The Blog

view all

359. Coffee rust: Your tax dollars at work

2013-05-15 Comments Off on 359. Coffee rust: Your tax dollars at work

Three years ago during the 2010 SCAA Expo, I gave this presentation on hunger in the coffeelands.  At that time, the issue did not have the kind of traction in the industry it does now.  Many people in the audience were still struggling to reconcile the extraordinary success of “sustainable coffees” in the marketplace with chronic seasonal hunger at origin.  I knew about the lean season because I had seen it first-hand as an international development professional who had lived and worked in coffee communities in Central America on and off since 1995.  But I didn’t ask people to take my word for it.

Instead I showed them, a website all of them had paid for but none of them had ever visited, where this calendar marked the annual hunger season with the same kind of reliability as the annual rainy seasons.



FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning System Network, is a project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded by your tax dollars.  As the name indicates, it monitors hunger in countries that are chronically food-insecure or vulnerable to famine in order to avoid humanitarian catastrophes.

FEWSNET is one U.S. government-funded program that is playing a vital role in planning the response to the current coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America.  But it is not the only one.

FEWSNET: Coffee Labor Migration Maps

The calendar I shared at SCAA back in 2010 didn’t just chart the annual hunger season–it also showed how the annual coffee harvest generates “high demand for unskilled labor” between October and March.  The annual coffee harvest is one of the most reliable sources of employment in the coffeelands of Central America.  But thanks to this year’s coffee leaf rust epidemic , there wasn’t enough work to go around.  Official statistics say that 441,000 people lost their jobs in the coffee sector this year.  If current projections for higher production losses next harvest are accurate, the job-loss figure will be much higher in 2014.

FEWSNET is working now to produce maps to show where seasonal labor for the harvest comes from.  Why?  So we will all know which communities will be at greatest risk of food crises next year if labor demand falls by 30-40 percent, as FEWSNET predicts.   These resources are still under development, but they are already mark an exceptional contribution to understanding the labor dynamics in the coffeelands.

USDA FOREIGN AGRICULTURAL SERVICE: Global Agriculture Information Network Coffee Rust Summit Report

Ready for some acronyms?  Another valuable source of information from the coffeelands are the Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) reports published by the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  They may be best known as reliable sources for independent production estimates but they also generate periodic special reports on issues affecting production or the market, including coffee leaf rust.

Henry Schmick is an agricultural economist with the USDA FAS Guatemala bureau who participated in last month’s coffee rust summit.  He published this extraordinary summary of the proceedings, easily the best account I have seen.  It includes profiles of intergovernmental agencies, research institutes and coffee programs that are not well-known to most U.S. audiences but will have a central role in the coordinated response to coffee rust.  The report is so good that I didn’t bother writing my own, opting instead to forward this one to my colleagues.

WORLD COFFEE RESEARCH: Coffee Rust Summit Major Findings and Recommendations

OK, so this document was not funded by public resources, but it is now publicly available. World Coffee Research has compiled these major findings and recommendations from last month’s coffee rust summit.