MANAGUA, Nicaragua— Warming weather conditions throughout Central America have given rise to an extremely persistent fungus that is destroying billions of dollars worth of coffee beans in the region. The rust, called roya in Spanish, overwhelmingly affects Arabica plants, which are used in the production of high-end coffee drinks.
If the rust continues its rampage, consumers can expect the price of their cups of coffee to rise, even as its quality sinks. More troubling, however, is the crisis faced by rural coffee farmers in Central America who rely on coffee production to put food on their tables.
In line with Obama’s Feed the Future plan, USAID has joined forces with the World Coffee Research Center at Texas A&M University to search for ways to contain and eradicate the aggressive fungus. Efforts are currently focused on the countries at greatest risk, specifically Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica.
In Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, one in three working people relies on coffee production to make a living. The tiny fruit makes up 20 percent of Nicaragua’s GDP. Yet it is predicted that 80 percent of Nicaragua’s current coffee-producing land will be unusable for this purpose by 2050 due to the effects of climate change.
The fungus Hemileia vastarix covers the Latin American coffee plants’ leaves in a rusty orange coating, eating holes wherever it touches. The berries are infected and turn from polished red to moldy grey. Warm weather and wetter conditions are ideal for the growth of many rusts, so these types of plant diseases are becoming more common in certain regions as temperatures rise.
One report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that a temperature increase of only 2 degrees Celsius could dramatically decrease land area useable for coffee cultivation. Central American coffee producers have collectively experienced a 30 percent drop in production over the past two years.
The U.S. government estimates that 500,000 jobs are currently endangered by the fungus. The livelihoods of farmers, families and entire communities are at risk. Small-scale farmers do not have the adequate resources to fight the spreading rust, and without coffee income, their families go hungry. Children are kept in fields to scavenge rather than being sent to school to study. Instability and violence persist.
Droughts, blights, glacial retreat and extreme weather plunge already struggling areas into deeper distress. Climate change is a grim issue that merits serious attention. Latin America is all too familiar with the consequences of climate change on ecosystems, economies and society, and is working hard to deal with its effects. Latin America has emerged as the primary region proactively pushing for global change in environmental policy. Other countries must learn from Latin America’s example and see that climate change is connected to global poverty, economic loss and instability. It is a problem that can’t be ignored.