It’s bad enough that small coffee farmers get peanuts for their beans, and face natural and human disasters like unusual hurricanes or gang violence. The latest crisis to burden them is a fungus called coffee leaf rust, which causes blemishes on a coffee plants’ leaves, damaging the health and productivity of the plant, and in the worst cases killing it.
Over the past several years, coffee rust has reduced harvests in Central and South America by as much as 80%, destroying the livelihood of many small farmers who frequently lack the resources to control the damage.
There is general agreement among coffee experts that the spread of coffee rust is sped up by changing weather patterns: storms of greater intensity, unusually heavy rainfall, waves of intense heat, or prolonged dry spells.
Older and weaker trees are more likely to contract the fungus, and one solution is to remove the affected trees and plant new ones. However, many small farmers, already suffering from a drop in income, cannot survive the four years it takes a tree to produce its first saleable harvest. Shorter term natural solutions, involving soil enrichments, are also expensive.
Both Catholic Relief Services and Equal Exchange are deeply involved in collaborating with farmers to fight this plague and develop farmer resilience. And our farmer partners and international activists have agreed, to quote the report of the recent Coffee Rust Summit, that “long-term purchase commitments and viable pricing structure” are necessary from trading partners in order to combat this crisis.
As a fair trade buyer, Equal Exchange’s commitment is to the “viable pricing structure”. In 2015, this commitment included paying coffee farming communities a total of about $7 million over the market price for nearly 7.9 million pounds of coffee.
Our “long-term purchase commitments” also include broader collaboration with our trading partners, aimed at mitigating natural disasters—whether coffee rust, or hurricanes—and supporting economic progress. Such projects have included rebuilding a flooded road in El Salvador with funds from our church customers, facilitating farmer-to-farmer seminars on soil productivity in Central America, and training in coffee quality in the Congo, empowering farmer cooperatives to know the value of their coffee.
Over the last year, Equal Exchange has made special efforts in the fight against coffee leaf rust for several coffee farming communities in Mexico, El Salvador, and Peru. These co-ops have received more than $250,000 in investment through the Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative, including over $100,000 from Equal Exchange. The investments have been used to replant more than a million coffee trees in the last year, and improve training, technology and productivity.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Since 2003, CRS has conducted 20 projects in coffee communities, in 14 countries, committing over $47 million and involving over 50,000 smallholder families.
Along with its development projects, CRS is committed to combating the effects of climate change, specifically as it relates to the coffee leaf rust crisis. Typical of the communities CRS works with is Nuevo Eden in the department of San Marcos in Guatemala.
In addition, CRS is launching the CRS Coffee Program, “situated at the intersection of coffee and development” where a cash crop can enhance the prosperity of a farming village.
The Program envisions a world of prosperous smallholding coffee farmers; empowered coffee farmworkers; and coffee-lands where farming improves the environment, mitigates the impacts of climate change and delivers clean water to communities downstream.
The Program is a three-year, $4.5 million initiative which will place full-time expert staff in Central and East Africa, Central and South America and the United States, who will coordinate CRS’ coffee projects in those regions.