The Growing Crisis in Guatemala: Why Coffee Rust is a Pressing Public Health Issue

Agriculture Landscape (1 of 1)
You may have noticed this week that your usual Starbucks coffee costs a bit more than usual (1). This slight price increase is, in part, a consequence of Roya, a fungal plant disease that is attacking coffee plantations around Guatemala and the rest of Central America. What you may not have known is that Roya is not only decimating coffee crops, but it is also having profound effects on the health of thousands of Guatemalans.

Guatemala’s history with coffee is long and complex. It begins around the 19th century when Spaniards began stealing large plots of land from indigenous Mayan communities, converting them into plantations, and forcing the indigenous populations to work for them. Through colonial trade and tax laws, the Spaniards restructured Guatemala’s agricultural economy to be heavily dependent on coffee. In this way, coffee became the principal export of Guatemala, reaching 90% of the countries’ exports before 1900 (2).

Throughout the 20th century land reforms and civil war in Guatemala, the coffee industry exacerbated the narrative of poverty, racism, and inequality among indigenous populations that had begun centuries earlier. Today, coffee production throughout the country continues to be marked by rich coffee finca owners using indentured servants and migratory farm workers to harvest their beans. As coffee remains Guatemala’s largest export to this day, there are thousands throughout the country that depend on the crop for their livelihood.

The importance of coffee exports in the country is precisely the reason that Roya has been so detrimental to the health of Guatemalans. Roya is an airborne, fungal disease, sometimes referred to as coffee rust. It spreads quickly in humid environments, causing coffee leaves to become speckled with rust colored spots, before drying up and falling off. The only potential cure for the harmful fungus is multiple applications of expensive fungicides that are often ineffective.

Since the 1970s, Roya has been a problem in the warm and wet Central American countries, such as Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but has left the cooler, mountainous Guatemalan coffee farms alone (3). However, in recent years, the region has experienced the effects of widespread climate change. The fungus began afflicting Guatemalan farms around 2012 and was recently declared a national emergency by the Guatemalan government (4). The fungus is estimated to have caused over $1 billion in damages since 2012 (5). It is now estimated that 70-80% of coffee crops are affected by the disease. This is among the highest rates out of any Central American country.

Roya is affecting everyone involved in the coffee distribution chain — from Starbucks consumers to the rich coffee finca owners to the poor farmers working in the fields. Coffee harvests of Guatemalan plantations have plummeted to 1/20th of what they used to be (3). The only solution is to trim back the foliage of old plants in hopes that they will sprout new, healthy leaves. Even with this strategy, the plants will not produce the valuable coffee beans for two to three years. Because of this, many farmers have taken to planting new trees that are more resistant to the fungus, but will take years to become productive.

The consequences of this plight of coffee rust reach far beyond increased Starbucks prices. Throughout the many coffee growing regions of Guatemala, including Sacatepéquez, Sololá, Quezaltenango, San Marcos, and Alta Verapaz, hundreds of thousands of people are now without work. Coffee planters and pickers have tried to switch to new crops such as plantains and bananas, but the value of these commodities is far less than that of coffee. Because a large portion of Guatemala’s population struggles with food security, this substantial amount of job loss from the economy will have widespread health effects.

Employees of organizations that work with the indigenous poor around the highlands, such as Mayan Families, state that they’ve seen in increase in families struggling to feed their children. Given that the first two years of a child’s life are crucial for their long term development, one hard season can have devastating consequences on child growth, leading to impaired mental and physical development. In a country where 49.8% of children suffer from stunted growth already, the coffee fungus has the potential to undo much of the nutritional progress that has been made over the last decade.

So far, the response to the epidemic has been varied. Since April, the World Food Program has been providing emergency food assistance to 14,000 families across Guatemala (6). While admirable, this is a small portion of the hundred of thousands Guatemalan families that are suffering from the outbreak.

Then, just  two days ago, The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a $23 million dollar fund in partnership with Keurig Green Mountain, Cooperative Coffees, Starbucks, and Root Capital to support the thousands of coffee farmers affected by the devastating fungus (3). The fund will be used to “provide on-farm, agronomic trainings on climate-smart, resilient practices to coffee farmers and farmer organizations” and to rehabilitate “disease-affected fields and… stabilize coffee supply chains in Latin America and the Caribbean (3).” Though this support is crucial for the coffee industry, these solutions will take years to return farms to full productivity and do little to alleviate the immediate suffering of families.

Clearly, the effects of the Roya fungus have rippled throughout the country of Guatemala. No one solution will mitigate the repercussions of this epidemic plant disease, but multifarious efforts that address both household income and food security, as well as large scale agricultural and economic factors will continue to make progress towards overcoming it. Though the challenges are great, in the words of longtime Guatemala resident and coffee shop owner, Michael Roberts, “Guatemala has been through a lot. What’s gotten them through is the resilience of the people.”

(1) Wagner, Meg. “Starbucks Hikes Prices on Brewed Coffee, Lattes, Bagged Beans.” NY Daily News. N.p., 24 June 2014. Web. 27 June 2014.

(2) “The Culture of Coffee in Guatemala.” Coverco – Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 June 2014.

(3) “Devastating ‘coffee Rust’ Fungus Raises Prices on High-end Blends.” N.p., 31 May 2014. Web. 27 June 2014.

(4) Davidson, Kavitha A. “Guatemala Declares National Coffee Emergency.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 09 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 June 2014.

(5)  “USAID, Texas A&M Invierten $5 Millones Para Combatir La Crisis Causada Por La Roya Del Cafe.” U.S. Agency for International Development. N.p., 19 May 2014. Web. 27 June 2014.

(6) “Guatemala: WFP Assists 16,000 Families Affected by Coffee Rust and Drought.”World Food Programme. N.p., 30 May 2014. Web. 27 June 2014.

(7) “USAID, Keurig Green Mountain, Cooperative Coffees, Starbucks and Root Capital Launch $23 Million Resilience Fund to Help Farms Fighting Coffee Rust Crisis.” U.S. Agency for International Development. N.p., 19 June 2014. Web. 27 June 2014.

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