Leaf Rust Is Damaging Coffee Plants, But Can We Protect Farmers?

hand holding a leaf infected with leaf rust

by
Apr 11, 2013

Leaf rust is the common name for a nasty little fungus, Roya, which causes big problems for coffee plants. Leaf rust first appears on the underside of the leaves of coffee plants as yellow spots, and can ultimately cause the leaves to turn black and fall off. This  severely damages coffee plants, reducing yields. When leaf rust spreads, it can have devastating results for coffee production and the 1.5 million farmers and workers in Central America who depend on this crop.

The Current Crisis

Leaf rust has hit Central America with such force that El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras have all declared a state of phytosanitary emergency. It is estimated that the crops of 500,000 farmers in Honduras will be affected by leaf rust and up to 50% of all coffee plants in Guatemala and El Salvador have been damaged. The Organization of Central American Coffee Exporters forecasts that Central American coffee harvests will be down by 20 percent this year. The current leaf rust epidemic is associated with anthracnose, another even more damaging fungus which kills off branches and can kill off whole coffee plants if conditions are favorable.

The Hardest Hit

Arabica coffee plants, which the market relies on for specialty coffee, are most susceptible to leaf rust, and are currently under threat in Central America.

When it comes to farmers, the hardest hit by the disease are small-scale farmers who rely on coffee as their primary source of income. These farmers lack access to technical assistance, and do not have the resources to make needed investments to fertilize, prune, and replant coffee in the face of declining coffee prices and yields over the past two harvests. As a result, their long-term ability to protect crops from leaf rust, to recuperate their plants and to recover economically is extremely limited.

Even harder hit are agricultural laborers who depend on the coffee harvest for an important part of their annual income.  These are rural, often landless residents, or small farmers in dry regions unable to produce sufficient food and income to sustain their families, unless they migrate to work in coffee harvests.

These are just the kinds of farmers and laborers LWR works with in Central America.

Working to Protect Farmers

More research on this leaf rust outbreak and its causes and consequences is needed. In the meantime, LWR is implementing short and long-term steps in projects throughout Latin America to better protect coffee farmers and rural communities from devastating economic loss.

  1. We support partners so they can immediately provide farmers with key information on how to respond to the crisis.
  2. We work with local and regional partners, farmers, technical experts and leaders in Central America to assess the impacts and develop coordinated strategies for short- and long-term responses.
  3. We are developing responses to address the most immediate negative effects of leaf rust, such as food security projects to ensure families can survive the economic losses without sacrificing health and nutrition. LWR is currently implementing such projects in Honduras and Nicaragua.
  4. We help rural communities diversify their livelihoods.  In households, we are supporting the production of food crops. On farms, we help diversify food crops and marketable crops — including cocoa, timber, fruits and plantains/bananas — to reduce dependence on coffee. We also support local processing as a way to add value.
  5. We are supporting projects that help farmers diversify coffee varieties. In Honduras and in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, for example, LWR is working with farmers to plant Roya-resistant varieties that will help protect them from losses related to the fungus which most often devastates Arabica coffee.
  6. We are addressing structural problems that leave farmers without adequate information to overcome these challenges. We are providing farmers with information about best practices for plant care, harvesting and post-harvest processing as well as strengthening the capacity of coffee cooperatives to provide technical assistance through local networks.

The economic impacts of leaf rust on small-scale farmers and rural communities are real. Farmers will feel these impacts in the next coffee harvest: less nutritious food on the table, and fewer funds to buy school supplies, pay tuition fees, or purchase medicines for sick family members. LWR is working to help reduce the severity of these impacts on farmers and their families, and to provide them with the tools and resources to develop thriving and diverse farming enterprises capable of weathering crises like leaf rust.

is Lutheran World Relief's Regional Communications Officer for Latin America.

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Categories: Agriculture, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Latin America
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