Guatemala finds innovative solutions to fight devastating coffee leaf rust outbreak

The Guatemalan Federacion de Cooperativas Agricolas is a Fair Trade Certified producer and exporter organization made up of about 54 smaller coffee cooperatives. Founded in 1969, FEDECOCAGUA has facilitated coffee exports and sales to local and international markets for the over 20,000 small-scale farming members that they work with. 

Over the years, FEDECOCAGUA members have invested their hard earned Fair Trade Community Development Funds, an additional amount of money that they earn for every sale of their Fair Trade Certified coffee, into community projects like schoolhouse restoration and water pump installations for the local health clinic. But today, they find themselves faced with a new challenge: how to come up with innovative new solutions to fight the recent and devastating outbreak of coffee leaf rust.

About Rust

Coffee leaf rust, aka Roya, is caused by the fungus Hemileia Vastatrix. It infects individual coffee leaves, eventually inhibiting the plant’s ability to produce coffee cherries, which is where the coffee that we drink daily comes from. What this means is that once a coffee tree becomes infected it will stop producing coffee cherries which leads to dwindling harvests for farmers and less coffee to sell. Since coffee trees take 3-5 years to start producing cherries cutting down infected trees is not an option for most farmers. 

The scale of this particular outbreak has already led Guatemala to declare a state of emergency. Coffee farms in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador are currently among the most affected. Experts claim the outbreak could decrease coffee production for the 2013-2014 harvest by up to 50%, leaving small-scale farmers in these regions particularly vulnerable to high poverty levels and the inability to invest in proper prevention techniques to stop the rust from spreading.

The “Anti-Rust Brigade”

However, the coffee farmers of FEDECOCAGUA are taking matters into their own hands. At the 44th FEDECOCAGUA assembly, farmers democratically-elected to use 6 cents of their 20 cent premium to address the rust outbreak in the region. With these earmarked funds they purchased low-cost equipment and materials to form “Anti-Rust Brigades.” After an in-depth study conducted by their technical department, this option was selected as the most effective way to reach over 20,000 smallholders, thus saving their trees and decreasing the negative effects from trees that have already been infected.

FEDECOCAGUA’s “Anti-Rust Brigades” will employ technologically-efficient, motorized sprayers to combat the fungus in the most afflicted areas using natural botanical fungicides to avoid damaging other fauna and flora in the surrounding forests. This environmentally friendly product, made from the neem tree, will be used on conventional and certified organic coffee crops. 

Collaboration Breeds Success

While FEDECOCAGUA is projected to see a 20% drop in coffee production this year due to roya, the “Anti-Rust Brigades” are working hard to curtail further loss in the upcoming years. For smallholders, coming together and sharing information and resources is the best way to face this type of threat, because often times solutions like this are far too expensive for a single coffee farmers to purchase. It also allows farmers to obtain technical assistance, improved access to better quality products and materials, and financing to promote actionable solutions. Additionally, through things like Fair Trade, long-term contracts with buyers, and access to financing, allow the small-scale farmers of FEDECOCAGUA feel confident in their ability to invest now to protect their coffee for generations to come.