By Kiana Davis, Humanitas Global
Throughout Central America, coffee farmers are facing the very severe effects of climate change in the form of the roya, a rust fungus which causes leaves to fall from coffee plants and keeps them from producing full harvests. Many Central American governments have declared a “State of Emergency” due to the roya, as it affects the more than 351,000 coffee growers and two million citizens throughout the region whose livelihoods depend on coffee production. In the 2012-2013 coffee season, there was an estimated loss of 437,000 jobs, and that number is expected to continue rising this year.
In 2013, over 50% of the total coffee growing areas in Central America, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua were hit by the roya, costing the region around $500 million in coffee production loss. The fungushas destroyed the coffee plants such that it will take up to five years and extremely toxic chemical treatments for them to regain normal production.
Photo credit: bancaynegocios.com
Coffee production is extremely sensitive to temperature and rainfall, and grows best between 18-23° Celsius. The presence of the roya (scientific name: hemeleia vastatrix) throughout Central America has been attributed to the increasingly warmer climate; even higher altitude regions that were once protected are now susceptible. Unnaturally heavy rainfalls assist in the multiplication of the disease and heavy winds carry the fungus to once-unaffected areas. Once the disease has reached a new coffee plantation, the plants’ deterioration is certain and rapid. The coffee rust, once present on a plant, affects not only the immediate harvest but also the following season’s yields. Effectively combating the fungus in Central America could take up to $300 million, and that would not even begin to address the lasting effects on the population’s health.
As global temperature rises across the board, the overalleffects onagricultural production are detrimental, especially for the millions of people worldwide who rely on agriculture for both work and daily subsistence. The roya has been deteriorating coffee plantations throughout many countries in Central America since the late 1970s. In recent years, the problem has escalated to new extremes.
In both 2012 and 2013, over 70% of coffee production areas in El Salvador and Guatemala have been affected by the roya, with Costa Rica not far behind. The overall production loss across the region was 17% for the 2012-2013 season, and is expected to fall even more in this year’s harvest. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, who once saw coffee as their sole form of income, currently face severe hunger, undernutrition, and debt.
In Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, coffee makes up 20% of the country’s GDP. One-third of Nicaragua’s working population, or about 750,000 people, make a living from the coffee industry. Over the next forty years, 80% of areas where coffee is currently the dominant crop is expected to be unusable for coffee production. As 75% of the Nicaraguan population currently survives on about $1.50 a day, coffee farmers are already struggling to provide food for their families in the non-harvest seasons. Similarly, in Guatemala, reports of chronic malnutrition among coffee worker’s children show the extreme consequences of the roya on the general population’s wellbeing. According to the International Coffee Organization, the loss of jobs and income to farmers poses a serious threat of food security in many areas throughout Central America.
According to an Oxfam report, climate change is setting the global fight against hunger back by decades as communities, who once survived on the sustenance or profit from crops such as coffee, are now incredibly vulnerable to the harsh realities of poverty and food shortages. Even Starbucks, fearing the loss of Central American coffee beans, recently urged the United States government to take direct action to address climate change in the areas where coffee is most heavily produced.
Some important measures have already been taken to address the problem of the roya in Central America. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has partnered with regional governments, coffee-grower associations, and the World Food Programme to develop responses to the challenges faced by the coffee sector. Short-term responses have included the deployment of mass aid and alternative food sources to affected Central American countries from the WFP.
The roya is just one example of how climate change is affecting and will continue to affect global food and nutrition security. As the recognition of the importance of climate-smart agriculture continues to grow, it is important that hunger and nutrition considerations are incorporated into the discussions and planning.