In spite of Peru’s ongoing and impressive economic growth and development, the Andean nation’s economy is still based around the export of non-manufactured products, such as minerals and agricultural goods. A staple of Peruvian culture and an important part of its exports is coffee. Tragically, coffee production in the country is under duress due to a breakout of coffee leaf rust (‘roya’ in Spanish).
*The Deadly Roya*
Without getting too technical, coffee rust is a fungus. It attacks coffee plants, and gives the leaves a yellow discoloration, making them appear as if they were rusting. Over the past years, coffee rust has spread throughout Latin America: in a March 2014 commentary for VOXXI, I discussed how rust has crippled production in Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Estimates suggest that around half a million people involved in the coffee trade in the region, from seasonal to permanent workers, have lost their jobs due to declining coffee production.
Colombia has also been hit with coffee rust, but according to Colombian coffee centers, its crops and overall production have not been as affected as in other countries thanks to pro-active steps taken by the Colombian government and coffee farmers.
*Past Victories and Current Losses*
While coffee is not the cornerstone of the Peruvian economy, a decline in its production is nonetheless a hit to the nation’s pride as an exporter of high-quality coffee. In 2010, Peruvian coffee producer Wilson Sucaticona, a member of the coffee union CECOVASA (Central de Cooperativas de los Valles de Sandia), won the prestigious “Coffee of the Year” award given by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. At the time, Peru was also praised for being a major producer of organic coffee.
Tragically, times have changed, and Peru’s 2014 coffee production is expected to be a poor one, at least by the country’s standards. Coffee rust has hit 144 thousand hectares of coffee, around 33% of the total plantations in the country. It is projected that only US$650 million of coffee will be exported this upcoming harvest due to coffee rust – this is significantly less than the US$700 million Peru gained from coffee exports in 2013. For the 2014 harvest, Peru is expected to produce only 5,400,000 quintales (sacks that weight 46 kilograms, though different countries assign differing weights to a quintal). According to the Peruvian daily El Comercio, there are some 150 thousand families in the Andean country that produce coffee for a living.
Moreover, as if coffee rust was not problematic enough, there is another plague that is attacking Peruvian coffee. The other outbreak is called ‘broca:’ an infestation of a beetle originally from Africa which attacks coffee grains; it first appeared around 2013.
Nevertheless, it’s not all bad news for Peru’s coffee. There is hope in a special kind of grain called Catimor, which seems to be resistant to coffee rust. This new coffee strand is being grown in Peru’s Amazon and there are encouraging initial results.
*The Great Game of Coffee*
As previously mentioned, the Andean nation is not the sole country going through hardships, as Central American nations have also been hit by coffee rust. It has been reported that Central American states have lost as much as USD$243 million due to the rust destroying the 2012-2013 coffee harvest. This is no pocket change for any underdeveloped nation. Moreover, Brazil’s coffee production has suffered due to ongoing droughts in the Portuguese-speaking giant.
This means that other coffee producers will be taking over the coffee market as Peru, Brazil, and Central America suffer; such as Colombia and non-Western Hemisphere nations like Vietnam, the world’s newest coffee giant.
“Coffee wars” does not receive much attention from the international media when compared to the focus given on the disputes over the commerce and control of commodities such as oil, gold, or even water. Nevertheless, coffee is an important commodity consumed across the world, and there is money to be made if a coffee-producing nation exports to the U.S. or European markets.
While Peruvian coffee is regarded as being of high quality, the ongoing plague of coffee rust and the lesser well-known broca have put this important industry in peril. On the other hand, nations like neighboring Colombia have been fairly pro-active in combating their own plagues of coffee rust, by, for example, planting new rust-immune coffee seeds.
Hopefully the government in Lima will provide coffee farmers with the aid they need in order to assure that Peru’s coffee industry can bounce back in the short term.