Farmers in Mexico fight coffee disease with resistant varieties and agroforestry

Mexico – Lucio Jimenez Ocampo is surrounded by coffee at all times. In the backyard of his home in Santiago Atitlán, nestled in the Sierra Norte highlands of the state of Oaxaca, there are approximately a hundred organic coffee plants of various varieties wrapped in plastic. Coffee beans of the Geisha variety are waiting to be sold to other farmers on his terrace.

The plants are part of a project by farmers in Oaxaca to test coffee varieties and develop agroforestry plantations resistant to coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease that decimated coffee crops seven years ago. Coffee rust is incurable. But Lucio and other indigenous Mixe farmers hope that the project will protect the majority of their coffee production from the fungus as it climbs higher into the mountains and reproduces as the climate warms and becomes wetter.

In 2015, when coffee rust arrived in Atitlán, the farmers were unprepared. When the parasitic fungus Hemileia vastatrix comes into contact with a coffee plant, it attaches to the leaves and covers them in orange spots. This ultimately hinders the plants’ capacity for photosynthesis. As leaves fall, production of coffee cherries and seeds decreases. The seeds (also known as coffee beans) contained within the cherries have shrunk, which impacts the quality and value of the coffee.

In that year, production in the state of Oaxaca decreased by roughly 50 percent. Farmers in Atitlán report a production decline of approximately 80 percent. Coffee rust continues to exist in the region. Many coffee farmers abandoned the village and their crops in search of employment in other Mexican states or the United States.

According to Leon Castaeda Rojas, a coffee farmer in Santiago Atitlán, “coffee was the only source of income for our family and the only crop that sustains us.” The rust then destroyed all of our plants.

According to a study published in Science of the Total Environment, the frequency of coffee rust is rising, and climate change may be the main cause.

According to Dr. Elda Melchor-Martnez, one of the study’s authors, the fungus flourishes with the smallest increase in temperature or precipitation. Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica), the most popularly produced species in Mexico, typically grows at higher, warming altitudes, where new generations are born and it ascends.

In the 1970s, coffee leaf rust originated in Brazil and spread throughout Latin American coffee farms. In 2008, coffee farmers in Colombia reported a loss of approximately one-third of their harvest. Between 2012 and 2016, the fungus destroyed 10 to 55 percent of all Arabica coffee crops in Central America.

For residents of the Sierra Norte highlands, the 2015 outbreak in Atitlán can be attributed to the warming temperatures in Mexico. According to the National Meteorological Service, temperatures have increased by about 1.4 degrees Celsius over the past four decades.

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