Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The 2013 coffee crisis in Copán, Honduras

Coffee is, in some ways, the life blood of the area of western Honduras where I live and minister.

The coffee harvest in our region of Honduras is almost over, though there may still be some areas at higher elevations still to be harvested.

It has not been a good year for coffee.

First of all the prices for coffee are almost half of what they were last year. Last year the prices were much higher than for the 2010-2011 harvest. But this year’s price is even lower than two years ago. 

Catuai coffee leaves affected by roya

But the other problem is that a disease – roya – has infected many of the coffee plants, leaves have fallen off and many of the coffee berries have not matured. Yesterday I saw a pile of green coffee berries that had been harvested. They will probably be used for coffee for the family - but they will not bring in needed cash.

Catuai coffee plant affected by roya

Roya has infected the most common variety of coffee grown by the people with little resources – catuaí. It has had a good yield and produces a good-tasting coffee. However, it is not as resilient as other varieties which, though they produce less than catuaí are more resistant.

A few people had planted a variety of coffees and so have not been as affected by roya, but it is still hard for all of them.

Lempira and 90 coffee - not affected by roya

The low prices and the poor harvests will seriously affect the small coffee farmers. Another consideration is that after last year’s good harvest and good prices, some small coffee farmers may have planted coffee in some of the fields they had been using for corn and beans, the staples of the Honduran family budget.

Also, since the harvest will be poor, the small coffee farmers may find it difficult – if not impossible – to pay off the loans they took out earlier for fertilizers or for planting new coffee plants.

Since the harvest is poor this will also probably affect the coffee pickers, those who have been out on the fields since late November, in all sorts of weather (including the cold and rainy spell of the last two weeks). Some of these may have small coffee fields of their own (less than quarter an acre) but many are the poor who live by manual labor throughout the year. This is one of the few times when the people can earn cash for their expenses for the year.

I have seen large cattle trucks and small pickups packed with people going to pick. 

Off to pick coffee

What will all this mean for the people here?

May through August are the lean months, partly because the corn and beans harvested the previous year have been used up and the harvest is still months away. There is almost always hunger during these months. Even if people want to buy corn and beans, the prices are high (sometimes up to twice as high as the price farmers receive at harvest time.)

My guess is that the situation mid-year will be critical. We may find a real hunger crisis in the region.

What can be done?

There are long range solutions that need to be considered, including finding ways to get the small and medium coffee farmers better returns for their investment. A group visiting from Shelby County, Iowa, at the beginning of this month, is looking into ways to facilitate direct trade between the farmers here and markets in Iowa and the Mid-West. This is what I call “direct trade” which can be much better for small farmers than “fair trade.” (That’s another discussion.)

Juan Ramon and healthy coffee plants

But in the short term, what can be done?

This year, because of the changes in the parish of Dulce Nombre, we will probably not have the Manos Unidas–funded agricultural project which helped a good number of families. (Right now we have a priest as pastoral administrator; if he or another priest is appointed pastor, it will be easier to execute an agricultural project.)

The mayor of one of the municipalities in the parish has begun thinking about a family garden project with the 15 women’s groups in the rural villages of the municipality. This will need some technical assistance, though it appears that the mayor would use government funds for providing the seeds.

There may be a need for more direct assistance and I’ll try to work with the pastoral administrator and the pastoral workers in the villages to monitor the hunger situation.

Such is the life of the people here – people who live on the edge and who, even though they work hard, have major problems providing a decent livelihood for their families.


John (Juan) Donaghy said...

According to a report from Radio Progreso, of the 100,000 families in the coffee sector, more than 60,000 will suffer the effects of roya in their crops.
It has been controlled for 30 years, but according to Ing. Cesar Vallejos, humidity and climate change have contributed to its disastrous consequences for coffee farmers.

Charles said...

Off-topic: I will pray for your trip to and from Assisi to be uneventful, and for your time there to be full of grace.

Fair trade coffee is one of the few ways in which we can help sustain the livelihoods of Central Americans, so it is dismaying that they are having these difficulties.

Jody Paterson said...

A good read on what looks to be a full-on disaster for so many small producers. I'm very worried for what it means in the Copan region, where so many people in the villages are barely getting by as it is.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

May through August are usually sparse months for the people in the countryside and so this year, with much less coffee-related income and debts, we may be facing, as Jody noted, a real disaster. Her recent blog post also helps in understanding what is happening: