How Leaf Rust is Affecting Coffee Farmers in Central America

If you’ve been paying attention to the news the last couple of days, you might have seen something about coffee rust, or roya, a coffee plant disease that’s devastating coffee crops in Central America.
While organizations like LWR have been aware of – and working to combat – roya for a long while, it’s been generating some buzz lately because USAID this week announced a research partnership with Texas A&M University focused on combating the disease. Mainstream media like CBS News, the Associated Press, the New York Times and NPR’s Marketplace have picked up the story.

What is roya?

Roya affects the leaves of coffee plants, eventually causing them fall off, which ultimately kills the tree. Because a lot of the specialty coffees that Americans love come from Central America, the story of roya is of economic interest here. Put simply, it’s a classic supply-and-demand issue: because of roya infection, the supply of quality coffee becomes more limited. But our desire for fancy lattes isn’t affected at all – so when demand outpaces supply, prices go up. And you could soon be paying a little more for your cup of joe.

But that’s not the full story. And kudos to those news outlets for telling the other side of the story as well: the story of the farmers.

Roya affects farmers and their families

I was in Nicaragua last month, visiting with coffee farmers who’ve been working with LWR. They told me about roya’s crippling effect on their family income.

Juan Francisco Aguilar told me that last year, his family harvested 655 pounds of coffee from their farm, which is their primary source of income for the year. This year’s harvest – thanks to a roya infection that wiped out three quarters of their plants – was just 129 ½ pounds.

Idalia Orellana holding a leaf that shows leaf rust Idalia Orellana is a coffee farmer in Honduras. Her crops have been affected by roya
Idalia Orellana is a coffee farmer in Honduras. Her crops have been affected by roya, or leaf rust, which has affected her ability to pay for her son's school fees.

“We were expecting better income, but we got just 25% of what we made last year,” he said.

Erik Morales has seen a lot of roya in his work with SOPPEXCCA, a Nicaraguan coffee cooperative and longtime LWR partner.

“The tree dies and the farmer has to eliminate the plant and start over. When they start over, it takes three years to produce again and this is difficult for the family,” he says. “That is a hardship, how to manage during that time when they are rebuilding the farm.”

SOPPEXCCA staff estimate that over the last two years, they have processed about 35-40% less coffee annually than in previous years, due to roya.

There are things farmers can do to protect their plants – applying fungicides, planting roya-resistant varieties of coffee – and LWR is helping farmers take these steps through our work with SOPPEXCCA and other coffee partners in Latin America. But in addition, we’re also doing things like helping coffee farmers diversify their crops, so they are no longer solely dependent on coffee as a source of income. It’s a holistic approach, one that addresses farmers’ needs both today and for the future.

I’m happy that roya is finally getting the attention it deserves. I hope that farmers like Juan Francisco and his family won’t ever have another year as bad as this one.