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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 379 | Marzo 2013
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Nicaragua

Who’s responsible for the coffee rust plague and what can be done?

This researcher into the rural world and facilitator of innovative organizational processes offers data, arguments and proposals in his comprehensive analysis of the coffee situation in Nicaragua in this time of a rust crisis and who shares the responsibility.

René Mendoza Vidaurre

Every day now, the news leads with articles about the advance and consequences of the rust plague that’s
severely affecting coffee crops from Mexico to Colombia. Yet small growers from Nicaragua’s coffee zones were already telling us about it in workshops we held with them in June and July of last year. I now think that we didn’t know how to listen to them. The model we use in Nicaragua’s institutions, and in society as well, is very limiting, because it doesn’t involve listening to people. Coffee farmers warned us about the rust but we didn’t pay enough attention to them. This ought to make us stop and think. It should make us realize that we all share responsibility for the coffee rust crisis, that there’s a chain of responsibilities.

What is coffee rust?

Rust is a fine fungus that adheres to the leaves of the coffee plant. The wind carries it like dust. During the coffee harvest months of November to February this year, the intensive migration of people in and out of coffee farms helped spread this fine dust even more quickly. We saw perfectly healthy farms in early January of this year that were visibly affected barely three weeks later.

You don’t need to be an expert to recognize a sick coffee tree. The rust affects its leaves, turning them yellow and droopy, and once the tree is sick, the way is prepared for an opportunistic fungus such as anthracnose to attack, completing the work the rust began. And anthracnose is more aggressive. It attacks a plant already weakened by rust, totally drying it out from top to bottom and from outside in. The coffee bushes die standing up, dry and leafless.

This marriage between rust and anthracnose can be brutal. If less than 30% of the trees in a coffee grove are affected with rust the grove can recover, but if the rust has hit more than 30% and anthracnose is present as well, it’s hard for the trees to survive.

Coffee’s importance to Nicaragua

Some 630,000 hectares of coffee are grown in Central America, about 120,000 of which are in Nicaragua. Coffee activity represents between 4% and 7% of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product—with agriculture as a whole only representing 17.4% of today’s GDP. It generates 700,000 direct jobs during the harvest period such as picking, processing, roasting and transporting, as well as many other indirect jobs in the communities. Coffee creates the most employment of any national agricultural category, which is why it’s not only descriptive but also very apt to call it the “golden bean.” It involves a lot of people and is one of the motors of our economy.

Nicaragua has an estimated 45,000 coffee growers, or more specifically coffee-growing families. Of those, the 5% that are medium-sized together with the 5% that are large grow about half of Nicaragua’s coffee. The other 90% are small growers, many of them organized into cooperatives.

These figures give us an idea of the consequences the rust and anthracnose are having and could yet have on our coffee crop. According to the International Regional Organization for Animal Health (OIRSA), 32% of Nicaragua’s coffee farms were already affected as of the end of February. That means over 38 hectares have been hit, affecting some 14,000 families, which translates to 225,000 jobs. In Honduras, 32.8% of the coffee farms are already affected, compared to only 10% in Costa Rica, but both those neighbors have already declared an emergency while Nicaragua has not. In early February, Agriculture Minister Ariel Bucardo declared that, while a state of emergency hasn’t been declared, “emergency work is already underway.” He did not, however, mention any concrete position in response to the many questions this crisis has raised.

Nicaragua’s coffee evolution

Coffee came to Nicaragua in 1845 and by 1888 it was being cultivated by German, English and US farmers. It began to expand toward northern Nicaragua in the 1920s, while Sandino was waging war there against the US Marines.

Until around 1912, Nicaragua exported its coffee just the way it came off the plant, without any drying. It was called “café uva” or coffee cherries. The two processes following picking—wet and dry processing—were done in European ports such as Hamburg where our coffee was sent. Starting in the thirties, both wet and dry processing began to be done in-country. Today we mainly export dry but unroasted, or “green,” coffee beans in hundred-pound sacks, although even more recently we have begun to export small quantities of roasted, ground and packaged coffee.

Short on quantity, but long on quality

Until the mid-nineties we only exported ordinary coffee. But some in Nicaragua began to dream of “quality” coffee, even “gourmet” coffee. Today Nicaragua ranks 37th in the world with respect to the volume of coffee it exports, but 4th in the production and export of quality coffee. We’ve earned that place largely because of the work of the coffee cooperatives, which have contributed significantly to the quality of our coffee and to Nicaragua’s reputation for quality coffee.

A full 95% of Nicaragua’s coffee is grown under shade now. And that guarantees top quality. Of the two basic species of coffee—Arabica and Robusta, Arabica is the most valued, and 100% of Nicaragua’s coffee is one of the following varieties of washed Arabica: Caturra, Bourbon, Maragogype and Catuai.

Fluctuating international coffee prices

Many factors affect international coffee prices, but what happens with the crop in Brazil, the world’s largest grower, has a huge impact. Particularly good or bad harvests there cause international prices to fluctuate accordingly.

Global factors are now weighing in increasingly heavily. Until recently, prices could be relatively reliably predicted, but a growing number of companies now speculate in coffee prices, which experts tell us is having an increasing effect on them. There are also those who say that the first thing to consider when trying to predict where prices are heading is what’s happening in China’s economy, or how the US unemployment rate is behaving.

Climate change and age
are aiding and abetting rust

Rust isn’t new in Nicaragua. We’ve always lived with this tiny fungus. The first recorded rust plague in Central America appeared in 1977, and it decimated the coffee plantations. Somoza took measures in the Carazo area with what was called the Conarca plan, and the revolutionary FSLN government continued them, but that triggered an environmental disaster and affected the viability of the peasants in the area. It was during that time that the coffee variety called caturra, which is grown without shade, was introduced.

The rust we knew then attacked coffee crops at an altitude of under 900 meters, but it has now moved higher up. Our investigations found rust beginning to propagate in coffee-growing districts in San Juan del Río Coco that are as much as 1,200 meters above sea level. In fact it started there in a coop whose coffee has won the coveted “Cup of Excellence” prize; in other words, top-quality coffee.

That means that rust isn’t respecting either altitude or quality now. We know it advances faster with heat and that a temperature change of barely two degrees centigrade favors it. Said another way, climate change is one of the causes of its appearance and expansion. Temperatures are climbing, cold zones are becoming milder and the rains are increasingly irregular: it rains when it shouldn’t, and doesn’t rain when it should. All this has favored the advance of rust.

Another factor has been the age of Nicaragua’s coffee trees. As with people and animals, new plants resist illnesses better than old ones. Some 17% of our coffee groves are over 20 years old, while an encouraging 61% are under 10 years old.

Rust is hitting organic coffee hard

The farms that produce “organic” coffee, i.e. those where the workers manage the coffee more ecologically, more organically, suffer more from rust.

There are two types of organic coffee production. One is organic in the sense that only organic fertilizers and insecticides are applied, but a good part of organic coffee production doesn’t apply any inputs, largely because the farms can’t afford to. That latter approach leaves the coffee trees especially susceptible to rust; no fertilizers or insecticides, either chemical or organic, have been applied to its foliage to provide a defense against these fungi or any other illnesses that affect the crop, such as for example “ojo de gallo” (Mycena citricolor).

What can be done when rust comes into an organic coffee grove? The only choice is to use some chemical fungicide. If the international fair trade organizations that work with organic coffee farms don’t understand this and make their requirements more flexible, these farms will leave the organic coffee market and go back to producing conventional coffee. There are now areas of our country where rust has attacked organic coffee very hard. These farms need to be permitted to use at least a low amount of chemical inputs. We obviously know that natural inputs are better, but they are harder to get, and sometimes just aren’t available in the amount needed to deal with the rust.

Nicaragua’s coffee productivity

In the past two years, Nicaraguan growers produced 2 million hundredweight of green coffee and we’ll hit roughly that amount even in this 2012-2013 cycle, despite the rust. The problems will come next year, and the following year will be even worse.

Nicaragua produces only 7 hundredweight of coffee per hectare on average, while Honduras produces nearly 12 and Costa Rica 21. This low productivity also affects the rest of our agricultural products, not just coffee. The increased volume of Nicaraguan coffee production hasn’t been achieved by improving productivity in the areas we already have, but by expanding the area under cultivation.

Good farm management helps avoid rust

In our visits, we found that well managed coffee farms aren’t being affected by rust if neighboring farms are also well managed. But it does affect them if the neighboring farms are poorly managed. The rust always starts in a micro-territory then begins to spread outward. That makes the work in all surrounding farms very important to avoid the plague.

It has been shown that rust enters more easily into both organic and conventional coffee farms where the coffee isn’t being “cultivated.” Cultivating coffee means attending to it, caring for it, being aware of what’s happening to it. It means waking up thinking about the coffee grove, going through it and tending it every day. It means pruning the branches in time, even though the tree may produce less in the immediate harvest, because they’ll produce more in the next one. It means a major pruning when needed, topping the trees to a certain height to strengthen them. It also means renewing the patch, cutting down old trees and planting new ones.

We understand perfectly well what “cultivating” means when we have a garden. The same thing happens with a farm. I was born and grew up in Bolivia, in a family of rural peasant farmers. My dad and my mom taught me what it means to be a farmer. They got me up at dawn to go around the farm with them, so I would learn what it means to cultivate. Based on that experience, and seeing what’s happening in Nicaragua’s farms, I’ve concluded that what we have in here are “harvesters,” not growers. Rust comes in more easily to farms where the coffee trees aren’t cultivated, cared for constantly. The coffee on a cooperative whose members cultivate, fumigate, foliate, meet to discuss and organize doesn’t show any signs of rust. But, even with all that, if they don’t maintain an ongoing relationship with their neighbors to be sure they also take good care of their trees, the rust will come in through them. So two things are needed to protect coffee from rust: good organization on each farm and good social networks among farms.

OIRSA has identified climate change as the cause of the rust’s advance. But we’ve identified additional causes, the first of which is poor management practices. On top of the ones mentioned above, many farmers didn’t compensate their plants for the bountiful harvest of the previous cycle (2011-2012), when they gave their all, as is typical of biannual plants such as coffee. Even with adequate cultivation this cycle’s crop wouldn’t have matched last year’s, but at least the rust wouldn’t have found the plants with their defenses down.

Why don’t coffee farmers
take better care of their trees?

The rust is coming right at a time when international coffee prices are dropping. They aren’t as low as they were in 2001, when the coffee crisis caused so many workers on farms in Matagalpa to lose their jobs and many migrated to Managua. But the lottery-win price of US$300 per hundredweight we’ve had in the past two years, right up until a few months ago, has dropped to $140-150 a hundredweight. Combined with this drop in international prices, the rust has caused alarm in the countryside for the next cycle.

We’ve traveled through a lot of municipalities and met with farmers who have malnourished coffee groves. When we ask them why they didn’t manage their plants better, the first thing they tell us is “We don’t have any money.” But in the past seven years, and particularly in the past two, we’ve had the best international prices coffee ever, so why don’t the coffee growers have any money?

Short-term thinking. The first reason, to repeat, is that many of our farmers are “harvesters”: they don’t cultivate the coffee. And coffee trees need a lot of care. There are growers who only have 630 coffee trees per hectare, when a good farm ought to have 1,750 and a really well-managed one can have 2,450. But since they’re only interested in the harvest, they don’t want to prune the tree so it’ll produce more next year; all they think about is the immediate earnings from this harvest. Even though they’ve been told that pruned plants will produce better and over a longer period of time, all they think is that cutting back branches will reduce their immediate harvest. Nor do they want to top the trees to strengthen them, much less get rid of old plants. They don’t think about the long term, just about the next harvest.

Dependency-creating futures buyers. Another reason they don’t have money is that it has run out by May or June for many peasant families with small coffee patches. And that’s when “futures” buyers—dealers the farmers call “vinagreros” (vinegar makers)—start coming around offering to buy their future harvest at a low but set price. If the going international price is $150 per hundredweight, they only offer the farmer $45. And their usual payment scheme is what they refer to as 15-15-15: $15 a month over three months. About 40% of Nicaragua’s small coffee growers accept the deal, sometimes year after year, thus creating a vicious cycle of selling their future crop at a low price —> running out of money before harvest time —>needing to sell the crop early… In the end, what the coffee farmer harvests in December or January has already been bought and paid for; all the farmer is doing is managing what already belongs to the buyer.

It’s easy to think those buyers are huge exploiters. But it’s not quite that simple. The futures buyer has a pretty good chance of making a killing at those prices, but he can’t always accurately predict that far in advance what will happen to international prices. Depending on what happens to the coffee crops in the rest of the world by harvest time, he runs some risk of barely recovering his investment. What’s in it for the farm family is that it gets out of its money crunch and doesn’t have to worry (or dream, of course) about what could happen to coffee prices by harvest time. But it provides little money or subjective incentive to invest time or money in caring for the crop.

Moreover, the financial need among poor farmers and the timely appearance of the merchants create very strong social networks between the two in the countryside. Imagine a peasant family living in an isolated district with little or no money. What will it do if a son gets sick? Taking out a loan from a bank involves time, paperwork and collateral, none of which the family has. But the futures buyer doesn’t ask for any of that; he just gives the money in exchange for the harvest and earns the eternal gratitude of the family because he showed up to «help» them out of their crisis. And let’s not forget that the further a peasant family lives from the rural highway, the more vinagreros there are, because there’s a greater need for them, and in turn the more dependent social networks are created around them.

One obvious lesson from this is that rust can be fought against by opening more and more rural roads, which is the State’s responsibility. A lack of roads is an open invitation to usurers and vinagreros. More roads make usurers tremble, because they mean more resources, more information and more markets.

Post-harvest venders on credit. Yet another reason small coffee growers don’t have money is that even if they aren’t so desperate they fall prey to the futures buyers who start singing their siren song in May, the ones who come around in December, January and February, once the harvest has been picked and sold, are venders who bring all manner of attractive goods—gilt mirrors, furniture, sound equipment, household appliances—and offer “easy credit” payable by the month, even the week. Pretty soon the earnings from the harvest are spent.

Low wages means sloppy work. We also need to keep in mind that many Nicas migrate to other countries at coffee-picking time in search of better wages. Those from the northern part of Nicaragua go to Honduras, where the pay is a little higher, while those from more southern areas go to Costa Rica, where it’s even better. How is it possible that we pay our pickers so little when Nicaragua produces such good quality coffee? That’s another reason for the crisis: those who earn less work less and more sloppily, breaking branches and stripping them of their foliage. And that also weakens our coffee trees.

Our technical assistance is part
of the problem, not the solution

Looking at all these factors, we have to recognize that crosscutting causes of the rust’s advance include scarcity of money, lack of knowledge and devaluation of local know-how. And this is where we have to talk about the deficiencies of Nicaragua’s technical assistance. Technical assistance is very necessary when the land is tired. Any farmer can recognize exhausted land. A grower from San Juan del Río Coco explained it to me this way: “I had confidence in my little piece of land. Whatever I planted in it grew for me, but starting a few years ago the land has become unreliable. I felt bad about the idea of topping my coffee trees and now people feel bad for me.” Twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, that farmer, like many others, had no need to throw fertilizer on his land, because it was rich black, loamy soil. Whatever he planted—corn, beans or whatever—grew for him. But while the farmer held on to that old idea, the land’s fertility began to be depleted.

Nicaragua needs to increase the productivity of all its crops, most urgently coffee. But that requires knowledge. The old formula of increasing production by buying more land no longer works. That’s the way it has always been in Nicaragua; it’s called extensive technology. But we’ve reached that road’s dead end. Looking at the map of Nicaragua we can see there’s nowhere to go toward the west, and no more agricultural frontier to the east.

We have to move toward intensive technology…

Our only road is to increase productivity in the existing coffee groves, to move toward intensive technology. And to do that, people need to know more, learn more, listen more, ask more questions, get around more, have more friends… And all that has to do with technical assistance.

Getting out of the current crisis has a lot to do with rethinking everything we’ve been doing. The fundamental task is to transform “harvesters” into growers in the “peasant farmer country” of north-central Nicaragua where coffee is grown. Since crop areas can no longer be extended in that area, production has to be improved in the area already sown. But for the small grower that shouldn’t mean increasing the volume of coffee plants, which is the logic of big business. The small growers’ logic is different, or should be: it should still be about how much they can produce in an area, but not how much of a single crop, in this case coffee. The productivity goal should include shaking off the mono-cropping approach, instead expanding the number of crops. Doing that also promotes and increases women’s participation and the family’s health.

…and transform the technical assistance

We need to transform the technical assistance the country provides, but that doesn’t mean increasing the number of agricultural technicians, because Nicaragua is already crawling with them. There isn’t a second-tier cooperative that doesn’t have technicians, sometimes up to 15 or 18 of them, although not all first-tier cooperatives have them. The businesses that sell inputs also have technicians; CISA-Agro, for example, has tons of them. NGOs have technicians; the State has technicians; in fact the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) is all about forming technicians. Even the fair trade organizations require technicians on the farms they work with to export their coffee.

We recently met with youths from the small northern community of Peñas Blancas and discovered that 13 of them were either studying agronomy or something linked to agriculture, or had already graduated in the same field. In that community alone! The same was true in a community called San Lucas, near San Juan del Río Coco: 12 technicians!

The rust isn’t respecting all these technicians either. Why? Because most coop technicians busy themselves estimating the harvest to know how much coffee has to be collected, how much labor is needed, etc. For their part, the technicians of companies such as CISA are busy selling its inputs, promoting them as the solution to any problem; that’s all they do. Meanwhile, the NGO technicians often work as credit collaborators and the technicians on organic coffee cooperatives are dedicated to recording data for the quality certifiers.

Not once have I ever found these technicians really studying their data with the growers, even though they are very interesting. These data could help them put their heads together with the growers about how to get the certifiers to adapt their standards to local conditions, but that’s not what they do.

We’ve also found young technicians who are trying to break out of the mold, but they tell us: “My dad won’t let me.” When the son says, “Look dad, let’s do such and such,” the answer is always, “Over my dead body, son; as long as I’m alive I’m in charge here!” And if the son replies, “Okay then, give me a little piece of the farm so I can experiment with what I’ve learned,” the father typically tells him “The pig doesn’t release its lard until it dies!” So many fathers, stuck in their old ways, won’t let the son who has gone to school experiment with anything on his land until the father is dead and buried.

We need technicians willing to
exchange knowledge with the farmers

So we have lots of technicians, but they aren’t really assisting technically. The Nicaraguan model is very top down, and it doesn’t take the farm families’ know-how and experience into account. It doesn’t see that there are technicians out there in the field; it provides prescriptions without even examining the patient. Just as each patient is different, so is each farm, each plot, each family’s experience, each coffee variety. The very word is evidence of the error: the technician goes to “assist,” as if he or she is the only one with any knowledge and the farmer doesn’t know anything. That old vision doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. The growers have knowledge. What we need are technicians willing to exchange knowledge with them.

That type of technical assistance requires changing the model. We have to recover Paulo Freire’s pedagogical model, which would help us transform the traditional technical assistance model into technical interchange. We also need the model to include financial education, and by that I don’t mean simply telling people to stop spending their resources on household appliances for credit, but helping them think about the wisest use of their resources before they spend them, about whether it really makes sense to end up in debt every year from these purchases.

Institutionality plays a major
role in the advance of rust

We’ve identified two major factors behind the advance of rust: money and technical assistance, and the deficiencies related to both. The third has to do with institutionality. When we compare Nicaragua with the other Central American countries we see huge gaps between their institutionality and Nicaragua’s with respect to coffee. Both Honduras and Costa Rica, for example, have a Coffee Institute. And in Guatemala they’ve also been studying varieties and mixes, and have a greater capacity to prevent and respond rapidly to crises. In Nicaragua we only have CONACAFE, which a forum rather than an institution. CONACAFE only started having a budget two years ago, charging each member US$0.10 per hundredweight of coffee it produced. But two growers balked and took their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled on their side, leaving CONACAFE with no working budget. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish!

Two ministers coordinate CONACAFE, the minister of promotion, industry and commerce and the minister of agriculture and forestry, both of whom also coordinate 30 other commissions. How much time do they have for coffee? Honduras’ Coffee Institute is coordinated by a grower, and it’s streamlined. The Honduran authorities have already declared a plant health emergency because of the rust, as has Costa Rica, where only 10% of the coffee growing areas have been damaged so far. And what has been done in Nicaragua? Nothing.

In 1971 the Inter-American Institute of Cooperation for Agriculture (IICA) founded the Regional Cooperative Program for the Technological Development and Modernization of Coffee Cropping (PROMECAFE) to do research to improve and develop modern technology in the region’s coffee cultivation. That year PROMECAFE did battle with the borer plague detected in Guatemala and five years later the rust plague that appeared in Nicaragua. But if we go into PROMECAFE’s web page today, Nicaragua isn’t there, even though PROMECAFE is an organization that channels both resources and technology.

Some growers in Nicaragua are saying that the solution to the rust attack is to change the variety of coffee, to switch from caturra to catimor. But we get lower coffee quality with catimor, and Nicaragua shouldn’t lower the quality of its coffee. Besides, that variety isn’t disease free; it’s easily attacked by “ojo de gallo.” What is CONACAFE’s position on this whole debate? It isn’t saying anything. In crises like this it’s important and necessary to have an institution that gets involved.

I’ve been going around to the cooperatives a lot, encouraging them to present a joint position on the rust emergency because they know the most about the quality of the coffee. But the cooperatives aren’t raising their voice, or taking a position either. I think they would in other circumstances, but given that many of their leaders are now wearing other political hats, they don’t want or dare to take a public position. The cooperative sector is important in number and the cooperatives should play a role through the Coffee Network and the Latin American Coordinating Body of Fair Trade Producers (CLAC), of which Nicaragua has the presidency. But the way the cooperatives are organized limits their assuming leadership at this crucial moment.

What will happen to the
farmers’ income and debts?

With the current rust crisis, there’s a risk that some grower families and cooperatives won’t be able to deliver the amount of coffee they promised to the vinagreros, thus hitting their economy even harder. Similarly, there’s a risk that those who took out loans to cover their midyear financial insolvency won’t be able to honor their debts, which in turn will affect the respective micro-financing institutions (MFIs). The big private banks will be spared because they hardly finance any agricultural activity.

Three or four years ago Nicaragua’s MFIs went through a crisis due to the “Non-Payment Movement” of agricultural producers. As a consequence of the militant, even violent behavior of this movement’s members and their refusal to pay their arrears, agricultural credit decreased significantly. Both the risk of defaults and the resulting higher cost of lending capital on the market led the MFIs to reduce their agricultural portfolio and clients or even abandon the countryside altogether. In many places their insertion into the countryside had pushed out the vinagreros because they offered the farmers better conditions, but a good number came back once the Non-Payment members forced some of the MFIs out. So I think the rust is also one of the consequences of that micro-financing crisis, since a number of MFIs don’t just loan money but actually advise their clients on good practices.

This time the rust hit at harvest time, too late to significantly damage the coffee, but what will happen next year? Growers who decide to cut down their old and sick trees and plant new ones to deal with the plague will have to wait at least three years before the new plants start producing coffee and earnings. What will they eat during those years of waiting? The territories hard hit by the rust will undoubtedly experience serious poverty.

Demands and proposals

Diverse voices in the country are expressing their demands and proposals in the rust crisis. The main demands are to quantify the amount of damage, provide inputs, and indemnify affected small producers and support them in renewing coffee. At the end of January, the government, together with OIRSA, launched the Campaign for Plant Health Management in the Coffee Plantations of Nicaragua, which consists of training 150 technicians and 15,000 growers. Despite that we can’t expect the State to resolve this crisis. It has a very important role, but it has given clear signs that there won’t be subsidies. Nor will the bank debts be restructured or subsidized financing given to renew the coffee plantations.

No huge studies are required. All that’s needed is to talk to the growers, from whom a lot of information can be obtained. Quarantine has to be declared and prioritized attention given to the affected zones. If this isn’t done there will be areas of real misery, and misery is contagious.

The response can’t be merely technical. It has to be combined with an economic component. If the solution is to renew the coffee plantations, what will their owners eat for the next three years? Alongside renewing their coffee groves, the peasant families have to plant maize, which is ready to harvest in four months; beans, which are ready in two; and plantains and bananas, which are ready in a year.

Thinking only of coffee is the mentality of big coffee growers, but 90% of the growers are small-scale and used to diversifying the crops on their farms. They need to be supported in that.

The environmental aspect also needs to be considered. Given that coffee is a relatively tall tree, it contributes to the environment. And coffee cultivated with even taller shade trees does so even more. Renewing the coffee groves often involves cutting down the trees under which the coffee is grown. But that requires more flexible environmental policies right now since cutting down trees is prohibited. Renewing the coffee plantation can also affect the soil, because the rains wash away the bared soil more easily. Planting maize, beans and other crops along the “roads” between the coffee trees can avoid this.

We need to think in various directions, not only the technical one, which isn’t enough. We need to seek technical, economic and environmental responses.

Examples of good practices

These times of rust offer experiences we can learn from, because rust can be dealt with by combining good technical assistance with timely credit and the family’s organization around the coffee.

Here is what we found with a quick survey done last December by the Nicaraguan micro-financing institution Local Development Fund (FDL) involving 40% of its 2,424 clients who grow coffee in the north-central part of the country. An impressive 92% of them said they are having no problems with either the rust or their credit repayment, which was due between then and March of this year, with the coffee-growing areas in the midst of the crisis. What was their secret? Among other things, these growers cultivate and manage their farms well, with some of them achieving yields of 56 hundredweight per hectare. They think about the practices they employ on their farms, organize their families and work as a group.

We found another positive experience in the Solidarity Cooperative of Matagalpa, which exports coffee and works with the international Fair Trade networks. The rust hasn’t entered there either. What was its secret? Among other things, about three years ago they started combining technical assistance and the purchase and application of inputs, credit and organizational policies. By agreement with the cooperative, its associates prune and top a fifth of their coffee trees each year, thus breaking with the biannual myth in coffee, which says that a good harvest year is inevitably followed by a bad one; with this formula they get a good, stable harvest every year. And because they export, they get credit from international financial institutions. They have agreements with companies that sell chemical inputs with two months of grace for the payment. The coop gives its associates the $5 per hundredweight from Fair Trade to increase productivity, but gives it in inputs not cash, and the particular inputs depend on the stage in the production cycle; furthermore the coop’s technician supervises the associates’ fulfillment of the commitment to apply the inputs at the moment agreed to. “If we give them the $5 per quintal in cash,” the coop president tells us, “the growers have a hundred other things to spend it on.”

These experiences are encouraging. They and the rest of this information provide a picture of the country’s coffee situation and show that the rust isn’t just a problem for coffee growers; nor are they the only ones responsible. I hope I’ve shared one central idea: this is a national and also an international problem in which we are all links in the chain of responsibilities.

René Mendoza is the director of the Nitlapan research institute of the Central American University (UCA).

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