Healthy plant on the left looks strikingly different from defoliated plants around it.
By Jody Paterson
There’s no avoiding the earthy, acrid smell of wet coffee cherries these days if you’re walking any of the dirt roads winding through the hills of Copan. It’s the smell of money for Hondurans, who count on the annual coffee harvest from their small plots of land to provide their families with enough money to get them through the year.
That’s a risky dependency any time you’ve got a commodity whose prices bob up and down as much as coffee. But climate change is adding a whole new layer of risk, bringing plagues and uncertain growing conditions to torment small coffee producers with little ability to ride out rough times.
Producers knew going into the current harvest season that they were up against a persistent fungus that has been spreading with abandon through a widely grown strain of coffee plant, says the administrator of an agricultural co-operative of organic coffee growers based in Copan Ruinas, Wilson Colindres. Work is already underway to develop and plant more resistant strains to slow the spread of la roya.
But the impact is turning out to be much worse than anyone expected, Colindres said when I talked to him last week at the co-operative's offices in Sesesmil, Copan. He fears the 2012-13 harvest season will be the worst in the co-operative’s history, with production down by half for the 39 Copan and Comayagua growers who belong to the 12-year-old co-op.
Coffee has been a very good fit for the country up until now. Honduras’s legions of small producers operate with little margin for error, but coffee thrives on Honduras’s forested slopes without the need for costly irrigation systems or major interventions as long as a grower pays attention to soil quality and plant regeneration. The clockwork nature of Honduras’s rainy season was also good for coffee-growing, as it always started in early May and continued with heavy daily afternoon rains right through June. Coffee plants set a lot of fruit when they’re getting both heat and plenty of rain.
But all that’s changing, says Colindres. Now, the country’s rainy season starts later and ends earlier every year. What used to be a daily rain has now diminished to rain every third or fourth day. With the soil now drying out in between rains, conditions are ideal for the spread of la roya spores. The fungus kills off the leaves of coffee plants, which stunts growth and decreases yields.
This year’s yields have been dramatically affected, says Colindres. But it’s a problem for coming years as well, as the sick, spindly plants don’t recover quickly.
And while growers are already planting more fungus-resistant varieties to try to reduce their losses, Colindres says the flavour of the beans isn’t as good from those strains. The world’s coffee drinkers are a notoriously finicky lot when it comes to the taste of their favourite brew, so that’s worrying producers as well.
What can be done? COAPROCL has just started into a new project with my organization, the Comision de Accion Social Menonita, to improve soil quality at organic fincas and increase plant health. Healthy plants are better able to resist la roya. Other projects are striving to increase the amount and quality of ground water in the region through better watershed management.
Some growers are planting resistant strains and hoping that flavour concerns will take care of themselves. Coffee plants produce in their third year and are ideally replaced every eight or so years for maximum productivity (although that's often not the case among Honduras's small producers), so many growers are accustomed to adding new plants every season anyway.
I walked the Sesemil finca of Alfredo Morales, president of the co-operative, and noted a few “survivor” plants thriving amid their defoliated brethren, despite being from the same vulnerable strain. No doubt scientists are studying such examples of natural resistance as well.
Natural fungicides exist for organic producers, but Colindres notes that plants are already showing resistance. Growers often have to resort to three applications of three different fungicides now – an added cost for a marginal producer.
In the short term, the next couple of months are still a happy time for Hondurans. Some two million men, women and children participate in the annual coffee harvest, counting on it to provide money for all the things they aren’t able to afford at any other time of year.
This is a time of buying new clothes for the kids; finishing off the community water tank; paying off the loans and store credits that got the family through the last half of the year; adding another room on the house.
But in the longer term, Honduras is up against a global change in weather that is expected to wreak havoc within as little as five years with many of the crops grown in the country, including essential food crops such as beans and corn. The emergence of a devastating coffee fungus is not just a stroke of bad luck for a country that has certainly known no shortage of it, but a mere sample of what’s to come if the country can’t adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
Dryer, hotter weather is not just the problem of the moment. It’s a permanent change that puts the country at grave risk of slipping even further in world rankings for malnutrition, poverty, maternal/child health and more. Efforts to help Honduran producers adapt, mitigate and diversify can’t come soon enough.