Central America battles to save coffee from fungus


Central America is scrambling to contain a coffee-eating fungus that has invaded a third of the impoverished region’s crops, threatening to cost the vital industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Entire families depend on work from the coffee-growing industry in Central America, which employs more than 1.5 million people to produce one of the world’s most renowned arabica beans. But in September, two months before the annual harvest, the fungus known as roya began to spread due to a lack of preventive measures and the effects of climate change, including high temperatures and drought, according to industry sources.

“The situation is very serious,” Jose Buitrago, president of Nicaragua’s Coffee Exporters Association, said. “It will get worse if measures are not taken.”

The fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, discolors and dries up coffee leaves, an effect that also gives roya the name of “leaf rust.” The parasite has latched on to 35 percent of the 958,000 hectares of sown crops, which will mean a loss of 2 million coffee bean bags of 100 pounds (46 kg) each.

This will represent a loss of $300 million at the current price of $150 per bag, the sources said.

Central American nations exported 17.5 million bags of coffee during the 2011-2012 cycle, bringing $3.6 billion to the region, and growers had hoped to do even better this season.

“The entire coffee region is affected, some more than others,” said Marcelino Samayo, director general of El Salvador’s coffee exporters’ association.

Central America’s coffee plantations are held by more than 300,000 producers, and the majority are small- and medium-size growers with few means to control the outbreak.

Governments and producers will try to contain the invasion by pruning infected leaves, putting up effective shading systems and planting fungus-resistant seeds to replace dead coffee plants. The Salvadoran Coffee Research Foundation recommended fertilizing the soil and cutting off all leaves affected with roya, which cannot survive on dead leaves.

The regional International Organization for Plant Protection and Animal Health will back the measures, but the region, which lacks resources, also plans to seek foreign loans. Guatemala needs $843 million in investments to renew its coffee plantations while Nicaragua is looking for $200 million.

While roya is plaguing the whole region, Honduras and Nicaragua stand to lose the most as coffee is their main export.

In Honduras, considered Central America’s coffee king, the fungus has devastated 10 percent of 280,000 hectares of crops. The fungus has meanwhile hit 30 percent of Nicaragua’s 128,000 hectares of coffee.