LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
There is a silent killer sweeping through Central America these days, and it has nothing to do with drug cartels or gang violence. It's a plant fungus known as coffee rust, or roya in Spanish. It's destroying the region's highly-coveted coffee crop, causing more than a billion dollars in losses and leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Outside the northern Guatemalan town of Olopa, near the Honduran border, farmer Edwin Fernando Diaz Viera stands in the middle of his tiny coffee field. He says it was his lifelong dream to own a farm here. So 10 years ago he left for Guatemala's capital, worked the night shift at a gas station for six years and came back home to plant coffee.
EDWIN FERNANDO DIAZ VIERA: (Through translator) My farm was beautiful. It was big. But two years after I got back, coffee rust appeared and wiped out everything.
KAHN: That was 2012, and it was his first crop. The rust took it all. The fungus roared over the hillsides, covered the valleys and clung to the slopes of Guatemala's shady volcanoes renowned for producing some of the world's richest Arabica - the smooth-tasting beans beloved by specialty coffee brewers. Diaz says it was like an atomic bomb went off - wiped the whole place clean. In El Salvador, nearly three-quarters of all trees are infected with the fungus. In Costa Rica, more than 60 percent. And in Guatemala, coffee rust covers 70 percent of all trees, costing at least 100,000 jobs and a 15 percent drop in coffee output in just the last two years. Francisco Anzueto of Guatemala's Coffee Board, Anacafe, says coffee rust long has been in the region. But recently, it became more aggressive.
FRANCISCO ANZUETO: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: It's climate change, he says. Temperatures are up. And the fungus thrives in the heat, attacking the leaves of coffee trees, eventually choking off nutrients to the cherries that encase the beans. Most distressing is now it's hotter in the higher altitudes where rust rarely ventured and Guatemala's finest beans are grown. That got several producers, including Starbucks and Green Mountain, to team up with USAID. They've pooled more than $23 million to offer financing to repair crops and train farmers to fight the disease. I asked Mark Visocky, who directs the economic growth office for USAID in Guatemala, if that's enough money.
MARK VISOCKY: No, it's a big problem. And if it's not a crisis, it's very close to a crisis.
KAHN: Visocky says it will be a crisis when coffee prices spike and illegal immigration to the U.S. rises. Coffee prices are up, but mostly due to the prolonged drought in Brazil. And humanitarian organizations insist the current flood of immigrants out of Central America is not a product of rust-induced unemployment. But ask around Olopa, by the Honduran border, and you get a different answer. One farmer estimated that a third of the tiny town's residents are in the U.S.
KAHN: Jose Ramirez Mendez's house is guarded by a very skinny mutt. His cropped was wiped out two years ago by the fungus. And both he and his younger brother took off for the U.S. He got caught in Arizona and deported back.
JOSE RAMIREZ MENDEZ: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: He says now he planted a new coffee variety that is supposedly resistant to rust. His brother sends money when he can, but the family is deep in debt from the smuggler and the previously failed crop. Many farmers are turning to the new resistant plants, but the coffee quality is said to not be as good. Or they're pruning back trees with hope that new growth will improve resistant. Then there are others just getting out of the coffee business altogether.
KAHN: Humberto Mendez Perez digs a shallow hole, grabs a few black beans from a plastic cup and tosses them in. He and his 7-year-old son and 10-year-old nephew do this repeatedly up a steep hillside. He lost his crop to rust last year and has to plant corn and beans with his extended families to survive. Daniel McQuillan is an agricultural specialist with the charity CRS - Catholic Relief Services.
DANIEL MCQUILLAN: It's really a nightmare from an environmental perspective.
KAHN: His group is trying to help coffee farmers stay in the business. They give them vegetable seeds and fruit trees that also provide shade and some protection from rust to try and diversify their incomes. And they give them loans for bigger projects.
KAHN: Edwin Diaz bought 100 chickens with an $800 loan from CRS. His eggs are selling like crazy. He can't keep up with demand. Once he pays off the loan, the money then goes to another farmer.
EDWIN DIAZ: (Spanish spoken).
KAHN: He says he doesn't want to depend solely on coffee anymore. He, too, has planted the rust-resistant strain of coffee, but he doesn't like the lower quality. Diaz takes me over to small plants set aside. He says that's all that remains of his fine Arabica trees. He saved them just in case one day rust is gone from Guatemala so he'll have a supply of good seeds.
KAHN: If that day doesn't come, he jokes, he'll donate the plants to museums so people will have some way to remember Guatemala's once fine coffee. Carry Kahn, NPR News.
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