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349. Coffee rust: Central America’s official plan of attack

This afternoon I will travel to Guatemala City to participate in four days of discussions around coffee rust convened by World Coffee Research and PROMECAFE, a network of national coffee programs in Central America and the Caribbean.  The objective of the meeting is to develop a more detailed strategy for responding to the coffee rust epidemic — one that reflects a consensus among the many actors who make the coffee trade work.  The region’s governments have taken the initiative in the process, agreeing last month in Costa Rica to a plan of action for 2013 that will provide a framework for both our discussions this week and the years of investment and work that will follow.  But that process did not involve many of the actors whose participation will be necessary if the plan is to be a success: roasters, aid agencies, input providers, certifiers, etc.

What does the plan say?  I only saw the original plan for the first time last Friday, and I don’t think details have been made available yet in English.  Until now.


Central American governments began declaring national disasters earlier this year in response to the rust epidemic, which allowed them to access funds earmarked for emergencies.  Collectively, governments in the region have, by my count, committed more than $60 million to the response to date.  But the earmarks have been broadly defined.  Fungicides.  Training.  Renovation.  The governments charged PROMECAFE with developing a more detailed framework for investing those resources, and convened representatives of a broad range of organizations in Costa Rica last month to hammer out a plan.  The activities outlined in the action plan for 2013 constitute a small project ($1.37 million) which will serve as the framework that governs the big projects: Central American authorities estimate the full plan to attack coffee rust and restore productivity will cost $8.5 million over 4 years; I have seen estimates of the need for investment in renovation over the medium-term as high as $1 billion; and then there is the cost of building better coffee research and extension capacity and sustaining it over the long term.


Who authored the Central America plan?



That’s who.

These organizations met on 18-19 March and agreed to a slate of activities that will run through the end of 2013.  The following day, the heads of state in the region issued a statement endorsing the plan and press releases announced the good news.


So what does the plan say?

Read the official plan en español here, or the quick-and-dirty unofficial translation of the action plan I did on the flight home from SCAA here.

The plan advances four broad objectives:

  1. Control coffee rust now.
  2. Improve coffee breeding programs.
  3. Mitigate the economic amd social impacts of coffee rust.
  4. Restore the production of the region’s coffee sector.

For my part, I was particularly excited to see these aspects of the plan:

  • Short, medium and long-term planning. I have stressed here (and here and elsewhere) the need for this kind of comprehensive approach so that Central America doesn’t just respond to the last crisis, but positions its farmers to be more resilient in the face of the next one.
  • Conventional and organic. The early reports that a plan had been adopted were accompanied by precious few details about the plan’s content, and nary a mention of support for organic farmers.  The official plan suggests that all the work on rust control will have conventional and organic components.
  • Social mitigation.  Given that the impacts of rust on production tend to be greater during the second year of an outbreak than the first, I have a nagging fear that we may be watching a humanitarian emergency unfold in slow motion.  To their credit, the authors of the plan have made the mitigation of social and economic impacts a cornerstone and allocated more funding to the needs assessment process – $280,000, funded in its entirety by the World Food Programme – than any other single activity.


Beginning tomorrow, participants in the coffee rust summit will start putting a bit more meat on the bones of the action plan.  Ten working groups have been convened to discuss different aspects of the coffee rust epidemic and the response.  The way they are worded below reflects some creative license; the way they grouped reflects my own thinking and not that of the organizers.

Taking stock.

  • Situation analysis.  Who has been affected and how?
  • Socio-economic impacts of coffee rust.  What has rust meant for farmer livelihoods and coffee communities?


  • Short-term fungicide control: Taking the fight to the spores.
  • Other rust control methods: What’s an organic farmer to do?
  • Mitigating the impacts of coffee rust: Protecting smallholder livelihoods, employment and food security.


  • Breeding: Marrying rust resistance and cup quality.


  • Institutional strengthening: Helping growing countries respond to the next crisis.


  • Extension: How will farmers learn and adopt best practices?
  • Finance: How will all this be funded?
  • Communications.  Getting the word out.


There are some mighty big gaps in the plan advanced last month, both operational and financial.

There is a $250,000 shortfall in funds committed against the $1.37 million budget for the activities outlined in the 2013 action plan.

And there is the 4-year, $8.5 million budget of the full Central America plan.  (See item 4.12 in the action plan.)

And then there is the $800 million-$1 billion price tag for renovation.  (See item 4.10.)

It is not clear whether that funding will be forthcoming.  Or who might pony it up.  Or how and by whom such financing will be delivered (see item 4.11).

Before renovation, there is the immediate challenge of coordinating an army of extension agents into the field to help farmers spray their coffee with the right fungicides at the right times in the right does.  (See component 1).

And after renovation there is hard and not inexpensive work of improving coffee research, breeding and extension over the long-term.  (See component 4.)

There are lots of big questions to answer and lots of work to be done.  The fact that the event’s participants are so diverse — multilateral institutions, banks, coffee programs, research institutes, non-profits, industry representatives, aid agencies, roasters, input providers, farmer organizations, retailers, etc. – may make reaching consensus challenging, but it also increases the likelihood of real and lasting impact once consensus is reached.

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