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Hemileia Vastatrix

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La Roya, The Rust, or Hemileia Vastatrix, is a fungus that affects coffee plants particularly the Arabica species and has always presented a challenge for farmers of the crop.

In 2012 many parts of Central America including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador declared a state of Emergency after coffee growers all around the region were devastated by La Roya. The airborne fungus attacks the leaves of plants turning them yellow and brown rendering them unable to photosynthesize and get nutrients from the sun, thus incapable of producing cherries and eventually the entire plant dies.

The rust has destroyed entire farms, leaving farmers without any resources and having to sell their property. Larger scale farms were had to cut labor significantly impacting the seasonal workers who rely on a big harvest for their livelihood found themselves out of work. The price of Central American coffee shot up due to the shortage accounting for about %15 of the world's production.

Climate changes are assumed to be a major cause of the surge in outbreaks of this fungus which have devastated entire farms in some areas. Warmer temperatures at higher altitudes create an extended wet season creating ideal conditions for the fungus to grow. Mono-cropping depletes the soil and compromises the plant’s immunity and health is also a likely contribution to the outbreak. In addition to losing their coffee crop, farmers who mono-crop, have no other crops to sell for income, or to feed themselves and their families, making the impact even more detrimental. By concentrating coffee crops, transmission of the fungus from one plant to another can happen much faster. Chemicals can be used to kill the fungus, but may be damaging to the soil as well as to neighboring farms. It is possible that the use of chemicals has actually caused this fungus to adapt and become more resistant to certain pesticides

So 5 years later how is Central America recovering?

Probiotics are being used in some areas to fight off the fungus and improve health of the plants, as well as educating farmers on more sustainable farming methods. Interestingly, organic farms seem to be a little more resilient to the rust than non-organic farms, suggesting that nature knows better how to fight disease than we do. The outbreak has had a huge impact on crops in 2013/14/15, things seem to be stabilizing a little now, but the situation is a huge concern, economically and environmentally, the epidemic will continue to impact farmers, communities, and the entire industry for many years into the future. 

There has been lots of research and experimentation on developing new fungus resistant varieties in order to restore the coffee industry in Central America, but again it will be many years before we see any significant results.

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