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.
Central America is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Unfortunately, it also has one of the highest rates of deforestation. Coffee, a crop that grows in the forest understory, has provided a powerful incentive for farmers to conserve the region’s dwindling forests — forests that replenish groundwater, help prevent natural disasters and sequester carbon, among other things. But that will only be true as long as coffee remains economically viable for the farmers who grow it.
Coffee farmers in Central America are struggling now as a result of coffee rust. Next year is likely to be worse. Coffee institutes in the region have estimated productions losses 2-3 times higher next year. If those projections hold, many coffee farmers will leave coffee. Raze their forests. And convert their farms to cropland or pasture. These changes in land-use will threaten scarce natural resources and accelerate climate change in a region that is already among the most affected.
We are getting reports from the field in Central America that the process may already be getting underway.