Changing Ecology and Coffee Rust

Vandermeer, John
Date Written:  2013-08-01
Publisher:  Against the Current
Year Published:  2013
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX19874

From Guatemala to Panama, governments are boosting aid to fight the fungus and keep workers from migrating to cities or north toward the United States. The article looks into the causes of the coffee ecosystem crisis and its consequences.



In the 19th century, first the Dutch and shortly thereafter the English created a perfect disease habitat in southern India, Java, Sumatra and what was then called Ceylon, when they decided to eliminate native vegetation and plant monocultures of coffee, creating the biological equivalent of the squalid slums of industrializing Manchester-- this time not for people but for the plants that produce coffee beans.

From the point of view of the disaese organisms that seek the leaves of coffee bushes as their preferred habitat, this was a perfect setup. The organism Hemelia vastatrix, popularly known as the coffee rust, was released from what had previously been the natural control created by great distances between coffee plants. Though unaware, the Europeans who constructed this habitat were great friends of Hemelia vastatrix. But they were paid back with coffee plants so diseased that recovery was impossible and coffee, as a major crop in southern Asia, was simply abandoned.

Fast forward toward the present. An outbreak in Angola in 1966 may have been the source of a trans-Atlantic dispersal to Bahia, Brazil; within a few years it was found throughout that state and subsequently throughout Brazil. Anticipation of its spread to the north caused considerable concern, and farmers throughout the region were extensively warned of the coming disaster.

However, actions recommended for farmers were only partially based on evidence, and many farms ignored the recommendations anyway. In the end, worries that the disease would be as devastating in the Americas as it had been earlier in Asia seemingly were overblown and the pathogen remained a troublesome, but not devastating, problem for coffee production. Even those farms forgoing the recommended control methods didn’t suffer the devastation that had been feared.
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