Nicaraguan Coffee Industry In Problems

Women work the conveyor belt at a Nicaragua coffee processing co-operative, picking out unsuitable beans so the coffee can command a higher price. | Photo: Brenda Fitzsimons
Women work the conveyor belt at a Nicaragua coffee processing co-operative, picking out unsuitable beans so the coffee can command a higher price. | Photo: Brenda Fitzsimons

Disease is shaking up industry that accounts for almost half of Nicaragua’s exports

NICARAGUA NEWS – It is more than 25 years since the first Irish volunteers came to Nicaragua to help pick the coffee crop. The revolution and subsequent war with the Contras is well and truly over, but Nicaragua’s coffee industry still faces serious challenges – ones that can have dire consequences when a country is as reliant on one crop as is Nicaragua. Coffee accounts for almost half of its exports.

The nature of these problems is described on a small farm in the northern region of Jinotega, which produces about two-thirds of the country’s coffee. Farmer Yamil Portillo tugs a coffee leaf from a tree and turns it over, revealing coppery spots on the underside.

In a few weeks, the spots will turn brown, causing the leaves to fall off and killing the plant. This is leaf rust, or la roya, rampant in Central America this year and the biggest threat to Nicaragua’s coffee crop now.

For Europe’s discerning coffee drinkers, the disease could affect the quality of coffee in their daily latte or espresso. Nicaragua is one of the world’s biggest producers of the prized Arabica coffee favoured by Irish company Bewley’s and international chains such as Starbucks.

Asked about eradicating the disease, Portillo shrugs glumly; once leaf rust gets a grip, it’s difficult to wipe out. The only solution is to replace the coffee trees.

Latest estimates are that coffee production could be halved by the disease in Nicaragua and the worst-affected of the other countries in this region, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

The fungus has pushed higher into the hills than ever before, thanks to more rainfall and higher humidity caused by climate change. Mausi Kuhl, who owns the organic coffee farm and resort of Selva Negra near the town of Matagalpa, says the disease will seriously deter coffee production.

She says: “We usually have just a percentage of coffee plants to replace annually. Now we have to replace almost all.”

Each new plant takes three years to fruit, so Nicaraguan coffee farmers face a long slog out of this crisis.

Kieran Durnien of Fairtrade Ireland says the leaf rust outbreak has highlighted other issues in the coffee sector in Nicaragua, such as the poor technical management of farms by their owners and the lack of finance to improve farms so they are not quite so vulnerable to disease.

In this sense, he says, it has been a blessing in disguise. “Farmers have been obliged to look at ways of better managing their plantations and the banking sector has been forced to look at ways of supporting the coffee industry again, given its importance in Nicaragua.”

Source: Irish Times