Coffee farmers facing hunger, damaged livelihoods


April 25, 2014

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  • Guatemalan coffee farmers like Rigoberto (left) are increasingly at risk of hunger and food insecurity, as the epidemic of coffee leaf rust continues to threaten their livelihoods. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Seasonal hunger in the coffeelands of Guatemala is so common that it has a name: los meses flacos, or the thin months.

The thin months occur after the coffee harvest, between May and August, when coffee-farming families — who are typically paid once per year for their labor — have depleted their coffee earnings. During this time, families make ends meet by eating fewer calories, consuming less expensive food or borrowing against their future coffee earnings.

Most of the country’s 90,000 coffee farmers rely exclusively on coffee production for their livelihoods — they have few alternatives — and coffee pickers in the region depend on employment from the industry as well.

Now an epidemic of coffee leaf rust is further threatening the food security and livelihoods of these already-vulnerable families.

Coffee leaf rust, also called “la roya”, attacks the leaves of coffee plants, triggering premature defoliation and reducing photosynthesis capacity, leading to fewer and smaller coffee cherries. The consequences are especially dire for the 73,000 smallholder farmers who have only a small parcel of land to provide for their families needs all year long.

Mercy Corps conducted a survey of these smallholder farmers in the rural Western Highlands where we work. They all reported a decline in coffee prices, while the decreases in their production grew exponentially. Last year, only 7 percent of the farmers saw their production drop by more than 60 percent. This year, 51 percent lost more than half of their crop and subsequent income — and 85 percent say this coming year will be even worse.

We also surveyed coffee pickers, only 56 percent of whom found work in the coffee fields this year, compared to 79 percent last year. Their day rates also dropped by 20 percent.

With lower yields and less income, small farmers and coffee pickers now face even greater food insecurity during the thin months. Nearly 520,000 people are currently at risk of severe hunger because of the effects of the fungus.

In response to the epidemic, the government and the coffee industry are working to help farmers purchase the fungicide they need. The challenge is providing financing and training across tens of thousands of smallholder farms — and tying these efforts to the development of organic rust control methods and new coffee varietals less susceptible to the fungus.

NGOs like Mercy Corps are collaborating with the government and the industry to identify immediate interventions and longer-term solutions.

In the meantime, smallholder farmers require financial assistance and other emergency support to meet their families' basic needs. We're working to put an end to food insecurity over the long-term by working directly with local farmers to help them diversify their crops, improve farm and plant management, increase their production and connect with new buyers.

"Roya has exposed the depth of the social and economic problems in terms of people's vulnerability to the market and to climate change," Peter Loach, Mercy Corps' Guatemala country director told the New York Times. "What makes it different and complicated is that it's a slow-onset natural disaster over two to three years." Read the full article: A coffee crop withers ▸