Thursday, February 21, 2013

Coffee in crisis

This fungus-stricken plant has at least
some ripe cherries.

A Honduras coffee finca is usually a beautiful sight at this time of year. 
The leaves are a rich and shiny dark green year-round, so a hillside finca is always attractive. But this is the season when the harvest is finishing up and the plants are even prettier, covered in new growth and small white flowers that herald the coming year’s crop.
Sadly, that’s not how it is out there right now. A recent tour I did of several small fincas around Sesesmil, Copan demonstrated just how hard the fungus known as la roya has hit the Honduras coffee industry.
The official sources in the country are still playing down the impact of the la roya attack, suggesting losses of 25 per cent for the 2012-13 harvest. 
But producers know the true impact is much worse than that - closer to 60 per cent losses this year for many growers. That will be followed by a massive drop in production for the next two years, while the infected plants recover from being severely cut back to help them survive the fungus.
It’s a terrifying prospect in a country where the coffee harvest is just about the only thing that generates money for the small rural producers who grow most of the coffee coming out of Honduras. 
La roya - coffee leaf rust - is an old foe for coffee growers, and there are definitely things you can do to stop it. But that’s in some kind of dream world where growers have money and time to spare for the major interventions necessary to stop the fungus, and in a time when the fungus was just an occasional problem and not a wide-spread disaster.
If you have money, you can fight back. 
You can, for instance, spray the plant with a number of fungicides over a certain period of time. You can cut the plant back hard and afford to sit back and wait through the two years before it produces again. You can take preventive action by spraying uninfected plants with copper, or buy new strains of plants genetically resistant to la roya and just start over. 
But the majority of coffee producers in Honduras are small-scale, independent growers, using coffee dollars to smooth the edges from what would otherwise be subsistence living. They’re a long way from well-off, most without money for anything beyond the basics when it comes to keeping their fincas in good working order. 
The bulk of the growers who belong to the COAPROCL coffee co-op in Sesesmil are facing losses of nearly 70 per cent of their crop. And that’s just this year: they’ll also have to weather two more years of dramatically reduced production, presuming they can even achieve the monumental task of cutting back every sick plant on their fincas. 
As recently as October, the growers thought they were heading into a banner year. But then the plants started dropping their leaves. Green, thriving plants turned to leafless, yellowing sticks within a matter of weeks. The ripening coffee cherries stopped ripening, many dying on the branch due to the lack of nutrients coming from the plant. 
The result: The harvest is late and small, with a gloomy forecast until 2016. 
The lines of credit will come due for producers any day now, but they won’t have the money to pay for them - or the money for school, medical needs, clothes for the kids, repairs for anything that might break over the next year, food and care for the animals, or all those other goods and services that families can’t produce on their own.
These cherries shrivelled before they could ripen
after the leaves fell.
I toured the fincas with an Australian couple who have a coffee-roasting company in Melbourne and an affinity for Copan beans. They added a whole new wrinkle to the la roya dilemma, noting that so far, resistant coffee strains just don’t produce as flavourful a bean as the varieties that are currently being decimated in Honduras.
So even a wholesale switch to one of the resistant varieties won’t be the answer. Not if it makes buyers unhappy. COAPROCL  producers are acutely aware that it’s all about the buyers - and satisfying the discriminating coffee drinkers of the world who give the crop its worth. 
Some regions haven’t been hit as hard. Comayagua growers expect to be down just five per cent, presuming they get a handle on the armed criminals stealing their coffee harvests right off the plant. In Lempira, losses are looking to be around 30 per cent. 
But whatever is coming over the next three years is going to hurt everyone. Even the guys loading the trucks at the export companies are bracing for a downturn; they get paid by the bag, and there are going to be far fewer bags around this year. 
Add in the people who cut coffee during the harvest season and we’re talking millions of people, in a country where so many already live right on the knife’s edge. Growers are also worried that if they can’t ship enough coffee to their overseas buyers over the next three years, they’ll lose markets as well. 
In another country, you’d like to think that government authorities would be all over this natural disaster. But that’s a whole other sad story. Brace for the hurricane. 

1 comment:

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Thanks for the article. I fear we may have severe hunger problems in western Honduras this coming June to August and ongoing problems.
I noted this a few weeks ago in a blog of mine:
There needs to be serious discussion to deal with both short term and long term responses to the crisis.