How Haitian Coffee Farmers are Fighting Back Against a Devastating Plant Disease

Lionel Philidor, a member of the Sainte Helene coffee cooperative, examines a coffee seedling in her plant nursery in Carice, Haiti, June 17, 2015. She learned how to grow seedlings and begin the nursery through her cooperative, in partnership with RECOCARNO, (Réseau des Coopératives Caféières de la Région Nord) the Network of Northern Coffee-Growing Cooperatives, and LWR. (photo by Allison Shelley for LWR)

THE ST. HELENE DE CARICE COFFEE COOPERATIVE is about a three-hour drive from the city of Cap Haitien in northeast Haiti. About an hour of that journey is on unpaved, windy roads, leading up steep mountain hills. The landscape is breathtaking. The clay earth casts a reddish tint on everything within sight.

Farmers here have been growing coffee practically all their lives. One farmer, Charles Sylvain Lunel Calixte*, told us it’s all he’s ever known how to do. And for many farmers it was a steady income that allowed them to pay their children’s school fees and provide many of life’s necessities. In fact, up until the 1980’s, coffee was a profitable cash crop for farmers in Haiti.

But over the years, changing climate conditions — including rising temperatures and changes in rainfall — have made it more difficult to grow coffee. Then last year, Haitian farmers began to experience leaf rust, a devastating crop disease that kills coffee trees. Put together, these factors left coffee farmers struggling to maintain their livelihoods.

60 Percent of Coffee Crops Lost to Leaf Rust

Even before I found myself standing in the middle of a coffee field high up in the mountains of northeast Haiti, I was already acutely aware of leaf rust. LWR has been talking about it for quite some time. The disease spreads from one coffee plant to another through the air, attacking the plant, making it unable to produce the little fat coffee cherries that contain beans. Then it kills the tree — a tree that took three years to bear fruit.

Looking at the coffee tree it appeared ashen. It was a smoky gray color and its leaves had all fallen off. As to remind me of the tragedy of this disease, not far away there was a patch of healthy coffee trees, complete with verdant stems and leaves, bowed slightly by the presence of still green coffee cherries.

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Alexis St. Firmin, president of the cooperative, told us that overall they lost about 60 percent of their coffee crops to leaf rust last year. In listening to him talk, I wondered what kind of impact that had on the community. How did they cope?

Lunel Calixte told me that his family coped by cutting down on their number of meals per day. And like many farmers, Lunel used his coffee income to pay for school and books. With the loss of income resulting from leaf rust he’s had to change his children to a different, lesser quality school. It was heartbreaking to hear about these incredible sacrifices. But he’s got hope, with good reason.

Rising Above Rust

LWR partners locally with RECOCARNO, a coffee producers’ federation made up of cooperatives like St. Helene de Carice. When leaf rust began eating away at farmers’ livelihoods, we began to work together to find ways to help farmers save their crops and support their families.

Two important ways we are doing that are through crop diversification and coffee seedling selection. Several members of the cooperative took me on a tour of a demonstration field where farmers were growing plantains and mangoes and other crops. Agricultural experts provide technical advice to farmers on how to successfully grow these crops. The fruit that farmers are planting provide food and income, and also the shade that coffee trees need to grow and flourish.

In addition, this cooperative has identified two varieties of coffee resistant to leaf rust. The cooperative’s nurseries have ramped up production of these two varieties in hopes that they will, in fact, reduce the instance of leaf rust and allow for increased production.

On a broader level, LWR and RECOCARNO are working together to improve coffee quality and, in turn, the price farmers can get for their crop. We’re also advocating for farmers so that the Haitian government better understands the challenges and needs of farmers so that coffee is once again a major export.

To hear that farmers have lost so much of their crop and yet have hope that they will again be able to grow coffee and support their families is just another testament to the good things God is doing through you with LWR. Thank you!

Lunel Calixte, a member of the St. Helene de Carice coffee cooperative, says he’s realized a big loss in his coffee crops and income due to leaf rust. LWR and our local partner are helping farmers like Lunel to diversify crops and grow disease resistant coffee varieties.

*In previous communications, Mr. Lunel Calixte, a participant in LWR’s Haiti coffee project, was incorrectly referenced as Charles Sylvain. We apologize for the error. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us at lwr@lwr.org

This article appears in: LWR Special Reports