Across Central America, even as rains arrive, many coffee plantations contain only spindly, nearly defoliated bushes, the result of a blight known as coffee leaf rust whose devastation, so far, has yet to affect the prices of premium highland coffee that baristas serve around the developed word.
But while Americans have yet to feel its effects, the blight may soon prove to be as disastrous as any earthquake or volcanic eruption to afflict Central America. Already, it’s knocked nearly half a million people out of work and driven up crime. And the crisis is only beginning. It may soon send a stream of new migrants toward the United States, speed up deforestation and invigorate illicit narcotics production.
It also serves as a bellwether on climate change, which appears to be causing temperatures to rise, taking plagues and infestations to higher elevations that once were considered too cool and dry for the rust fungus.
At the San Pedrana Cooperative on the flanks of the Fuego Volcano southwest of Guatemala City, this country’s capital, Miguel Angel Xia turned over a leaf to display the orange, dust-like fungus that sucks nourishing sap from coffee leaves, killing the bushes.
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“Rust has been around for 30 years,” Xia said. “But it was always at 3,000 feet or below. And now, it’s up to 5,000 feet. It never would’ve been this high before.”
“No one imagined that it could thrive in that environment and go airborne,” said Christian Wolthers, a past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America who imports green coffee from his base in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Coffee rust has changed history in centuries past. The fungus blighted crops in the British colony of Ceylon in the 1870s, decimating coffee exports to London and helping turn the British into a nation of tea drinkers.
Since then, fungicides have kept coffee rust under control when it reappears.
But this time is different, experts say. The aggressive outbreak has extended to more than 70 percent of coffee bushes in Guatemala and El Salvador, 64 percent in Costa Rica, and lesser amounts in Nicaragua and Honduras, according to a May 13 report by the International Coffee Organization. Regional coffee production fell 17.1 percent in the past October-to-March season, and it is likely to fall 30 percent to 40 percent in the coming season, which begins in October.
In Central America, with a total population of 41 million, nearly 1 million seasonal and permanent coffee workers are expected to lose their jobs next season.
“Each of these jobs are providing for six people. You do the math,” said Maja Wallengren, an independent coffee analyst based in Mexico City who predicts that the disruption to families will be far greater than just the economic costs. “It’s not something you can get under control in a year.”
Other agricultural sectors, such as sugar and palm oil, cannot pick up the slack from unemployed coffee workers, and since devastated coffee farms are often clustered together, pockets of unemployment soar.
“You’re going to see a lot of migration,” said Alejandro Keller, who is the fourth generation of his family to grow coffee at the Finca Santa Isabel, a large organic farm an hour’s drive from Guatemala City.
“You’ll see more people emigrating to the United States and Mexico. You’ll see more people here at traffic lights asking for money,” said Gerardo Alberto De Leon, marketing manager for a coffee growers cooperative known as Fedecocagua, headquartered in the capital.
It is a sentiment echoed by Nils Leporowski, president of the National Coffee Association, a body that includes government officials and representatives of 90,000 growers in Guatemala.
“The social and economic impact is terrible. It is big, really big,” Leporowski said. “It has us very worried.”
First off, unemployed coffee workers can turn to crime just for survival, he said. “We’re already seeing this.”
Some small coffee farmers, reeling from the devastation of their plots and without savings to pay for fungicide, are turning to other crops. In areas of Guatemala like San Marcos Department, along the Mexican border, those crops include marijuana and poppy, which provides the opium latex used to make heroin.
“Some will stop producing coffee and will produce other crops, including illicit ones,” Leporowski said.
Guatemala is likely to never return again to producing 4.8 million 100-pound bags of coffee that it grew just two years ago, he said. As small farmers flee from coffee to other crops, they will chop down some of the shade trees needed to protect Central American coffee from the tropical sun, leaving cleared mountain fields subject to erosion, which in turn will add sediment to rivers that originate in the highlands.
“There’s going to be an environmental impact as well,” Leporowski said.
Central American coffee, while renowned for aroma and flavor, comprises only 12 percent of world production but holds an outsize role in specialty coffees.
Unlike Brazil, which produces a third of global coffee, Central American growers usually cultivate Arabica coffee rather than the intense and harsher Robusta coffee. In blends, Central American beans often are mixed in to lend flavor.
“It is like a gluing factor between bold, heavyweight coffees grown in Brazil and the higher grown, the altura coffees with more enzymatic value, more citric coffees like the espressos from Colombia and the AAs from Kenya,” said Wolthers.
Still, global prices haven’t risen, despite the key role of Central American beans in blends and as single-origin specialty coffee. That’s because roasters have replaced Central American coffee beans with beans considered less desirable.
“Brazil hasn’t been affected by the rust. The lower quality picks up the slack,” said Peter Giuliano, director of the Specialty Coffee Symposium, an annual confab for coffee professionals.
“What are Folgers, Maxwell House, Kraft, General Foods, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts going to do? They’ll start mixing more Robusta in bags of Arabica,” said De Leon of the coffee growers cooperative Fedecocagua.
No solution will come quickly. To combat rust, farmers have to spray their plants aggressively and in the worst case prune them back to a foot and a half from the ground or replant entirely. In either case, it can take three years to begin producing coffee beans again.
Authorities are providing Guatemalan farmers with fungicides at a 35 percent discount to their market price, Leporowski said.
Even so, many small farmers still can’t afford chemicals to kill fungus. According to Promecafe, a regional coffee association, only 23 percent of coffee farmers have access to income sources besides coffee, leaving them vulnerable to crises like this one.
“They are operating at a survival level,” said Giuliano. “They are less likely to do prevention, not only using fungicides but pruning and planting resistant varieties.”
Organic farmers like Keller, with recourse only to metallic fungicides, usually using copper, are reeling, and some are even considering returning to chemical use despite heavy investments in mastering organic systems.
Visibly downcast, Keller, whose farming techniques include using manure from 300 goats that graze on ground cover at his plantation, surveyed a nursery with 30,000 coffee plantings. All were infected with rust and would have to be discarded.
All he can hope for, he said, was a rise in global prices – which instead have plunged. Arabica coffee is selling at less than $1.30 a pound, a price not seen since September 2009.
“Guatemala – and Central America as a whole – has a lot of microclimates and a lot of great coffees that are worthwhile to sustain,” he said. If the market prices were to rise, he added, “a lot will be able to get fixed.”