Tag Archives: Crop Loss

Paying the Debt

Last month’s visit with partners in Nicaragua included some sobering visits with small coffee producers who are struggling with the after-effects of “coffee rust,” as described here in my previous entry, “Faces of Loss.”  This crippling plant disease, along with other afflictions which can occur once the coffee plant is weakened, is taking an enormous toll on the yields of these farmers and threatening their livelihoods.  There is truth to the fear that this year’s impact from the disease is more intense than in past years, and that some producers may not survive the onslaught.

An initial inclination might be to offer more funding assistance, to financially help growers who are already on a razor-thin margin to somehow withstand the assault.  In other words, send money.  I confess that my initial, gut response to the coffee farm devastation was a panicky feeling about how our partners would ever garner sufficient funding to recover from the hit.  But monetary resources aren’t always the answer, and aid agencies who really understand the context where they work and the people who make up that context would recognize the truth in that.  Upon reflection, Winds of Peace has arrived at some additional conclusions that take into account not only the current state of affairs, but the future state, as well.

The reality we encounter is that not all farms have been affected to the same degree or in the same ways.  That’s partially due to geography, the climate at different altitudes and degree of exposure to other affected farms.  But it’s also due to policies and practices followed by the producers in protecting the one asset that they have: the productive capacity of their land.  For those producers who have gained the technical knowledge needed for careful preservation of the health of the land, practices such as selective fertilizations, planned plant renovations, continuous improvement and future investment all help to guard against the ravages of an infestation.  It can be done even when the capital available for such activities is at a minimum.  There are practices to blunt the impact of a coffee sickness.  There is an investment that can be made against future disaster when know-how and collaboration come together to help growers better understand the earth and its ways.

As is true for most strategies and plans, however, things can get in the way.  Always, there is a shortage of capital.  But there is also the way in which the limited capital might be used, stemming from lack of knowledge or manipulation by outsiders or simply succumbing to short-term gratifications.  There is a premium on available time, as rural families existing on extremely small incomes parcel out their minutes each day according to the whatever crisis cries loudest for their attention, cries which may not have anything to do with coffee plants.   Realities can and do get in the way.

Given these realities and the difficult outcomes which often result from them, it may be a wonder that peasant producers don’t encounter even more setbacks than they do.  And with that perspective in mind, Winds of Peace is creating some new or expanded partnerships where we can.  In conjunction with our rural partners, local lenders, national technical sources and, hopefully, additional outside funding participants, WPF will continue supporting rural partners in the development of their knowledge, capacities and farming sustainability.  Certainly, a portion of that support may be in the form of credit capital.  But  perhaps the more lasting, important support will be in the form of technical help, workshops, training, accompaniment, reflection and collaborative opportunities within the coops.  Some forms of institutional strengthening come from outside, but tremendous amounts of experiential knowledge comes from within, as well.  Cooperatives can derive strength from the territories in which they reside as well as from internal development; in a sense, we become what we surround ourselves with.

Winds of Peace will be trying to surround its partners with ideas of collaboration within the coops: meaningful participation by substantially all of the members, a steward’s view toward the future as well as the present, and a sense of self-responsibility upon which those futures can be built.  Sustainability of these small rural enterprises rests upon a collaborative embrace across the country and a clear understanding of what the earth requires in return for her bounties.  As one leader observed, “We are always insistent in repaying the debt to our funders.  Maybe we have not been as insistent in repaying our debt to the Earth and to each other.”

It’s a lesson which we all need to understand….



Faces of Loss

One of the overriding experiences from my travels in Nicaragua last week was my introduction to “coffee rust,”  and the toll it will take on rural Nicaraguan lives.  Without being too biological, I want to share a sobering reality.

This fungal disease of coffee plants has been a fact of life for Nicaraguan coffee producers forever, but conditions this year provided a “perfect storm” of circumstances which have allowed the disease to impact this year’s coffee harvest in unprecedented fashion.  Some government estimates suggest that more than 30% of the entire country’s harvest will be lost.  But I know from our visits last week that the decimation of the harvest among many small, grassroots producers will be far greater than that.  For many, the coffee plague will signal the end of their livelihoods.

The rust might seem to pose a relatively minor threat.  Its presence is not unusual, the effects largely attack the leaves of the plants and when noticed, the spread of the fungus can be usually halted through timely and well-executed pruning.  It is regarded as one of the pests of coffee farming but not a doomsday condition from which there is no chance of recovery.  Perhaps that was the prevailing attitude of some farmers when they first noted the symptoms: large spots widening on the leaves, leaving a telltale rust coloring around the serrated edges of holes that eventually form.  But the rust carries another attribute, as well.  By destroying the leaves and thus weakening the plants, the rust creates an opening for other diseases to raid the plants.  And in this year’s cycle of production, that other disease was something called antracnosis.

Antracnosis kills the coffee plant.  With deadly consistency, it ravages the plants with amazing speed and ruin.  It is an infestation which, in most cases, cannot be eradicated by any means other than uprooting and destroying the entire plant.  That means renovation, or planting new coffee trees, is the only way forward for the farms afflicted.  But with a minimum of three years before new plants yield a harvest, it’s a strategy that many rural producers cannot afford; three years without income is not an option.  And for the rural impoverished, acquiring financing on a non-collateralized basis for three years is only a pipe dream.  Even Winds of Peace will struggle with project request circumstances like that.

One of the afflicted areas is that of our women’s cooperative partner, COMUNEC.  (See my blog of February 2, 2012, “The Simplicity of Joy.”)  We have worked for more than a year with these women, who have shown determination, focus, a penchant for hard work and a joy in the undertaking of it.  They demonstrated success in both their organizational development as well as their coffee-producing activities during their first year, and have shown great excitement in approaching their second cycle of growing on their land.  And suddenly, within weeks, the awful reality of the coffee diseases took the life from their plants and their futures in utter dispassion.  As we visited several of the small plots belonging to the women, I witnessed the face of loss, not only in the barren branches of the lifeless coffee trees, but also in the faces of the young women who had put so much hope and effort into nurturing them.  The sight is heartbreaking in both directions and can shake anyone’s optimism to the core.  The plight of these small plots is severe enough- estimated in some cases at 80% loss- that many of the small producers will not be able to recover.

Success stories here and from other funding entities often have the feel of triumph, weakness prevailing over strength, good over evil, right over wrong.  Such anecdotes make us feel as though the world is ultimately a place that makes sense, where our persistence and dedication pay off the way we all intuitively feel they should.  I like to write about those stories, too, because they allow me to tout the belief that the world is in some sort of proper order, that we can count on certain outcomes if we just know the rules of the game we’re playing.  But sometimes the outcomes don’t match the integrity of the efforts or the rules we thought we must follow.  Injustice comes in many forms, political, economic, social structures and yes, even from Mother Nature herself.  And sometimes, all we can do is to stand with our partners and be present with them in the face of loss….