Devastating Emily

The coffee borer is a severe pest, but it can be managed to the level where it is merely a pest, and is no longer the threat it was a century ago. In 1869 a previously unidentified fungus struck the coffee plantations of Ceylon, one of the great coffee origin lands of the 19th Century. In a very few years the blight known by colonial English planters as “Devastating Emily”, and later its scientific name Himileia Vastatrix, destroyed the coffee economy of the Island. Ceylon’s coffee never recovered, and in time it was replaced by planting tea. The disease, which appeared in various other coffee producing lands in Asia and Africa over the next 100 years, was believed to have effectively been kept out of the coffee nations of the Western Hemisphere through a quarantine provided by the world’s oceans, but 45 years ago, in 1970, the blight, possibly carried by wind, appeared in Brazil. An isolation area was created around the affected farms and their trees were destroyed, but within 18 months the invisible pathogenic agent jumped the blockade, possibly carried by the prevailing winds. Similar fencing efforts have proven unsuccessful elsewhere, and so attempts to contain the scourge have morphed into labors to manage the disease.

With its introduction to the Americas, the scourge picked up new names, “La Roya,” and “Roya del Cafeto”, “Roya” for short. It is also active in Jamaica, felling 24% of the Blue Mountain crop.

Rust disease arrives unnoticed, transported on the wind or through the interaction of the coffee leaf with other organisms that may have come in contact with the fungal spores. The stealth-like onset of the disease is part of what makes the scourge so difficult to handle. The parasitic spores only live in a temperature range of 21°C (69.8°F) and 25°C (77°F). The spores like moisture, and prefer mature rather than young leaves. Roya manifests itself first as spots that grow into blotches on the underside of leaves. The blotches multiply; the leaves die back and fall.

We have seen the good effects that programs such as the Smithsonian Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance have done in support of the Central American rainforests, and coffee agricultural diversity. Some say that Roya is easier to manage when coffee is grown in sunlight as the plant leaves dry faster in sunlight, and the fungus breeds in moisture. Spaced rows of trees, it is pointed out, are easier to spray with anti-Roya agents. From other quarters we hear that shade-grown coffee protects the trees as the canopy prevents dew formation on the leaves, which lessens the opportunity for spread of the disease.

Coffee is a highly politicized crop. As The American Phytopathological Society (APS) points out in its excellent report on Rust Disease,
“In general, sun-grown coffee is produced on large, well-capitalized farms that can afford to control the rust with fungicides, the cost of which is offset by the higher yields. The small, “low-tech” producers tend to favor shade-grown coffee, which, despite its lower yields, requires less external input in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.”

Protective action on healthy plants has emerged as the method best suited to holding back the onset of Himileia Vastatrix. There are no records of it menacing other vegetation.

Bernhard Rothfos, in his exceptional book, Coffee Production, explores the cultural work that needs be done in defense of the trees. Scientifically, it appears that wider spaced trees, a dryer leaf environment, good ventilation, and good pruning and weeding practices all contribute to healthier, less susceptible trees. Spraying the leaves from below with fungicide can be therapeutic, even curative. But that does not mean that shade-grown coffee need be abandoned. It is just another challenge that shade farmers and organically certified farmers must face in their efforts to bring certified coffees to market.

Coffee destruction has social as well as economic consequences. The Coffee Trust reports that Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have declared Coffee Rust a national emergency. Where the coffee economy fails, farm families are at risk of turning to coca as a cash crop. This leads to dealing with dangerous people; increasing risk from violence, and leading to the family’s potential servitude to drug interests. Coffee means economic freedom to a smallholder, and farmer, and efforts must be made to maintain the sustainability of the coffee economy of farm families.

Poor farming practices play a role in making coffee susceptible to Roya. In a recent fundraising letter to The Coffee Trust stakeholders, Bill Fishbein noted “There is no doubt that climate change is playing a role, but so is a lack of organic farming knowledge. This has led to resource-depleted soil and a gene pool lacking diversity which has exposed coffee’s jugular vein to La Roya’s sharp edges.” The Coffee Trust is working with a group of 460 farms in the western highlands of Guatemala using Campesino a Campesino teaching methods, helping the farmers to learn soil replenishment methods to defend the plants against Roya.

According to the USAID, as reported by Reuters, “The blight is jeopardizing the livelihood and food security of about 500,000 people who make their living in the coffee industry, especially small farmers and seasonal workers.” In response to the threat, USAID has partnered with Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research in an effort to develop rust-resistant coffee varieties, and “increase the ability of Latin America’s coffee institutions to monitor and respond to outbreaks of the blight.” According to the Reuters report the USAID commitment to challenge coffee rust is now $14 million.

We must be mindful that a farm family at risk is always at risk. If people of good will and the resources to help turn away when the crisis is past, a new crisis with all its ugly consequences will appear just around the next corner. Manere Vigilemus. We must remain “Ever Watchful”.

For information sources, see our article on the web:

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