Tag Archives: coffee rust

Attack the coffee rust or make the peasant economy viable?

René Mendoza V. and Edgar Fernández

With the collaboration of Wilber Martínez, Edmundo López, Yeris Lanzas, Hulda Miranda, Eliseo Miranda, Pablo Gurdián y Misael Gurdián

 I trusted my land, what I put into it, it gave back to me; for some years now it has become unreliable; now my coffee field is sick. It was sad to cut down the plants, now I am sad.

Small producer from El Ojoche, San Juan del Río Coco

Different voices in the country are expressing their demands and proposals about the coffee rust problem. The principal demand is that the dimension of the damage be quantified, that inputs be provided, that the small-scale producers affected be compensated and be supported in the renovation of their coffee. The government has responded saying that even though they have not declared a state of emergency, they “are already working on the emergency.” (A. Bucardo, La Prensa, 2-3-13), and that “officials from various ministries are working on a national strategy to fight the coffee rust, so that in the coming weeks we will be obtaining solutions to this terrible plague that has affected the coffee fields.” (R. Murillo, La Prensa, 2-2-13). In other words, subsidies in chemical inputs to fight the rust are not coming, nor is the restructuring of bank debts nor subsidized financing for the renovation of coffee fields. This situation leads to the solutions being achieved in a rather shared form among the government, the cooperatives, the associations, the companies and the producer families, a consensus that could also be supported by international organizations as well, like the IADB, FAO, the European Union and organziations that work with coffee, like international fair trade and organic coffee certifiers. This article seeks to provide support for this scenario in a concrete way by discerning the dimension of the problem, explaining the very reductionist dominant vision, and providing clues for a vision that might respond to the majority of the producer families.

The coffee rust, and through that opportunistic door, antracnosis, is a reality difficult to ignore; the marriage of coffee rust-antracnosis is leaving the coffee trees standing dead upright. Nevertheless, its advance and effects are not generalized, they vary from one micro-territory to another. The more concentrated the areas of organic and conventional coffees, the poor management of the coffee farms (producers turned into “harvesters” without technical assistance), and weak social capital (prevalence of crop lien lenders, cooperatives removed from their members), the more affected they are. The families in these micro-territories are already feeling the reduction in their income, there is the risk that they will not honor their debts nor the coffee they have committed to turn in (under crop liens), which will weaken their cooperatives and financial institutions. This will restrict credit just when they most need it to restructure their farms (cut down bad plants, renovate, apply fungicides, fertilize, manage plant tissue) and to survive. Then the next cycle will come and – with or without renovation – they will harvest even less than now…and given that the damage of the coffee rust in Central America is being accompanied by coffee prices going down, in these micro-territories what is coming is high indebtedness, organic coffee converted into conventional coffees, possible change in variety that would affect the coffee quality that the country has obtained, cooperative bankruptcy, dispossession of land, and the possible arrival of impoverishment.

The dominant question for responding to this situation has been: How to attack the specific problem of the coffee rust and rescue the coffee fields? At first light this question presupposes a technocratic vision, hiding the causes that created it, making believe that things get resolved only with external resources; it is short term which ignores the consequences in the medium and long term, and is expressed in these times by both those who are demanding attention as well as by those who are announcing policies. Consequently, companies are offering chemical inputs as a panacea to the coffee rust, and some desperate producers are trying to acquire them, without it being the proper moment to apply them, and without thinking about what their coffee and their farm really needs. What is being talked about is the promise of the renovation of the coffee fields, which implies doing nurseries in three months starting now, receiving income for that recently renovated coffee in 3 years, and the worst is that these promises are tempting the producers “to wait” while the coffee rust-antracnosis marriage “is not waiting”, it is advancing like the spread of an oil spill. This medicine is unconvincing, the absence of shared solutions (not necessarily common) is losing time that is more valuable in the face of the coffee rust-antracnosis, and favors more a logic of the large companies – coffee growers and sellers of chemical inputs – deepening the culture of dependency, and ignores the fact that this situation is rather an indicator of an unequal model of coffee growing that has left the small producers without the proper conditions for restructuring their farms.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is: How to make the peasant economy viable, which is where the majority of the coffee producers are. This question assumes a more holistic vision that includes the technical, economic, environmental and social aspects; it is short term to the extent that it is also long term, and it is a thinking that expresses the peasant perspective. In what follows we will talk about 3 elements proposed under this framework.  First, we need to respond seeking a balance between the technical and economic aspects; the renovation should be with resistant varieties and mixed among varieties that provide a good cup (coffee quality); in renovating the coffee fields, the peasant families should plant beans, corn and plaintains in the corridors, which will generate income in the short term which they urgently need, and in the medium term establish the culture of crop association (coffee+basic grains+plaintains).

Secondly, the technical-economic approach needs to be combined with the environmental approach. The regulation of shade, complete pruning and renovation leaves the soil coverage unprotected in the face of the impact of the rain, so the solution mentioned of planting basic grains and plaintains in their corridors is also an environmental response, because it will help to protect the topsoil. With the regulation of shade (thinning because of high density, thinning for coffee renovation), INAFOR should apply their policies in a flexible manner to allow the peasant families to take advantage of the wood trees on their farms – that income will help them to honor their debts and to invest in their farms.

Organic coffee appears to be more vulnerable to the coffee rust and antracnosis, because a good part of that coffee is organic only because chemical inputs are not applied on it (fertilizers and insecticides), but nor are organic inputs applied, and because those coffee fields generally are farther away from the highways and in the hands of the poor strata of the population, who make their coffee profitable through extensive technology – “what I put into it, it gave back to me” said the producer from El Ojoche in the quote at the beginning of the article. It is important, then, that the cooperatives mobilize so that their members provide good management to their coffee plots, that their technicians really provide technical assistance, and try to get these certifiers to adapt their norms to the local conditions that the current situation deserves.

Organic coffee certainly requires attention. Those who stipulate the prohibitions on the use of chemical inputs are OCIA, Biolatina, Naturland, the European Union and the Government of the United States. Fair Trade/FLO cert prohibits the most toxic ones that have been internationally condemned. The cooperatives should coordinate with those certifiers to be flexible in their policies, permitting the low use of chemical inputs in the organic coffee fields, in order to effectively counteract the coffee rust and antracnosis. On the other hand, since April 2011 Fair Trade has demanded that at least US$5 of the social premium be used to increase the productivity of the farms; the cooperatives should seek to get most of the amount of the premium to be used to make the peasant economy viable, and that the technicians who are recording data for the certifiers would analyze the data jointly with the producers. Without greater flexibility in the policies and without effective accompanyment for the conversion of their farms, the organic coffee producers, in particular those who are fertilizing with organic fertilizer, will turn toward conventional coffee (and toward UTZ and Rainforest certifications, that are competing with Fair Trade), and if they obstinately persist in remaining organic, they as well as their farms will “look pathetic”.

Thirdly, in contrast to most of the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region and the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region, the central northern region of the country does not have any more agricultural frontier to expand into, which is why intensification of their agriculture is their only option, whose viability (the productivity of their land, labor and capital) depends on the producers expanding and generating knowledge. The land has become unreliable: the culture of extensive agriculture IS NO LONGER profitable. In the face of this reality, it requires technical assistance coordinated between producers, “barefoot” grassroots technicians (promoters) and experts, which should happen in the form of alliances between different organizations and structures for the generation of local knowledge which coincide in the specific micro-territories. This technical assistance should include financial education: instead of taking on debt with businesses like Gallo más Gallo and Verdugo over “luxury consumption”, learning to calculate costs, plan, prevent risks, save, and know how to invest; instead of alcoholism, that along with “luxury consumption” absorbed the income from coffee, organizing the members of the family with different roles to diversify their economies. The experience of NITLAPAN-UCA, and of the LDF microfinance institution, shows that the small producers appreciate the technical assistance when it helps them to increase their productivity and prevent diseases like coffee rust and antracnosis. This increase in productivity reduces their per quintal costs, and generates more income and knowledge for them. If technical assistance, credit and good markets are combined in specific territories, along with good organizations, the families improve their lives, the coffee rust flees, the culture of no payment recedess, and the peasant economy is made viable.

Supported by these points, a new type of producer can emerge, producers who observe and study the behavior of the coffee varieties on their farms, choose the most resistant plants to obtain seed from their own farm, mix it with what later makes the “cup”. They are producers that understand that the problem is not the variety of the coffee, nor whether it is organic or conventional, but the management of their farm and the social capital in their territory; do not restrict themselves to the State, but take risks and shedding aside their “sympathy” for their trees prunes them, cutting them off at the stem, renovating, reorganizing themselves from their families and localities, seeking technical assistance and implementing what is agreed upon with the technicians about what to do on their farm, and when they get credit and good income, feed their farms and feed the knowledge of their families, which are “the hen that is laying the golden eggs.”

These points should also be talked through and negotiated with the organizations and institutions. The state institutions should respond with clear policies (e.g. INAFOR with wood trees on farms) and be prepared with social compensation measures for the situations that are coming. Organizations like CONCAFE should coordinate with homologous organizations in Central America to obtain varieties of coffee that are resistant to diseases and at the same time provide a good cup (high quality scoring higher than 83 points), and thus avoid the risk that everyone in the country goes for the catimor variety that tends to cup below 81-82 points, because of its wooden task and its robusta origin. The grassroots cooperatives should be a space for looking for concrete and quick solutions in each micro-territory; the second tier cooperatives for negotiating – supported by the Coffee Network and the Latin American Coordinator of Fair Trade Coffee Producers (CLAC) – with the international fair trade organizations on being flexible with their policies, and for the promotion of  collaboration for more learning among certifiers, technicians and producers. The financial institutions, far from being frightened off, should enter into an alliance with organizations that are innovating in technical assistance and in participatory quick assessments, and with cooperatives that are located in those same territories. The traditional technical assistance (who have been turned into sellers of chemical inputs, messengers of the boards of directors, debt collectors and data collectors for the certifiers), need to turn into facilitators that co-create and trade knowledge with different actors (producers, cooperatives, microfinance organizations, institutions that do research and provide technical assistance, certifiers and fair trade organizations) that have an impact on the territories.

In pursuit of shared solutions within a framework of consensus among different actors, the challenge is mobilizing intentions, forces, and opening attitudes to work with the families of the small producers in specific micro-territories, as well as making a commitment to peasant viability: productive reorganization is a reality in which extensive agriculture is no longer profitable and intensive agriculture is the way – at least in the central region of the country where most of the coffee in the country is found.

Coffee rust: A challenge for rethinking agricultural production

René Mendoza V, René Gómez F., Marcelo Rodríguez, Manuel Bermúdez and Edgar Fernández

Coffee rust, a disease produced by the Hemileia vastatrix fungus, according to CONCAFE is going to affect 30% of the coffee area which is 172,000 manzanas, according to FUNICA the coffee harvest from this cycle will be 400,000-500,000 quintals smaller, and also due to the low coffee prices, APEN states that we are going to export US$ 70 million dollars less, and CETREX says it will be US$ 100 million less. In the face of this situation, different sectors are saying that they do not have credit, that their coffee is up to 40 years old, and they are demanding a program from the State: coffee renovation (CONCAFE talks about 65,000 manzanas, 38% of the total), support for fertilizers and chemical inputs, and training for technicians. In this article, before rushing into doing estimates, resorting to old technical prescriptions and sticking our hands out for resources, we invite people to study this case and seek real solutions.

Let´s start by asking ourselves what is happening with the coffee rust. Coffee rust is a fungus that infects the coffee leaf, sprouts seeds (spores) that with the heat (temperatures of between 22-24 degrees centigrade) multiplies and grows on the leaf. This leaf gets filled with coffee rust, cannot breathe and gets sick, and the plant produces little coffee. The young leaves resist, while the old ones succumb. In other words, weak, malnourished coffee (with little or no fertilization) in a wet environment because of too much shade and weeds, without light and air, is appropriate terrain for coffee rust to propagate. The coffee fields under organic and more ecological management are suffering more than the “technical” fields with less shade, more plant density and more fertilizer. This situation of the coffee rust is happening now and not in previous years due to the high production of the past cycle (2011-2012) that left the coffee fields more weakened than in previous years Also in this cycle there was heavy rainfall because of climate change, which facilitated the propagation of the coffee rust spores, which we used to live with on a small scale in this country. The rainfall even changed the coffee rust cycle which went from 30 days to 22 days. On farms that are well managed and that have neighbors that also manage their farms well, coffee rust does not have an impact. Coffee rust makes us look under the covers to find other additional problems: 1) old coffee fields and low plant density, varieties with not much resistance to coffee rust; 2) technicians with a partial, non-systemic vision and not updated on factors like climate change, and even worse, now turned into coffee harvest collectors and loan granters-collectors; 3) lack of financing; 4) institutional incapacity for prevention; 5) weak local social capital.

Now let´s look at the technical part to expand our question. If coffee rust is propagated fundamentally by poor management, and management requires resources, we notice that in the last 6 years we had the best coffee prices in the last 30 years. Why was there no good management of the crop if there were resources? An easy answer inspired by liberal philosophy would be to say that “the producers individually were neglectful”; supported by neoliberalism we would say that “they did not allow the market to work”, whereby the large producers would have dispossessed more quickly the “neglectful” small producers of their coffee lands; and from the perspective of the paternalistic culture of the benefactor state and the donor culture, we would say that it is “because of lack of resources.” These versions are no longer convincing.

Do good prices mean better income for the producers? In a study published in the Revista Encuentro, 2012 (“¿Institución patrón-dependiente o indeterminación social? Genealogía crítica del sistema de habilitación en el café”)[1], Mendoza, Fernández and Kuhnekath estimate that 40% of the coffee producers are prisoners of the crop lien system, a century old institution, through which, regardless of the international price, they sell part or all of their coffee between May and July every year at US$ 45/quintal (15+15+15); in other words, the paradox is that coffee generates large amounts of resources, but not necessarily for the small coffee producers who are 90% of the coffee growers in the country. The study also shows that the cost of commercialization, including through the cooperatives, increased; for example, the dry milling at US$6/quintal from before 2000 to $9/quintal in the last 6 years; the manipulation of weight has gotten worse (14% per sack when it is wet) as well as the manipulation of coffee quality (3-4% per sack) to the detriment of the producers. In another study, Bastiaensen, Marchetti, Mendoza and Pérez (“After the Nicaraguan Non-Payment Crisis: Alternatives to Microfinance Narcissism”), presented in the “Microfinance and the New left in Latin America” conference in Belgium November 12-13, 2012, showed that the crisis of the microfinance institutions made agricultural credit drop drastically since 2009, something that surely contributed to the fact that the previously mentioned crop lien system expanded. The zones with the worst roads, non-legalized properties, less organized producers and those with the least presence of financial institutions are where there are more crop lien loans and where the usury is harshest.

In other cases the income was “diverted”. Some leaders, manipulating their organizations, bought coffee in the 2011-2012 cycle in an uncontrolled fashion seeking to obtain huge earnings, but they had problems selling the coffee, with warehouses of dry mills even in the months of August and September 2012 seen to be full of coffee; a consequence was that their members received little or no credit, thus making their coffee fields even more vulnerable. Other family members that had credit and received good income for the coffee, did not reinvest in their farms, used those resources for consumption (food, house improvements, purchase of vehicles).

This institutional dimension that is just beginning to be revealed had to do with the entire chain of the coffee actors, and with the different institutions (the State, aid agencies and producer organizations).  The formal “visits” and “monitoring” of just the plants, that end up with a “list to Santa Claus”, need to be replaced by studies that would include the small coffee producers, their organizations and communities. Because they are the ones who know in their own lives about the chain of “plagues” that have been affecting them for some time: coffee rust, “crop lien” loans, costs of intermediation, dispersed and prescriptive technical assistance from a supply side logic, external resources that are lost along the way, projects that exclude women.

It is also necessary to study innovative experiences, two examples of them are mentioned here. One refers to the combination of technical assistance and financing, between the NITLAPAN institute of the Central American University (UCA) and the micofinance agency the Local Development Fund (FDL). Given the situation of the coffee rust, a quick assessment was done of 40% of the 2,424 clients (coffee producers in the northern part of the country) whose loans will come due between December 2012 and March 2013. 92% of them said that they did not have problems with the payment of the loan nor with the coffee rust, they are producers with good management of their coffee and their farms, some achieving up to 80 quintals/manzana. The plantations that are damaged are those with the oldest plants, without appropriate management, and those of organic coffee. What explains these good results? It is the articulation of three actors, NITLAPAN-UCA, the FDL and the small producers, combining credit, technical assistance and family organization around the renovation of coffee, management of the tissue and the incorporation of trees with multiple services, the opportune use of fertilizers and chemical inputs, management of the pulp and honey waters for the use of biofertilizer and organic fertilizers, that restore the nutrients extracted in the harvest and prevent disease in the plants, investments in wet mills and depulpers. These prudent practices at the family level and in groups have been producing a new type of producer capable of investing in their farms and families, and constitutes an outlook that it is possible to improve their standard of living.

Other innovative experiences are found in first tier cooperatives with less than 60 members and that have credit and technical assistance services, and that sell their coffee either through other second tier cooperatives or directly, particularly when a good part of the credit capital of these organizations comes from the contributions of their members. This type of organization, the minority in reality, have members with better management of their coffee fields, greater investment in the renovation of their coffee, and their members are concentrated in micro-territories. For example, the Solidaridad Cooperative of Matagalpa does not have coffee rust in the fields of their members, because in the last 3 years they have combined technical assistance and the purchase-application of timely inputs, a policy of pruning 20% of their total coffee each year, even overcoming in this way the myth of the bi-annual nature of the coffee harvest (one year a good harvest, and the next a bad harvest); and because they are concentrated in a micro-territory (the community of Aranjuez, Matagalpa). We also find groups of producers whose coffee farms were not affected by the coffee rust, due to the fact that their good management of the coffee is mediated by good family organization (distribution of tasks) and the extended family in micro-territories, a spirit of savings, ongoing investment in their farms, and taking the most advantage of any project (e.g. technical assistance).

Coffee rust is part of a chain of scourges. It challenges us to understand coffee growing, the producer families and their social networks, the chain of actors connected to the agricultural production, the complex and historical institutionality, the micro-territories with farm management that generate positive externalities, and also challenges us to look at the good experiences. This even allows us to reflect on them in terms of development models; on the one hand we have a model of extraction from nature (also characterized as low productivity by Núñez, 2012, “the crucial battle for agricultural yields”,  Revista Correo No. 20), with a logic of harvesting without investing nor taking care of the farm on the part of the actors, including on the part of the poor workers with low pay, and therefore little motivation to take care of the farms; an unequal model, short term, unsustainable and fragile in the face of any adversity like the current coffee rust. And on the other hand we have a more sustainable growth model, even environmentally more sustainable, that reinvests in fertility, with remunerated producers and with social family density in micro-territories, and supported by human and financial capacity for managing their farms.

If the government ignores this reality, does not distinguish between these models, and rather is dragged along by a short term political agenda, then it runs the risk of proposing a solution similar to the CONARCA Plan that affected the ecology and peasant viability in the 80s, to the coffee renovation program of the Chamorro administration that only benefitted the business coffee growers in the 90s, or to the program under the Bolaños administration of restructuring the debts of the coffee producers with the commercial banks and the microfinance institutions, without taking advantage of the moment of the crisis in the coffee prices to launch a program for the transformation of national coffee growting and provide resistance to the periodic price and infestation crises  like the coffee rust. CONARCA and the program under the Chamorro administration had in common the direct intervention of the State to promote the adoption of standardized technological packages, while the Bolaños administration thought that the State should not directly intervene, and that it should be left to market forces. A current solution of the massive renovation of coffee fields with a standardized technological package, with subsidized interest rates and organized in a centralized fashion, would benefit the coffee growing business of coffee monocropping that is highly dependent on chemical inputs, and would distort the most interesting cooperative movement, it would affect innovative experiences like those mentioned, and consequently – in harmony with the neoliberal models of the past – would strengthen the old crop lien system and the “motley” intermediation that works against the peasant farmer viability and facilitates the reproduction of “plagues” like coffee rust.

The current situation is an opportune time for a new model of more sustainable growth, as the mentioned innovative experiences indicate, a framework in which it is important to work on a short and long term proposal. The most urgent thing is to identify the zones contaminated by the coffee rust (e.g. zones of San Juan del Río Coco), and, to prevent it from continuing to spread, declare them emergency zones (“quarantined”) and provide them with holistic treatment of the infected coffee farms: direct treatment of the fungus with copper and other fungicides, regulation of the shade and management of the tissue (pruning and new branch sprouts depending on the plants and areas damaged), fertilization (chemical or organic) of the plants that will be left weaker due to the regulation of shade, and economic reasoning of the technical measures; this support should include policies that would keep the small scale producers from a drastic drop in income, for getting over indebted or falling once again into the claws of the crop lien system, because that would mean the expansion of the coffee rust and the impoverishment of the small producers.

Parallel to these urgent measures, the following policies are fundamental. First, renovation of the coffee, taking into consideration in decision making varieties that have better prices (e.g. caturra), but that require more investment to resist coffee rust, and varieties that are resistant to coffee rust (e.g.  the timor or catimor hybrid), but that get a lower price, are more productive and more demanding of fertilizer. Secondly, a combination of credit (for renovation), technical assistance, markets, and organization of the producers; this should include incentive policies (for example, financial awards) to producers that take decisive steps in good coffee management and incentives for efficient and transparent organizations, measures that would roll back the crop lien system. Third, policies that have an impact on calibrating scales, and on making the quality control of coffee transparent as well as the pricing for the different levels of quality. Fourth, financial education so that the chain of actors save and invest with a perspective of ongoing learning.

To make these policies viable requires a state much more willing to create a consensus around their policies toward coffee growing and the coffee growers, not just at the level of the chain, but also at the territorial level. Only in this way will public policy be able to respond in the best way to the agro-ecological, social and economic diversity of the productive contexts of coffee growing. The territory can become the privileged space for articulation among the sector policies and the actors and their local initiatives. This orientation in favor of territorial development means a new role for the State that has to combine a function of normative regulation, of support for investment (infrastructure, etc.) as well as being a catalyst for negotiated processes. Specifically linked to this last point, it would try to ensure that the small producers and those that are most impoverished, as well as their organizations, count and their proposals are heard.

[1] See translation called “Path Dependency  and the Crop Lien System in Coffee” at http://peacewinds.org/rural-development/path-dependent-institution