Don Felix Faustino García watched as coffee leaf rust spread through the state, expanding further and further every year until one day it reached the edge of his coffee plantation, located in the municipality of Santa María Yucuhiti, Oaxaca. It was then that Don Felix resorted to prayers and burned copal incense in an effort to scare away the “orange plague”.
It worked, although faith was not the only tool used by this Mixtec coffee farmer, who is justly proud of the way he manages his plot of land. He is well aware of the fact that more foliage means more soil protection, since leaves that fall from shade trees provide compost and protection from erosion, and of the power of nature’s cycles: “We have to do low pruning when there’s a new moon, because that is when the sap is concentrated in the stem so you’re more likely to get shoots”.
Before the harvest, he puts organic compost into the soil: pulped cherry peel mixed with chicken manure and ashes. “A good fistful, like this, mixed it with the soil to make terraces for the plants will stop the pests or diseases from affecting it as much,” he explains.
Once the harvest is over, which takes place from November to February in Mexico, farmers carry out the pruning or farm work, which is when they “do their spring cleaning”. They remove all the dry stalks and prune the coffee bushes during the dry season to give the trunks time to grow shoots.
Don Félix does all this lovingly and in return, his land has been spared the blight. However, his case is an exception, since according to the State Coordinator of Oaxaca Coffee Producers (CEPCO) the disease has returned production to 1959 levels. Although in recent years Mexico produced up to five million sacks of parchment coffee, the forecast for the 2015-16 cycle is just 2.2 million bags.
Within CEPCO, where the decline has been lower than the national average, this year and last year, they collected 13,000 and 16,000 quintals of coffee respectively, whereas the volume in 2013-14 was 20,000 quintals, according to Miguel Tejero, advisor to this coffee organization.
“Coffee rust has a number of effects. One of them is a complicated concept for farmers, which is sadness. Farmers are despondent. Suddenly their plots of land, which were once a source of pride, have no leaves or fruit and many of the coffee plants have dried out. This has really knocked the stuffing out of a lot of small coffee farmers,” Miguel explains in an interview.
Coping with Coffee Leaf Rust
The situation is critical, but farmers affiliated to CEPCO have designed a three-pronged strategy: renewal, diversification and food self-sufficiency.
“We have a large-scale program for the renovation of coffee plantations that most of the coffee farmers have enrolled in. The project has already begun with the distribution of plants, which will be followed by seedbeds and nurseries on a massive scale,” says Tejero. He explains that although new strains will be introduced such as the Aztec Gold and Geisha, the priority will be to continue with varieties that have already adapted to Oaxaca’s mountains such as Typica, Bourbon and Mundo Novo and to select the most pest-resistant seeds.
In the lower-lying, warmer areas where coffee plantations have been devastated by coffee leaf rust, CEPCO is debating whether to diversify or even replace coffee with other productive activities that also involve agro-ecological management, such as beekeeping, or the production of bamboo, cocoa or forest species.
However, strengthening the milpa system has been essential to coping with the disease since CEPCO’s diagnosis predicts a food and social crisis in most of the coffee regions. In this context, planting corn, beans and squash –in other words, a milpa– could guarantee food supplies for peasant families.
It is worth mentioning that although the Mexican and Central American coffee world is going through extraordinarily difficult times, the government’s response and the use of its resources has been discretionary, inefficient and non-transparent, according to the National Coordinator of Coffee Organizations (CNOC):
“The unilateral management by SAGARPA (Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishing and Agriculture) of certain programs and its unwillingness to coordinate with the National Coffee Product System has led to a lack of transparency, wasted resources and inefficiency. A case in point is the coffee producers’ register, which is a long way behind schedule yet SAGARPA is refusing to accept suggestions from the farmers’ sector. Technified nurseries have often been poorly constructed while the substrate used has failed to produce the desired results”.
On the other hand, coffee leaf rust accelerated a chain reaction that had already begun to be felt by coffee-growing families: young people’s abandonment of rural productive activities, coupled with their parents’ aging, which leaves us wondering whether it was worth fighting for something if the new generations no longer want it.
“Who wants to stay here and continue working on their families’ coffee plantations after they graduate?”, we asked a classroom full of restless teenagers in the town of Zaragoza, in the municipality of Santa Cruz Itundujia in Oaxaca.
Earlier on, when we inquired whether they were farmers’ children, nearly all of them raised their hands. But a few moments later, only a sprinkling of these middle school students said they wanted to continue working on the family plot. The rest looked down, clenching their fists in their pockets or crossing their arms, rejecting the very idea.
“The coffee my parents had got rust fungus and it might get another disease later on,” says one of the students called Blanca Estela.
The scene is repeated when we interview members of other school groups. Those who feel brave enough to talk to us say they want to migrate to the capital of Oaxaca and Michoacán to continue their studies. Others pluck up courage and admit that they will try to cross the border into the United States where their cousins, uncles and aunts or parents are waiting for them.
Again the vast majority raises their hands when we ask if their families’ plots of land have been affected by coffee leaf rust. The main culprit for this generation gap appears to be coffee rust, or at least what it represents in the farmers’ imagination: uncertainty, as described by Luz Violeta:
“I think you’re talking about pests, aren’t you? In the countryside, you never know whether you’ll get a good or bad crop. Pests or incidents such as forest fires can easily wipe out production, which is why many coffee growers are left without the resources they previously had. You can never entirely cover your basic needs, which is why many of us do not want to stay here”.
Fair Trade for Responsible Coffee
In addition to the renewal, diversification and self-sufficiency strategies employed by CEPCO to cope with the crisis in the countryside, for a number of years, the coffee cooperative federation has been seeking better ways to sell its products by using fair trade schemes, offering its products in different markets and incorporating those who purchase micro-lots into their client portfolio. They have also been certified as organic, shade and bird-friendly coffee producers. These good practices contribute to reducing polluting emissions and increasing the income from their coffee.
“The coffee system is currently undergoing a crisis not only because of diseases such as coffee leaf rust but also because of prices. Although the farmer does most of the work, his efforts are not reflected in the money he makes. Through complementary activities such as organic production and habitat, bird, epiphyte and mammal conservation, our farmers try to earn a bit more money,” explains Cristian Ortiz, the son and grandson of farmers.
“If we let the client or consumer know we providing more benefits, then we can ask for a higher price for this product”.