Roya (coffee leaf rust) report – El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala

These days, big news for us coffee buyers, importers, exporters and producers is the Roya (coffee leaf rust) fungus outbreak in Central America. Experts are predicting a 15% decrease in total production from all of Central America coffee in 2013, and as much as a 40%+ decrease in years to come.

Roya Damage

What is Roya? What is causing the outbreaks? How will it affect coffee quality? What about the producers who rely on their coffee crop as their main source of income? These are just some of the questions that should be floating around in your head, and are questions that are definitely swimming in mine.

Here’s some background information:

Roya (Spanish), Coffee Leaf Rust, or Hemileia Vastatrix , is a leaf fungus that causes significant damage to coffee plants, causing the plant to drop leaves, and therefore effecting nutrients to the plant. The end result affects the supply and quality of coffee for 3-4 years after initial infestation. Furthermore, since the plant is overly stressed from one illness, it is more susceptible to others only exasperating the issue.

Roya Damage

Most experts have concluded that warming of coffee growing regions, and abnormal rainfall and strong winds have created a perfect growing condition for Roya. Roya, as a fungus, enjoys a hot, humid climate. Its spores are transported via wind/air to healthy plants hence winds being a contributing factor. The winds not only transplant the fungus to healthy plants, but also assist in dropping leafs from plants quickening the destructive power of Roya.

A sick plant cannot produce. Roya reduces the physiological activity and threatens the plant’s ability to produce coffee cherries. In many cases, Roya kills the entire tree.
On January 22nd of this year, Costa Rica’s Vice President Luis Liberman and the National Coffee Institute ICAFE jointly signed a two-year emergency bill to provide provisions of about $4 million to pay for fungicides to aid in the control of Roya. February 9thof this year, Guatemalan President Otto Molino Perez and the Guatemalan National Coffee declared a state of emergency. Needless to say, with many Central American governments declaring a state of emergency due to Roya, this is a serious issue; where in the hardest hit places could put producers out of food and home.

With all the buzz about how bad Roya is in Central America, I was expecting to see a lack of coffee and quality during my entire trip, devastated farms, and producers who feared the worst. To my surprise, I found some of the best coffees that Temple has ever had the privilege to purchase, and producers whom were all very optimistic about the entire ordeal. I did see many devastated farms with nothing but twigs and cleared land, but many producers saw this as a change to, “refresh” or replant their farms, bring back old ways of pruning, and learn.

When I asked about Roya, most producers simply said, “The Roya has always been here. We have been dealing with it for generations. Yes, it is worse now, but with proper management and techniques it can be controlled.” Their proof was in the cup, exceptional coffees, good volumes, and healthy looking trees.

-Eton Tsuno, Green Coffee Buyer, Temple Coffee Inc.