffee is the most important agricultural product here in Guatemala and accounts for more than a half a billion dollars a year in exports, a lot of the coverage of the storm has focused on its impact on coffee. But even for the National Coffee Association, Anacafé, it is too early to tell. I have spoken with folks there over the past few days who tell me that the organization is still assessing the extent of the damage caused by the 1-2 punch of the volcano and Agatha. The organization will post something to its website when it has completed its assessment.
As of this writing, we are still getting reports back from our CAFE Livelihoods partners on the extent of the damage, but there is little good news. In San Lucas Tolimán, several people were killed by mudslides that destroyed many homes and drove more than 600 people to seek shelter with our partners at the San Lucas Mission. The parish has created a website with photos of the damage and is mounting an emergency response.
The local CAFE Livelihoods coordinator in San Lucas is still surveying the impacts of the storm on the farmers we are supporting through our project. I spoke with him this morning and he said that more than a few have lost nearly all their coffee. By the end of the week we should have a better idea of the full dimension of the damage to the coffee crop.
The storm is a reminder that all the hard work of smallholder farmers to produce high-quality coffees for the discerning specialty market can be swept away overnight.