Nearly 75 percent of Mexico’s coffee is dying. A fungus (known as la roya, or rust) is working its way across the coffee fields in Oaxaca, Chiapas and other states, threatening to ruin farmers’ livelihoods and severely impact the supply of coffee that growers export around the world.
The rapid spread of the Roya Fungus is rooted in two global phenomena: climate change and trade agreements. And small farmers are organizing to adapt to the first, and confront the second, with remarkable innovation and courage.
The fungus commonly known by its rusty color (roya in Spanish) has been killing coffee trees in Central America for eight years, and appeared periodically decades earlier in other parts of Latin America as well.
Two years ago, National Geographic reported reported what others had been suggesting for some time, that climate disruption and changes in weather patterns precipitated the massive coffee die-off as higher temperatures allow the fungus to thrive even in the mountains.
Because coffee is such a weather-sensitive crop, and one that so many of us crave, researchers have been rushing to find a way to stop the mutating fungus.
Where scientists have failed to stem the spread of this devastating disease, small farmers like Susana and Guillermo Cruz Canseco learned of a way, and it requires no expensive pesticides, herbicides or toxins. What it does require is knowledge and the application of agroecological principles.
Agroecology, Learning Exchanges and Coffee
In 2013, several years after the roya fungus crept into Mexico’s coffee trees, Grassroots International sponsored a learning exchange in Mexico, bringing together farmers from Oaxaca, Chiapas, other Mexican states, and other countries to share information, technical knowledge and organizing strategies. That’s where someone from Guillermo’s community first heard about a natural solution.
Carlos Heníquez from the small village of Santa Gertrudis attended the learning exchange representing Grassroots’ partner UNOSJO (the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca), and his neighbor Neon Cruz Solis joined another in Brazil, coordinated by Grassroots’ partner, the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP). When Carlos and later Neon returned to Santa Gertrudis, they shared the information with their community, along with many other vital techniques to improve crop productivity.
As a result of connections made during these exchanges, agroecologists from Chiapas traveled to Santa Gertrudis to share their knowledge about how to protect coffee from the rapidly spreading la roya fungus. Farmers in Santa Gertrudis learned how to grow and apply another “helpful” fungus to attack la roya. While it’s not an instant fix, after two or three years young coffee trees will be clear of la roya and able again to produce plump beans with healthy leaves. Guillermo and Susanna Canseco paid careful attention to every step of the process and began, with UNOSJO’s help, to apply the knowledge to their own infected coffee trees. Now Guillermo and Susanna are experiencing a slow recovery to their income-generating coffee plants while also expanding their vegetable production to offset income loss.
A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way
Last month, a delegation of Grassroots International visited Carlos, Neon, Guillermo, Susanna and other residents of Santa Gertrudis. Accompanied by technicians from UNOSJO, we saw first-hand the impact of la roya on the coffee trees, as well as areas where recovery was in process. Farmers also showed off the positive results of other agroecological techniques they applied to their fields. Margarito Hernandez shucked an ear of corn from a robust stalk in his field. To the right was another field, utilizing manufactured pesticides and chemicals that a government program provided to the community. And up the hill was a field planted with organic seeds using government-provided compost. Even the untrained eye could see the difference of the fields, with deeper greens and taller stalks in the field planted with community-saved seeds and rich soil from the vermiculture compost bin installed with the help of UNOSJO. That is the field that Margarito felt most proud of and wanted to show us. Using the agroecological techniques he learned from Carlos and the team from UNOSJO, Margarito’s corn was thriving. In a few months, he others in the community were also looking forward to harvesting a healthy assortment of beans, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. And in another year or two, growing out from the seeds of shared knowledge, he and other farmers looked forward to harvesting healthy coffee and brewing up stronger community income streams and a more resilient community.