Coffee at Risk

New coffee seedlings destined to be used in the replanting efforts to combat rust – at San Fernando Cooperative in Peru.
New coffee seedlings destined to be used in the replanting efforts to combat rust – at San Fernando Cooperative in Peru.

Growing coffee on far-flung mountain slopes in ways that respect the earth and build rural communities is quite an accomplishment, there are routine, significant challenges to overcome. Now there is a new threat that is hitting many communities hard all at once.

Coffee Leaf Rust, or roya in Spanish, is a fungus that starts with visible spots on the coffee tree’s leaves. As it progresses, Rust renders the leaves unable to photosynthesize, essentially choking the plant. The fungus spreads from tree to tree, farm to farm, community to community. Its range has reached across continents. Its spread is fast and impact severe. Some farmer co-ops have seen production levels drop 80% in a span of 3 years.

Barrels of organic fertilizer that the co-op produces for members in Chiapas, Mexico.
Barrels of organic fertilizer that the co-op produces for members in Chiapas, Mexico.

The cause of this plague is due to a variety of factors, but likely one of the most significant is climate change, specifically an increase in temperature in higher altitudes where this fungus previously could not have thrived. This is an example of how unsustainable use of resources in industrialized countries contributes to climate changes that leave some of the most vulnerable communities to bear the biggest burden.

Farmer members of Las Colinas Cooperative in Tacuba, El Salvador—after a long day of work and touring the farm.  [Note to Jesse: here’s what we have for names of folks in the photo:  Third in from the left is Pedro Ascencio, then Done Rene, and Don Julio is all the way over on the right. ]

Farmer members of Las Colinas Cooperative in Tacuba, El Salvador—after a long day of work and touring the farm.

For some farmers, the solution to Rust is chemical. But the most effective fungicides are not organic and are unrealistic solutions for our farmer partners. For farmers committed to small-scale, organic production, the answers need to fit that model. Through their own field tests, farmers report that the best results come from bolstering soil health and replacing diseased trees.

“Soldados” or “soldiers”—the nickname for recently germinated coffee plants, they stand straight up like a little solider; from here, they are transplanted into small plastic bags filled with soil, sand, and compost
“Soldados” or “soldiers”—the nickname for recently germinated coffee plants, they stand straight up like a little solider; from here, they are transplanted into small plastic bags filled with soil, sand, and compost

Equal Exchange has responded in two ways. The first is to continue doing what we do: focusing not just on a product, but on the people and infrastructure that grow the product. We provide pre-harvest financing, support replanting projects and facilitate info-sharing between farmers. We have also dedicated $150,000 this year to directly fund Coffee Leaf Rust projects that farmers are managing in Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, and Guatemala.

Equal Exchange products will be on sale in October and we hope to draw attention both to the serious challenge of Coffee Leaf Rust, and to the perseverance and leadership of small farmers in finding better solutions. With your help and your purchases, together we continue to fuel an alternative trade model that does more than just trade.
For more thoughts and analysis on this ongoing work, please visit our website and blog:

www.equalexchange.coop
www.smallfarmersbigchange.coop

By Lynsey Miller, Sales Director at Equal Exchange

 

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