Living With Roya In The Highlands of Chiapas

Three years ago the Roya (Coffee Leaf Rust) fungus spread from South America to Central America like wildfire. At that time it was clear that if conditions did not change it would run up the isthmus into Southern Mexico devastating small-scale farmers’ livelihoods the entire way up. The fungus– linked to the changing of weather patterns associated with global climate change– has not slowed down and in Chiapas farmers first saw its effects in the 2014-2015 harvest where it took between 40% and 50% of the harvest in the highlands.

Both Maya Vinic and the Zapatista cooperative Yachil Xolobal Chulchan tell similar and familiar stories. They first observed the rust in early 2013, but it did not affect that harvest. That summer the saw it encroaching on their coffee fields, but also saw that their plants flowered and began to develop coffee fruit fairly normally. Then, as the coffee cherries began to ripen, they were horrified to watch them blacken and fall in droves to the forest floor as their plants succumbed to the disease. They could do nothing to fight it or stop its spread. There are effective organic methods to fight the spread of the fungus, but these need to be in place before the plants come into contact with the disease. Once the rust has hit there seems to be very little farmers can do to fortify and strengthen their coffee.

Heading into the summer of 2015 both cooperatives are feeling hopeful about the situation. Both Maya Vinic and Yachil farmers have noted that the spread of the disease seems to have slowed down compared to the year before with less new trees becoming visibly sick. Both organizations have lost many of their older heirloom plants such as Bourbon and Typica to the fungus, but a varietal common in the highlands called Carnica has a much higher resistance and thus far has survived the spread of the disease very well. Maya Vinic has taken care to preserve some of the heirloom varietals for future years when the disease has declined. Yachil is learning how to fortify their coffee plants with an organic micro-organism treatment that can help combat diseases like roya. Both co-ops are planting more Carnica in their fields as a response and to help guard against future infestation. At this point Yachil feels that it will only take them two years to recover their normal production, but that is if the worst of the outbreak is over. And this is a big “if” indeed.

From where we stand, I am concerned about the forecast for the immediate future. It is great to see the farmers optimistic about the harvest and heartening to know that they are seeing the spread slow. However, their optimism after the first year of sickness reminds me of the hopes shared with us by co-ops in Central America in the early stages of the outbreak. In the lower elevations Yachil is already seeing fruit forming on the trees and they observe that it looks to be a better year. However, I fear that by the end of the summer they may be watching the cherries blacken and fall to the ground as they did in the previous year. We can only hope that this will not be the case and be prepared to help as best as we can if it does.