Agent Orange: Coffee Rust in Nicaragua

stephanie parker
Feb 28, 2015 · 23 min read
Jeyson Pérez holds a handmade basket of just-picked coffee cherries. Coffee is harvested three times between December and February each year.

The sun starts to rise over a small wooden house in the hills of northern Nicaragua, tinting the sky a pale blue. Mefalia Villarreyna, 43, has been up for almost two hours, cooking breakfast while feeding bits of tortilla to the two dogs, Scott (named after the dog on Scott toilet paper) and Campeón (champion). Wearing a T-shirt, denim skirt and pink flip-flops, she starts the fire in the family’s clay wood-burning stove, where two small openings sized for their cookware hold pots and pans of gallo pinto (red beans and rice) and fried or sautéed bananas.

The rest of the family won’t get to sleep in much longer. By 6 a.m., Marvin Pérez, Villarreyna’s husband, is drinking a cup of coffee from the ever-present red thermos on the kitchen table. Soon he and Freyder, their nephew who lives with the family like a son, will milk the cows and get water from the nearby solar-powered pump.

January is usually a busy time in El Sontule, a highland village of fewer than 200 people in the Miraflor Nature Reserve, about two hours by bus from Estelí, the nearest city. Kids are on summer break from school until mid-February, and whole families fan out across the coffee plots, picking the red fruit. They describe the process using the verb cortar, to cut, but the labor is done by hand, with workers popping the fruits, one by one, off their trees with their thumbs and pointer fingers.

In an ordinary year, the Pérez Villarreynas would be heading out into their plots after breakfast, woven baskets tied around their waists. But this year, the lush and green slopes have become sparse. Leaves dotted with orange spots litter the ground and rest on nearly naked plants.

Nicaragua, along with the rest of Central America, is suffering its worst coffee rust epidemic ever. “It’s been a huge blow,” Pérez says. “It’s affected us so heavily that we still don’t know what we can do.”

Coffee takes three to four years from planting to be ready for harvest, so new plants that replace ones that died or had to be cut down will not produce before 2016 at the very earliest, assuming no new rust or other diseases destroy them in the meantime.

While governments and international organizations discuss possible remedies and scientists debate the cause of the epidemic, coffee growers like the Pérez Villarreynas are scrambling to save their livelihoods in the face of forces they can barely control.


La roya (Hemileia vastatrix) is a fungus that attacks coffee plants, specifically, their leaves. Rust-colored dust spots on the bottom of the leaves announce its arrival and give the fungus its common name. Ultimately, it kills the leaves, which drop, resulting in a plant with fewer sites for photosynthesis to take place. This leads to a decrease in coffee production and eventually, plant death.

The fungus is the reason that Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, is known for its tea. In the 1700s, the island off the Indian subcontinent was the birthplace of large-scale coffee plantations. The Dutch, and later the British, enjoyed lucrative coffee exports until the late 1860s, when a mysterious rust-colored dust began overtaking their plants. It spread quickly, baffling biologists, until the area was no longer profitable for coffee. Which is why you can buy Ceylon tea today, but no coffee of the same name.

Coffee rust, Hemilia Vastatrix, covers the bottom of a coffee leaf.

It took another century until the rust appeared in the Western Hemisphere. When it reached rampant proportions in Brazil, in the 1970s, scientists and agricultural engineers developed new cultivation methods to save one of the country’s major cash crops. At the time, plants stood too close together to allow for effective chemical spraying, so growers started spacing their coffee plants further apart. This worked, probably in part because of the chemicals and also because it lowered the density of coffee fruit. Research has shown a positive correlation between fruit load and coffee rust incidence. Rust spreads easily. The more coffee cherries on a single plant, and the more plants in a close space, the higher the likelihood of rust.

Nicaragua, which has been growing coffee since the late 1800s, first experienced la roya in 1978, when it caused a panic. The last major outbreak dates back to 1995/96. While serious for the coffee and the farmers at the time, it was episodic, and the next year, the harvest returned to normal levels. This time around, the region has already seen a decrease two years in a row.

When his coffee plants first started showing the telltale orange spots of the rust in the fall of 2012, Marvin Pérez didn’t think too much about it. A few spots could always be found here and there on some plants, year after year.

“In September or October, the plants began to look a little different in their color,” he says, “but we didn’t worry too much because we said, ‘oh yeah, it’s just the roya. The roya’s not a problem for us.’”

The president of a small coffee cooperative, Pérez casts a tall and commanding presence. Usually dressed in jeans and a polo T-shirt, with a slight potbelly straining the fabric, he speaks easily and effusively with the many guests and relatives who pass through his family’s kitchen. A thin mustache covers his upper lip, and his smile reveals straight, small white teeth.

The 41-year-old lives with his wife, Mefalia Villarreyna, their youngest son, Wilder, 20, and two nephews, Jeyson, 15, and Freyder, 11. Their coffee beans, sold as organic, are of the superior Arabica varietal, as opposed to Robusta, which is used for instant coffee and lower-end brands, like Folgers.

By December of 2012, Pérez’s plants were left without leaves. The family lost about 80 percent of their plants, and the remaining plants produced less.

Marvin Pérez walks from his house to his family’s garden. This plot of land ensures that despite having almost no coffee harvest this season, the family will not go hungry.

The crisis affected all of Central America, where 1.8 million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods. But the rust hit Nicaragua particularly hard, decimating the country’s main export crop by 36 percent, according to the International Coffee Organization, an intergovernmental group. Figures looked even bleaker for the 2013/2014 season. The Nicaraguan export administration anticipated a further decrease by almost 65 percent, giving the country the worst prognosis out of all of Central America’s coffee-producing countries.

In El Sontule, farmers experienced a 40-percent reduction during the 2012/2013 harvest, which paled in comparison to the near 90-percent decrease they saw in the 2013/2014 season, according to Suyen Baharona, Program Coordinator at the Center for Global Education, which has been organizing educational trips to El Sontule for 15 years.

The long-term outlook is even grimmer. It’s possible the days are numbered for the high quality product grown in the Miraflor region that finds its way into our connoisseur coffee cups.


The Pérez Villarreynas have been working in coffee production for over half a century. Their ancestors were landless workers, but after the Sandinista revolution in 1979, the new government transferred land ownership to the people who worked it. Then came the U.S.-sponsored Contra War. Since the Miraflor area is situated just 60 miles from the Honduran border, where contra soldiers were trained and deployed from, it was hit hard.

“The beautiful moments of the revolution became complicated,” says Lucía Gámez, known as Doña Lucía, the community matriarch. Now 73 years old, she co-founded Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), El Sontule’s women’s cooperative. Of the Contra armies, she says, “they turned the houses into ashes. We felt safer to be in the fields with our children than to sleep in our house.”

Pérez, only a teenager at the time and orphaned, remembers being armed when he was only 14, and taking his siblings out to sleep on tarps in the fields, even in the rain and cold. “If we found a tortilla and there were four of us, we split it in four parts.” The Contra War took two of his brothers, one fighting on the side of the rebels, the other on the side of the socialist government, plus a sister, whose body was not found.

In 1990, the Nicaraguan people voted out the Sandinista government, to induce the United States to pull out the Contra forces and stop the violence. The new administration didn’t support the cooperative system, but the people of El Sontule kept the land they had received. In the decades since, the community progressed and evolved, priding itself of its high ecological and educational standards.

“It has a long history of a lot of suffering, but also of a lot of resilience,” the Center for Global Education’s Baharona says.

The members of Pérez’s cooperative, named Vicente Talavera after a community leader who was killed by the Contra, work together washing and depulping their crop. As a group, they also belong to PRODECOOP, a distribution service made up of 38 cooperatives that sells roughly half organic and half conventional coffee. They load their bulging pink sacks of coffee on top of repurposed American school buses, painted outside with bright colors and covered inside with stickers of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to bring them to Palacaguina, a warmer, drier town about an hour from El Sontule. It is there that workers, almost completely covered in clothing to protect them from the hot sun, dry the beans on giant, concrete patios, before sorting them for quality in separate machines for organic and conventional. The coffee beans are then shipped off to buyers in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Mefalia Villarreyna dries washed and depulped coffee beans on the family’s stove. This is how they dry the beans at home when there is not enough sun to do so.

Through their membership in PRODECOOP, the cooperatives have access to field technicians who can offer advice for challenges ranging from coffee rust to other plant diseases, like ojo de gallo, a fungus that causes leaf drop, death of young shoots and overall poor performance, or anthracnose, a group of fungal plant diseases that dries up the plants and kills them.

Belonging to a cooperative requires getting a bunch of people to agree on difficult issues, not always such an easy task. But altogether, members think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “People don’t listen to one person,” Villarreyna says. “It’s better when we’re all together.” Although individual farmers and their families own their own plots and grow their coffee separately, it helps to market and negotiate together. Plus, the cooperative system allows growers to participate in the fair trade system, which insulates them somewhat from the constant price fluctuations on the world coffee market.

Of the coffee distributed by PRODECOOP, 80 percent is of high quality and certified as fair trade. The other 20 percent is of a lower grade, and therefore stays in Nicaragua to be sold domestically. Fair trade promises a fixed price, even if the market price dips lower. In addition, the Vicente Talavera cooperative receives a $20 premium per quintal (100 pounds) of coffee. They call it a premio social, a social premium they use for renovating their plantations or paying for school fees and supplies.

Of course, fewer exports reduce the social premiums farmers will receive. “If we don’t have coffee because of the roya, we won’t have social projects,” Pérez says.

Though fair trade premiums give consumers in the United States an opportunity to contribute directly to the producers, most of the $2 price for a 12-ounce cup is still lost along the supply chain. “The consumer pays a lot,” Pérez says, “and they think it goes to the producer, but it doesn’t.”

Each month, the New York Coffee Exchange sets the price of coffee, which is traded on the global market. It fluctuates, but has on average been quite low since the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. In the first quarter of 2014, coffee traded between $1.10 and $2.20 per pound, while in the grocery store, you could easily find organic coffee retailing for $16 per pound. This means growers only earn roughly 12 percent of the retail price of coffee. The rest of the money is lost to big business and middlemen along the way.

Some agricultural experts, like plant pathologist Jacques Avelino, of the Latin American research institution CATIE, believe there’s a direct correlation between the rust epidemic and the lack of income. Avelino reasons that when farmers earn less, they lose their ability to invest in their plantations. As the plants age, they weaken and lose their ability to fight off diseases. Some of the plants in El Sontule are up to 40 years old, and buying new plants and replanting is a costly endeavor. Low prices also mean growers cannot afford fertilizers or pesticides, which Avelino thinks are important for staving off infirmities.

“It is obvious that when coffee prices are low, farmers reduce the inputs,” he says. “As always, an outbreak is a result of a combination of factors. In the case of the coffee rust outbreak, my opinion is that low coffee prices, meaning deficient management combined with propitious climate for coffee rust, were the main reasons for this outbreak.”

Avelino’s opinion corresponds with what governmental institutions and producer organizations promote. At an Emergency Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala, in the spring of 2013, sponsors like USAID and the Borlaug Institute at Texas A&M University touted the use of fungicides both for short-term control and as a preemptive measure. Representing a school of thought that came out of the Green Revolution in the 1940–60s, they maintain that the future of agriculture requires inputs and modernization, advocating ever better fungicides and fertilizers.

But one scientist, who has spent much of his career researching the rust, begs to differ.

Coffee farmers load their bags of beans onto a school bus headed for Palacaguina, where PRODECOOP has its dry mill.


Braulio Chilel ties pink tape around coffee plants numbered one through five, and then checks the underside of nearby coffee plants for rust. Close by, a felled shade tree crashes to the ground.

Alto,” Chilel says, indicating the uppermost part of one plant, where rust levels are low. “Roya, baja.” His colleague, Gustavo López Bautista, marks the calls in his notebook.

The two research assistants will go through this process on at least 500 different plants, rechecking each plant two more times before finishing their fieldwork in early 2014.

The plantation where they conduct their research is very different from the Pérez Villarreyna farm. Located in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, more than 500 miles north of El Sontule, it spreads over 300 hectares, all belonging to one owner who grows conventional (non-organic) coffee.

Chilel and Lopez are gathering data for John Vandermeer, an ecologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who seeks to better understand the specifics of how the rust spreads.

A higher level of rust on lower leaves indicates that the spores probably splashed up onto the leaves during a rainfall. Conversely, an elevated level on the upper leaves would show that the rust was most likely spread by wind. Vandermeer knows that rust spreads both ways, as well as through touch or by rubbing off clothing, but the data will help him create a distribution model. What he’s found puts him at odds with most science coming out of the region.

“All over Central America, coffee researchers’ number one objective right now is, ‘find the right fungicide,’” he says, “and quite frankly, that’s not going to work.”

Vandermeer believes the place of the rust within its larger ecosystem is crucial to understanding and controlling it. So, when he studies rust, he isn’t just studying the rust. He’s also studying Azteca ants, the white halo fungus (Lecanicillium lecanii) and the green coffee scale.

The coffee scales, tiny leaf-colored insects, have a pretty nice life. They have no legs, so they just sit on leaves, eating and producing sugar. The Azteca ants protect them from predators. Where there are Azteca ants, the scales will thrive. But their lives aren’t perfect — as their numbers grow due to the ants’ protection, a predator, the white halo fungus, will show up. This fungus not only antagonizes the scale, it also antagonizes the rust, and helps control it.

Together, according to Vandermeer, these intricate ecosystem relationships have by and large kept the rust under control, but they have now been thrown asunder by certain modern agricultural practices. Vandermeer believes that fungicides are to blame, even those meant to target the rust.

“Coffee rust is inside of leaf tissue,” he says. “So when you spray fungicide, what you’re killing are the spores of the rust but not the body of the rust, while the white halo fungus is external, so the fungicide is more likely to kill things like white halo fungus than the coffee rust.”

Vandermeer also considers deforestation, another facet of modern agriculture, a problem. “The rust is dispersed by wind, and it has a huge dispersal distance. So you start opening up a big area, start cutting trees down, so you get these whirling and twirling winds, and what they do is bring the rust everywhere,” he says. “They’re creating conditions whereby the rust is favored, it’s highly favored. So these kinds of changes, deforestation, changes to pastures, changes to sun coffee. If you increase the wind, you’re going to increase the disease.”

Jeyson Pérez and his half brother Freyder Gámez pour out washed and dried coffee beans to separate them from their parchment.

Unfortunately for the Pérez Villarreynas and others like them, you don’t have to use intensive cultivation to suffer the ill effects. “Our suspicion is that this slow tendency since the 1980s to eliminate shade from the system has led to a build-up of spores in the air, and has led to this point where we had a catastrophic break and we fell off a cliff so to speak,” Vandermeer says. Because the rust spreads so easily by wind and even on clothing, rust can travel hundreds of miles, created by the cultivation practices of a farmer the Pérez Villarreynas have certainly never met.

Vandermeer says. “What I would suggest to a small farmer is certainly do not spray fungicides. They should try and maintain as much forest cover as possible Go to your coffee cooperative, go to your neighbors, get rid of pastures.”

Based on Vandermeer’s findings, growers like the Pérez Villarreynas face an uphill battle to protect their livelihoods.


The ground of El Sontule’s makeshift soccer field squelches with mud from January’s uncommon rains. Simple thin branches sticking up from the ground function as goalposts. Wilder Pérez Villarreyna swerves his way in and out of a group of college students from Fordham University, controlling the ball to score a goal. During the second week of January alone, three separate groups from U.S. Jesuit colleges have visited the community for one or two nights through the Center for Global Education, to learn about fair trade, coffee harvesting and how the Contra war affected the region. Out of each group, three visitors stayed with the Pérez Villarreynas, providing them with additional income.

Julianna Hubbard traveled to El Sontule with a group from Fordham in March 2014. She says the trip made her more aware of the situation of the growers. “I knew that they didn’t get paid very much,” Hubbard says, “but I didn’t realize how little. Just the sheer number of middlemen, I had no idea about that.”

The villages in Miraflor entertain a steady stream of tourists during American school holidays. At the nonprofit tourist agency in Estelí, the Pérez Villarreyna’s oldest son, Uriel, arranges for foreigners to go on cigar tours, visit nearby Somoto Canyon or do homestays, occasionally with his family. His brother Wilder is a tour guide in Miraflor, so sometimes when Uriel plans trips for tourists, it’s Wilder who meets them at the bus stop in the nature reserve, taking them on horseback to waterfalls or explaining the coffee production process to them. Wilder also studies in Estelí, working toward a degree in Tourism Administration, while Uriel is finishing a degree in Agricultural Engineering. Both sons study English. Tourism income helps them pay for school and school supplies.

Jeyson takes a break while his cousin, Wilder Pérez, collects black beans. Because of the rust, members of El Sontule are focusing on other crops, like beans, both to sell and to eat.

In the months outside the season, however, the money slows down. And while students and visitors from the United States and Europe know they’re in for a rural experience, they do expect minimum standards. Only families who can afford to have extra rooms with extra blankets and beds will get some extra income from foreigners.

In addition to hosting tourists, Mefalia Villarreyna works as a teacher at the local elementary and middle school. Not everyone has that option.

Marlon Villarreyna, 39, Mefalia Villarreyna’s cousin on her father’s side, also belongs to the Vicente Talavera cooperative. For a long time, neither he nor his wife, Myra Velásquez, could find teaching jobs in the community, so they relied on tourism and coffee for their income. The rust crisis led them to consider moving away with their two children, maybe to Estelí or somewhere else hopefully nearby.

“We don’t want to leave the community,” Marlon Villarreyna says, sitting in his sunlit kitchen in January of 2014. The couple’s farm, Finca La Ilusion, is owned by his father Rogelio, but worked by the younger generation. It used to produce a harvest of around eight quintales oro, coffee that has been stripped of its pulp and thin parchment and is ready to be exported. During the harvest of 2012/2013, Marlon Villarreyna reaped one-and-a-half quintales. For the harvest of 2013/2014, there will be even less. Luckily, in the spring of 2014, he finally landed a teaching job at the local elementary and middle school in El Sontule.

Marlon Villarreyna and his son, Marlon Jr., carry freshly picked coffee beans to be depulped and washed.

Almost 400,000 coffee workers across Central America lost their jobs to the rust during the 2012/2013 harvest, and many left their homes to move into already crowded cities or try their luck going to the United States without papers. Those who do not own their land, but work as seasonal coffee pickers, are especially vulnerable. In Nicaragua, coffee represents over 30 percent of what USAID calls “unskilled labor” opportunities. Some people from Miraflor have left the area for Estelí, Managua, or even Costa Rica. “Some will come back, some won’t,” Marlon Villarreyna says.

The Pérez Villarreynas, however, will have enough to eat. Up a short and steep hill just 15 minutes from their house, they grow frijoles, beans, black to sell and red for their own consumption. They also have a garden downhill from their house where they cultivate lettuce and cabbage, oranges and bananas, avocadoes and mangoes.

For his part, Marvin Pérez understands how important it is to his family’s way of life that it has other streams of income. “What would happen if we didn’t have these two options?” he asks. “If my wife didn’t work and we didn’t have the option to host tourists, I don’t know where we would be. I don’t think I’d have two sons in university now.”

Diverse crops, tourism income and a teacher’s salary give the Pérez Villarreynas some breathing room to deal with their coffee rust problems. But to recover, they have difficult choices to make.


One strategy promoted by agricultural technicians is the planting of rust-resistant varieties, like Lempira, named after the currency of Honduras. “It is amazing to see the deep green leaves of a plot of Lempira growing right next to the yellowed and defoliated plants of a susceptible variety,” says Phil Arneson, a plant pathologist and retired Cornell professor who now lives in El Ocotal, Honduras, where he tends his own coffee plants.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. “My concern is that growers will plant too much Lempira,” Arneson says. “We know that eventually a mutant strain of the rust will appear that is capable of infecting Lempira. We have to plant a mixture of varieties with different mechanisms of resistance to the rust.”

The growers of El Sontule plant mostly Caturra, a high quality, but not at all resistant, Arabica varietal. Catimor is one of the resistant varieties, but according to Pérez, what it offers in resistance, it lacks in quality. “No vale la pena,” he says, meaning it’s not worth the hassle of planting it. “We want quality, not quantity, and Catimor is not quality.”

Jeyson Pérez pours coffee cherries into a bag that will be weighed and taken to be washed and depulped.

Also, while Catimor might better resist the rust, it tends to be more vulnerable to another disease, ojo de gallo. Pérez prefers a different resistant strain, Bourbon Mejorado, which he thinks maintains its quality quite well.

Buying new seeds and planting a whole new variety of coffee isn’t exactly cheap. To plant a new manzana of coffee, roughly 1.7 acres, costs around $2,000. During the 2012/13 season, Nicaragua’s coffee producers incurred total losses of $60 million, so there’s not a lot of money to go around to invest in new plants.

When Colombia experienced a similar crisis in 2010, its government stepped in quickly, providing money for alternative varietals and fungicides for quick eradication. Nicaragua’s current Sandinista government has made some funds available to smallholders for replanting, but those funds don’t cover new seeds.

The growers’ plight induced some foreign organizations to offer assistance. Root Capital, a non-profit lending institution, has partnered with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, best known for their Keurig coffee pods, to provide a total of $10 million in loans to small coffee-growing operations.

“One of the ways you can deal with coffee rust, and you kind of have to do it this way if it gets to a certain state, is by replanting your coffee farm,” says Elizabeth Teague, Root Capital’s Senior Associate for Environmental Performance. “This is a pretty big upfront investment, especially given the lag time it takes for coffee plants to produce. So smallholders need long-term loans, and we’re providing long-term loans to the cooperatives that these producers belong to, and then the cooperatives loan that to their members to purchase the seedlings and fertilizers and what have you.”

By the spring of 2014, Root Capital had approved three of these rust-specific renovation loans, two in Peru and one in Nicaragua. PRODECOOP’s 38 cooperatives weren’t among the beneficiaries. But help was under way from a different source. In January 2014, Heifer International, a faith-based U.S. charity, and We Effect, a network of Swedish co-ops, announced a project that would invest almost $15 million dollars in Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia, three of Nicaragua’s coffee-growing states.

Jackson Flores roasts the Pérez Villarreynas coffee beans that they will drink at home.

The Pérez Villarreynas, along with 2,299 other families, will receive funds over the next four years to help with nourishment, crop diversification, and coffee reinvestment. The money will be used to rehabilitate, renovate, and guarantee maintenance of coffee manzanas for each of the four years. It will focus on diversification, planting corn and beans and farming poultry, while also implementing coffee practices intended to help against future epidemics, erosion and soil nutrition. It’s a strategy that resonates with the locals, who have their own theory on what caused the rust.


Modesta Flores, 60, takes a quick break from cooking in her daughter, Mefalia’s, kitchen in El Sontule, Nicaragua. A mother of seven, she has lived in the community of El Sontule in northern Nicaragua her entire life.

Coffee needs a specific climate to grow properly. It’s why we don’t grow coffee in the United States, except in tropical Hawaii. In Latin America, Arabica thrives at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. The dry and rainy seasons must be well defined. The coffee grows during the rainy season and is harvested between December and February, during the dry season. Because of sporadic precipitation, drying coffee has become more difficult.

In Palacaguina, where the drying process takes place at PRODECOOP’s mill, coffee still out on the terraces in the middle of January 2014 actually arrived there over a month prior, in December. The cooperatives chose Palacaguina to house the mill because of its location in terms of the climate. “If it keeps going like this, we could have to move it,” Adilia Hernández, the mill’s administrator, says.

January experienced an uncommon amount of rain, heavy on one day, drizzle and mist on most other days. When the sun finally came out to stay for a few days, everyone was relieved, and those who had coffee went out to collect it.

“It’s too hot,” Pérez says. “And then come the strong rains. The plants aren’t ready.” The heavy rains wash away the overheated soil, and what remains is less fertile and has fewer nutrients to give to the plants. Suelo desnudo, or naked soil, is what Pérez calls it.

The growers of El Sontule dig lines of narrow troughs underneath sections of their plants, to keep the rain water from gathering momentum and running quickly downhill, taking much-needed soil with it. They also use organic fertilizers and compost to help with soil nutrition.

They have long concluded that the inconsistent rains are caused by climate change and that they have brought the rust with them. “We’re the worst contaminant to the environment,” Pérez says.

The Pérez Villarreyna’s coffee is done roasting and ready to be ground and consumed.

In El Sontule, children grow up close to nature, learning about the environment by working and living in it from an early age. In school, climate change is part of the curriculum.

“Climate change isn’t because we take good care of our land,” Adolfo Velásquez, the president of El Sontule’s other coffee cooperative, says. “It’s because people want to get rich.”

The changing rainfall patterns may exacerbate the rust. Arneson argues that a longer period of leaf wetness, caused by prolonged, but not especially fierce moisture, increases the chances of infection.

“The rust spores are splash-dispersed over short distances and wind-dispersed over long distances,” he says. “Heavy rains can wash the spores off leaf surfaces and also effectively cleanse the air, carrying the spores to the ground, where they eventually die. Light mists simply keep the leaves wet for extended periods, providing ideal conditions for rust infection.”

Temperature changes also play a role. Rust can’t survive in temperature lower than 50 degrees. The elevations at which Arabica grows have generally been warm enough to grow coffee, but cool enough to control rust. With climate change, temperatures in the mountains are rising.

“Rust is now found at higher altitudes than ever before,” says Peter Baker, a senior scientist with the Center for Agricultural Bioscience International, a U.K.-based research and information resource for developing nations.

“This is a clear indication that climate change has something to do with it.”

Vandermeer, however, isn’t convinced. “It’s definitely a possibility,” he says. But in his research, he hasn’t seen much of a correlation with temperature or moisture. “In looking at the evidence myself, I don’t see that the evidence is all that strong that climate change has that much to do with it.”

Still, Vandermeer recognizes that climate change does not bode well for the future of coffee in the region.

“The zone of coffee is being compressed,” he says. “There’s going to be a response that coffee can now be grown at higher altitudes. But the projections I’ve seen is we’re going to lose production at the lower altitudes faster than we get it at the higher altitudes.”

Many scientists are saying that by 2050–2080, very few of the areas in Central America currently growing Arabica coffee will still be able to. If this is true, El Sontule, at almost 4,000 feet above sea level, will eventually become too warm to grow Arabica coffee. The Pérez Villarreynas may have to switch to Robusta, the lower quality option that can grow at much lower altitudes. But this would mean giving up the quality coffee they are so proud of, and Robusta’s prices are even lower than Arabica. Plus, all the hard work and money spent on reinvestment in coffee could be for naught by the time the next generations take over. The social gains made by the community in the last 35 years could be lost.

In the long run, the future of coffee in Central America looks rather bleak. “Competition from Southeast Asia and now China will make it difficult, especially if their wage costs remain high and weather patterns continue to be unpredictable,” Baker says.

Climate change affects those most who emit the least carbon. While well-meaning and helpful tourists will continue to visit Miraflor, learn about the growers’ plight, and do their best to help, they rarely make the big lifestyle changes that could help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Mefalia Villarreyna is a member of the Evangelical Church right next to the Pérez Villarreyna’s house.

It’s a conundrum that baffles those in the developed world who want to make more responsible choices when it comes to coffee.

“I definitely have no choice now but to be more conscious,” Hubbard says of her visit. “But I’m not even sure what that means yet.”

The Pérez Villarreynas plan to keep growing coffee and adapting to climate change by planting more shade trees and new coffee plants, making sure to properly nourish their soil and prevent erosion.

“We will always continue to fight to keep our coffee plants,” Villarreyna says.

But as temperatures rise and first-world societies do little to restrain their carbon emissions, the choice to keep growing coffee may not be theirs to make.

stephanie parker

new yorker living in the swiss mountains.

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