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355. What they didn’t say at the Coffee Rust Summit

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.




  • P Baker says:

    Thanks Michael – what is the situation in Colombia?

    On the one hand I think I read of plans to plant coffee in new zones (in Cauca?).

    On the other hand a colleague told me that it is the large farmers who are pulling up their coffee – they have the resources – whereas the small farmers have few alternatives.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for the comment. I continue to believe, as perhaps you do, that the Colombia experience can be instructive for Central America as it copes with coffee rust.

      Unfortunately, I have seen very little of Colombia’s coffee fields outside of Nariño so can’t speak confidently about land-use patterns country-wide. And I haven’t been able to spend as much time in coffee fields here as I would like. But from what I have been able to see in Nariño, there have NOT been land-use changes on a massive scale. That may be, as you suggest, because most coffee farmers in Nariño are poor and economically constrained — the average farm size among growers in our current project here is 2 hectares, with 0.9 ha planted in coffee, and we estimate that 61 percent of participants fall below the poverty line. But it may also be that the institutional support for farmers coping with coffee rust has been extraordinary — access to the rust-resistant Castillo hybrid, credit facilities for renovation, agronomic extension for farmers getting familiar with a new variety, etc.

      If Central America can mobilize a similar response, it may be able to ward off the kinds of land-use changes that my colleagues on the ground in Central America say they are already beginning to see.


  • Adam Kline says:

    Thanks Michael for keeping the potential of ecological fallout in the minds of your readers. You make a good Lorax.

    The quotes you posted on your April 19th blog by Jacques Avelino, Coffee Rust Pathologist, CIRAD-CATIE offer one obvious step towards a sustainable solution = “Climate change was the detonator”+ “ Shade coffee resisted rust more effectively than sun-grown coffee.”

    Healthy ecosystems are good long-term business & serve as hedge vs some elements of the unknown. This goes for the business of protecting those exquisite coffees on our cupping table as much as it does for the business of protecting the planet, grower & laborer livelihoods, & the conservation of flora & fauna alike. It’s time to score more than the quality of the coffee that we are cupping.

    Though the hot topic of leaf rust is spotlighting Latin America and Central America specifically, the coffee industry lays at a crossroad between applying expensive band aids vs. more permanent patches. Patches that are holistic in approach and solution will of course equal our deeper resiliency as an industry. They will also foster sustained success for all of our colleagues internationally.

    We can add to the conversation : Why is famine a topic when coffee production takes a hit? What is a tree worth if people face a life with programmed periods of hunger? Where does the market intersect with morality? If it doesn’t, how do we install a system of safety nets for the necessarily cyclical nature of a traded commodity? Technical assistance can – and to be fair , often does – focus on more than just efficient production of our quality coffee. Even so, we shouldn’t miss the bigger, or finer, points…. Yes, this is surely lip service spat from a desk in Hayward. Nevertheless, we must underline the need to ask ourselves on all fronts: Are we treating the disease or the patient ?

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