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361. What to do about coffee rust?

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about coffee leaf rust in Central America, including plenty here on this blog.  After months of talking with farmers, collecting data in the field, participating in international events, conferring with leaders in the coffee, government and research sectors, and investing private resources in a small-scale response in Guatemala, we are taking decisive steps toward responding to coffee rust region-wide.

Last week I met with colleagues from across Central America to begin planning in earnest how CRS might be part of the collective response to rust.  The key product of the workshop was this strategy map.




  • #1: Avoid hunger, migration, deforestation.
    There are two key groups of people identified here–coffee farmers and their families on the one hand and coffee pickers and their families on the other–but the objectives we identify are the same for both: helping them avoid hunger, stay in their communities of origin and avoid livelihoods strategies that involve clear-cutting coffee forests.  With coffee productivity and reduction in labor demand both set to double next year, we are deeply concerned about the first two; we have already seen evidence of the third this year in El Salvador.  Short-term: 12-18 months.
  • #2: Renovate massively and well.
    The cost of renovation in Central America has been estimated at $800 million.  Mobilizing funding on this scale is no small feat, but it is just the beginning.  It must be delivered through financial products that are appropriate and affordable.  Paired with qualified agricultural extension to ensure that farmers generate the returns they need on their investments in renovation.  Tied to parallel efforts to expand the seed sectors throughout the region to meet the massive demand.  And advanced in coordination with research and industry to ensure that growers are minimizing their production risks while preserving their market opportunities.  Medium-term: 4 years.
  • #3: Help coffee-growing communities become more resilient.
    For this SO we were deliberate in the focus: not coffee-growing families but farming families in coffee-growing communities.  We know that coffee growers have been dealt a bad hand with coffee rust, and that not all of them will double-down on coffee.  Some will cut their losses and plant other crops.  In some cases, this may be appropriate.  Even if farmers do commit to reinvestment in coffee, they will be more resilient in the face of future shocks if they reduce their dependence on coffee for income.  We are particularly excited about options for diversification that don’t require farmers to cut down forests that sequester carbon, conserve water resources and reduce the likelihood of natural disaster.  Medium-term: 5 years.
  • #4: Bridging farms and markets with inclusive research and extension.
    There are critical gaps now in Central America’s coffee sectors, both in the organizational structures that link farmers to government agencies and coffee institutes, and in the capacity of those agencies and institutes to meet the needs of coffee growers.  Investment in improving the governance of national coffee sectors and expanding the scope and quality of services delivered by national coffee institutes hold promise to generate returns all along the chain.  A record of past failures does not seem like an compelling argument against trying to get it right this time around.  Long-term: 10 years.

The coffee leaf rust crisis demands more than any of our companies, governments or organizations can give individually.  Collaboration is essential–beginning with the planning process.  Our consultations in recent months with farmers, researchers, roasters, coffee institutes, government ministries and nonprofits informed this draft strategy.  But it is still a work in progress, and comments and critiques–particularly constructive ones–are always welcome.

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The results framework is a standard planning tool we use early in the project development process to map the upper-level outcomes project participants want to achieve.

The goal is generally ambitious–a long-term aspiration of significant scope to which a project might contribute but could never achieve on its own.  The strategic objectives (SOs) are the highest-level outcomes a project can hold itself accountable for achieving and are significant in terms of scope and impact.  And the intermediate results are really where the magic happens.  These are the “behavior-change” objectives that collectively contribute–if a project is well-conceived–to the strategic objectives and drive toward a project’s goal.  They are the result of lower-level goals around activities (what we will do) and outputs (what we will produce), but it is at the “IR” level that the human agency of participants kicks in and real change starts to happen.

This particular results framework is unconventional, as it is less a plan for implementation of a short-term project than a longer-range strategy map–the first draft of our thinking about what needs to happen in Central America over the next decade if the response to coffee rust is going to succeed not just in addressing this crisis, but in making farmers, communities and national coffee sectors more resilient in the face of future crises.  We believe work needs to begin today on all four elements of the vision, but each will likely have a different duration.  In the past I have suggested that the response to coffee rust is a relay race.  Today I modify that analogy a bit–it may be a race in which all the runners leave the blocks at the same time, but run different distances.


  • Hi Michael,

    Thank you for sharing your plan. I particularly like that you are including coffee pickers. They are probably the most vulnerable group involved in coffee production and they are usually forgotten in a lot of the work we all do in sustainability.

    Considering the size of the issue, ‘pathological collaboration’ will be key to succeed. We will all need to coordinate and collaborate more to maximize chances of long-term success.


  • P Baker says:

    Nice work – I hope somewhere there is a going to be a comprehensive analysis of the business case for coffee in the region. Before major funds are thrown at renovation, don’t we need an estimation of what sort of price and yields ranges are required to maintain modest and stable livelihoods? And I don’t just mean costs of production, but a full study of all costs using standard business accounting methods.

    I bet the figure would be more than $2.20/lb for mid altitude coffee farms – any takers?

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      As always, your contributions to the conversation are helpful and welcome.

      Very much agreed on the need for “decision-support” services. We talked about them during the rust summit in Guatemala in the way you describe–before farmers assume debt to renovate their farms, we should help them understand what kinds of returns they need if those investments are going to pay for themselves.

      We have also been talking explicitly since then about another kind of decision-support service related climate science. We have a pretty good idea that the map of the coffeelands will change fundamentally over the next 30-40 years. As you know, plenty of areas currently suitable for coffee production won’t be by 2050. It may not make sense for farmers who will be struggling mightily to produce coffee just five or 10 years from now to invest heavily in coffee renovation–an investment that they would want to generate returns for 20 years or more. Over the next 12 months, we need not just the assessments of economic viability you refer to but also assessments of agroclimatic viability. For farmers whose future in coffee isn’t bright, we want to identify best-bet alternatives and provide the kind of support they need to make the transition as smoothly as possible.


  • P Baker says:

    Michael – on climate change, yes exactly, in fact this is what we are trying to do with the Coffee and Climate project ( What we are mostly finding, especially in Central America, is that there is a range of pressing issues where farmers need urgent help to adapt.

    But the nagging doubt is whether for some of them we should be simply giving a ‘tough love’ message and saying ‘you’ve got to get out of coffee – it’s not a business for you anymore’. In fact I more or less told a Salvadorian farmer (certified, about 1000-1100m asl with the leaves coming off his trees) that his farm was now marginal and that he needed to start thinking differently.

    But how do we identify these farmers? A good place to start is to estimate total costs, do scenarios for various combinations of future loss ranges (due to bad weather) and price ranges, then workshop it with farmers and experts and see if we couldn’t scope out some basic criteria, zones and actions.

    Without some sort of map of the future – even a medieval one with ‘here be dragons’ zones – we will be just as useless as most politicians who trot out the same old remedies to return us to a world that no longer exists.

  • Prasetyohadi says:

    Dear Michael, do you think it is unthinkable to include, let’s say, a 15-year target plan to set up a multi-stakeholder co-operative that genuinely include consumers, workers and producers (coffee farmers)? I have been working with coffee farmers/peasants for several years in Indonesia and I find there is no any better way than establishing an overarching cooperative to face but primarily to prevent not only rust and other coffee cultivation problems, but also typical commodity-related problems like such a drastic coffee price cut that is sadly happening this year. We down here in the coffee cultivating countries would be grateful if you could initiate, for instance, organizing coffee consumers in the States that in its turn may quickly match with what we have prepared for such a cooperative so far .. I am sure then that the co-op could find ways to set coffee prices for consumers that are less expensive than the currently charged from them. Let me have to response. –prasetyohadi

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