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343. Coffee rust: Deja vu all over again?

Last week, agricultural authorities and coffee organizations from Central America holed up in Panama for two days with research institutes, regional banks and UN agencies to try to hammer out a plan for responding to the coffee leaf rust outbreak.  As I trolled the web for news of the meeting’s results, I came across this description of a bold, five-year plan to help smallholder farmers address coffee rust:

Only, this was not written last week.  It was published in 1984, four years into the region’s first coordinated response to coffee leaf rust disease.  As I dove deeper and deeper into hundreds of pages of research and funding requests to address coffee rust in Central America during the 1980s, I couldn’t escape a sense of what Yogi Berra called “deja vu all over again.”

Central America has been here before.  Can it respond this time in a way that will keep future generations from having to make massive investments to respond to the next coffee rust emergency?


Many Central American farmers were dealing with coffee rust for the first time this harvest, since it started affecting coffee at higher elevations than normal.  While coffee rust may have been new to these farmers, it is hardly new to Central America.  It first arrived in Carazo, Nicaragua, in 1976.

First Appearances of Coffee Leaf Rust in Central America. From “Coffee Rust in the Americas,” 1984.

The region started coordinating a response shortly after.


PROMECAFÉ is a network of coffee institutes in Central American and the Caribbean and allied research centers, including:

  • Anacafé, the Asociación Nacional de Café of Guatemala;
  • CATIE, the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica,
  • CIB, The Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica
  • CIRAD, Agricultural Research for Development, the French institute responsible for coffee and cacao research;
  • CODOCAFE, the Consejo Dominicano del Café;
  • ICAFE, the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica, not to be confused with
  • IHCAFE, the Instituto Hondureño de Café;
  • MIDA, the Ministry of Agriculture of Panamá;
  • PROCAFE of El Salvador

PROMECAFÉ was established in 1979 by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) to modernize coffee farming in Mesoamerica.  Among its earliest activities was coordinating a response to coffee leaf rust.

PROMECAFÉ worked through its member organizations to control coffee leaf rust in Central America throughout the 1980s, beginning with the Proyecto Regional Sobre Roya del Cafeto, whose objectives included: breeding to develop rust-resistant varieties, propagation of resistant varieties, research into the biology of the coffee rust fungus, and appropriate technical assistance to farmers to ensure the adoption of new technologies.  PROMECAFÉ convened annual conferences on coffee rust control in 1984, 1985 and again in 1986; the proceedings from those events and other research published by IICA and PROMECAFÉ collaborators during the time are extraordinary in their rigor and insight.

THE 2013 PLAN.

More than 30 years later, PROMECAFÉ is back at it, taking the lead in formulating the region’s response to the current coffee rust epidemic.

The Central American Agriculture and Livestock Council announced here last week that the plan that PROMECAFÉ presented was approved.  While details were scarce, the official release identified some familiar areas of focus — training in more effective management of coffee rust and expanded access to rust-resistant varieties — as well as some new ones, including support for vulnerable populations and efforts to build institutional capacity for fighting coffee rust.


The success of the current Central America plan in building institutional capacity for fighting coffee rust will go a long way in determining whether the region will be undertaking extraordinary measures again 30 years from now to address another wave of rust.  Ideally, the region’s governments will go beyond the issue of coffee rust, helping their respective coffee institutes secure the funds and build the capacity to identify and respond to new and unforeseen challenges to coffee production in the era of climate change.







  • Rodney North says:

    Great research, Michael. Can you tell us how the rust drama played out last time?

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for your comment. I hope someone more qualified than me will respond. Meantime, some impressions…

      You ask how the rust drama played out “last time.” My sense is that there is no “last time.” That the drama is still playing itself out. That we are just entering another stage in a process of responding to rust that started in the 1970s. That the big rust epidemic the region was bracing for never came. Until now.

      The initial response in Nicaragua, the beachhead for coffee rust in Central America, was to try to eradicate the fungus entirely. That effort was a phytosanitary failure (it did not succeed in stopping the spread of rust) and an ecological nightmare: an army of field agents was mobilized to make visits to more than 1000 farms in the affected region every 30 days, eliminating all life within a 30-meter radius of affected coffee plants using a “cocktail” of agrochemicals, diesel fuel and detergent. When several years of this approach failed, about 25,000 acres of coffee forests were simply razed.

      As coffee rust spread throughout Nicaragua and eventually to other countries in Central America, the approach necessarily became one of coexistence and control. Farmers at lower elevations have been historically more susceptible than farmers at higher elevations, since ambient temperature and humidity – conditions more common in lower elevations – are both positively correlated with the spread of rust. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that good general farm management practices can help reduce the incidence of rust, even for organic and agroecological approaches. For conventional farmers, applying the right doses of agrochemicals at the right times in the production cycle has also proven effective in limiting losses to rust. Until now, Central American countries have mostly managed the rust threat. There may be some production lost to coffee leaf rust on individual farms, but at no point since the arrival of the fungus in Central America have losses been so extensive, or so widespread at such high elevations.

      The big question in my mind now becomes how much of the current coffee stock will farmers try to save through rust control measures and how much will they replace with new coffee? The adage about the relative value of preventative and curative activities may actually understate the relative importance of prevention in the case of coffee rust. Everything I have seen and heard suggests it is significantly easier to stop rust from spreading than to arrest its progress once it has taken hold. The case for renovation over treatment seems to be made even stronger in Mesoamerica by the fact the productivity levels there have been lagging for many years, in part due to the age of coffee plants. Most smallholders in the region, in other words, are overdue for renovation anyway.

      If farmers opt for renovation, will they plant resistant varieties as so many Colombian farmers have since that country’s coffee was blighted by rust? If so, which rust-resistant varieties will they plant, since there are few breeding programs in Central America producing them? And how will they finance it? I have seen estimates of the need for renovation funding as high as $1 billion.

      Whether farmers renovate or not, they need to improve their farming practices to control rust more effectively. What practices will they use? Who will train farmers so they adopt these practices? Who will pay for the training?

      In lots of ways, I think the answer to your question will depend on the decisions that local governments, industry, the financial sector and nonprofits make in the coming months responding to the latest chapter in the ongoing rust drama.


  • P Baker says:

    Yes good points Michael: when rust appeared there was naturally great concern and a lot of research activities, training etc. But in much of Latin America, the disease never really lived up to its notoriety (caused by the infamy of the Ceylon disaster in the 19th century). In Colombia for example, farmers were strongly advised to plant the resistant Colombia var. and many did so, but some of these then went back to Caturra or other susceptible vars. for various reasons including the fact that some roasters told them they didn’t like the cup profile.

    And they could manage the problem – mostly I guess by a couple of sprays at lower altitudes or nothing much at all at higher levels (this is surmise really, no hard data to back this up). But now it’s changed, and we don’t really know why. It must be something to do with the climate because Cenicafe’s work suggests it’s not a new strain.

    But what really happened? We are trying to find out.

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