Coffee rust, a fungus that attacks the leaves of coffee trees, can seriously impact both the quantity and the quality of coffee beans produced. In 2012, Central America was hit with the most severe coffee rust epidemic the region has ever seen. The outbreak has had devastating effects on regional coffee production, with harvest losses during the 2012-2013 season reaching 20%, or 2.8 million bags. These losses cost the region an estimated $500 million and 265,000 jobs. Fifty percent of Central America has been affected, with El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras being the hardest hit.

The situation spells bad news for the region’s economy as a whole, but even more so for the rural smallholders who work in the coffee farming industry. According to the Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration, coffee production in Central American countries accounts for between 1 and 8% of GDP and between 12 and 33% of agricultural production. Coffee also plays a significant role in Central America’s exports, accounting for 7.9% of total exports in 2013. An estimated 80% of coffee farmers in Central America are rural smallholders, and these farmers often have no alternative ways to earn a livelihood. When the epidemic hit in 2012, the demand for farm labor dropped between 16 and 32 %, and farm wages also decreased significantly. As a result, as many as 160,000 rural families have been pushed into food insecurity and poverty.

It is estimated that $297 million will be needed to assist these vulnerable households. IFPRI researchers Valeria Piñeiro, Sam Morley and Pablo Elverdin are investigating ways in which governments in the region can come together to enact disease control strategies to help prevent future rust outbreaks. Such strategies are in reality quite simple, ranging from adequate fertilization and the use of chemical control agents to the planting of rust-resistant varietals. But when coffee production diminishes, as it did in 2012, smaller farmers may stop investing in techniques to prevent or cure rust, as the costs of these methods cannot be covered by the farms’ lowered profits.

Immediate action to address the disease needs to extend across countries in order to be effective, says Piñeiro. Such action should consist of an integrated rust management system, technical assistance to rural producers, phytosanitary campaigns, a regional disease outbreak alert system, and funding to increase the use of genetically resistant plants and plant renewal programs. While several pilot programs have sprung up since 2012 to help small farmers deal with the presence of coffee rust, these efforts will need to be significantly stepped up in order to be truly effective.

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