dorset chiapas solidarity

June 16, 2015

The epidemic which helps Nestlé’s plans

Filed under: Corporations — Tags: , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 5:51 pm

The epidemic which helps Nestlé’s plans


The fungus which is destroying coffee plantations in Chiapas allows the multinational to change the cultivation of coffee according to its own interests.

In nine municipalities in Chiapas, the outbreak of rust affects between 20% and 62.7% of the coffee.

By Orsetta Bellani

MEXICO // Antonio López Jiménez gently picks a leaf from his coffee bush, now almost leafless. “This is the rust,” he laments, showing yellow spots on the surface of the plant. Until November 2013, Antonio’s main concern was to find coffee buyers who would allow him to avoid the middlemen, and thus charge a better price for his product. Today all this has changed for the indigenous Maya from Mexico, whose biggest nightmare is the orange leaf rust, a fungus that has eaten 80% of the plantation of Arabica coffee planted by the cooperative he founded with 200 other families in 2010.

The invasion of this fungus is a real threat to the local economy in Chiapas, one of the poorest regions of the country. 88% of the population lives in poverty, so the sale of coffee is a vital source of income for survival. Since 2011, the price of arabica beans has fallen by nearly 60%, and the three million farmers who live by growing coffee fear for their future. Moreover, without money, the coffee growers are barely able to invest in the maintenance of their plantations, which favours the spread of the epidemic.

downloadAnother of the problems that Mexican campesinos are facing in combating orange leaf rust is the lack of a means to put an end to it: a variety of arabica which is resistant to the fungus in one ecosystem will not necessarily be so in another.

According to figures from the National Coordinator of Mexico Coffee Organizations (CNOC), 50% of coffee plantations in Chiapas are affected by orange leaf rust. Something similar has occurred in other Mexican states such as Veracruz and Oaxaca, where regional authorities have called on the federal government to declare an emergency. But the Mexican president denies that there is a plague. “The rust problem affects 10% of the coffee. There is no epidemic or emergency” says Belisario Dominguez, director of the Ministry of Agriculture. An assertion that contradicts data from the National Health Service, Food Safety and Quality (SENASICA), which holds that leaf rust is “the most destructive disease of coffee.” According to this institution, in nine municipalities in Chiapas fungus affects 20% to 62.7% of the coffee. And in Veracruz, 18.7% of the plants are contaminated.

“What is lacking in Mexico is a centralized, national plan against rust. So far we have not had any meetings with the government, “complains Fernando Celis, advisor to the CNOC, “but local actions have been launched, including a discretionary allocation of public resources in response to pressure.”

And this is where the controversy arises, because not everyone loses from the invasion of orange leaf rust. The government inertia leads to producers and local institutions allying with companies like Nestlé. The Swiss multinational is handing out plants and chemicals in Veracruz to combat the epidemic and will soon begin operating in the State of Guerrero.

Nestlé distributes coffee of the variety catimor, which supposedly resists rust. Since 2010, through Plan Nescafé, the food company also distributes a species of coffee plants known as robusta. It is a low-quality coffee bean, which, unlike arabica, will also grow at below 1,000 meters above sea level. This product is used to make instant coffee and is resistant to rust.

“In some areas where both varieties can be produced, farmers have endeavoured to replace the arabica coffee bushes with robusta. And this has been due to the rust,” explains Emilio Diaz, responsible for supplying coffee to Nestlé.

imagesThis substitution of crops is good news for the Swiss company, which owns the world’s largest processing plant for soluble coffee, in Mexico. Due to the low volume of production of robusta beans on Mexican soil, the multinational has to import this coffee from abroad, with the costs that this represents. So five years ago they launched Plan Nescafé. “Thanks to this strategy, in 2020 we could put an end to imports and become self-sufficient in robusta beans within five years,” says Diaz.

However, robusta production brings several problems. The development of monocultures causes serious environmental impacts, and generates little profit for the producers. “The price of robusta is roughly half that of arabica, and the farmers are not convinced,” explains Dominguez, from the Ministry of Agriculture. Therefore, government programmes promoted by the institution “are designed to support arabica plants and not robusta, which accounts for only 3% of national production,” he insists. Thus, in 2010 the Ministry of Agriculture agreed with the Mexican Council of Coffee Producers Organizations not to get involved “in the promotion of robusta programmes by transnational corporations.”

But this agreement is not being fulfilled. Despite its commitments and declarations, the Government of Mexico is actively participating in Plan Nescafé and even economically supports the producers of robusta through the Humid Tropics programme. This plan gives about 300 euros per hectare to farmers who cultivate this type of bean [robusta], while the campesinos growing arabica – 97% of the coffee producers in the country – receive only 79 euros.

Colombia invests in research

The third largest coffee producer in the world, Colombia, has not escaped the invasion of leaf rust. The Coffee region, in the north of the country, recorded a fungus outbreak in 2008. 55.3% of the area used for agriculture is occupied by coffee plants, so the problem was serious. That same year, the government began a process of renovation of coffee plantations, including the planting of 50,000 hectares of young plants and arabica varieties resistant to the fungus.

“In Colombia, the government and companies responded to the epidemic by investing in research. They also enabled the coffee producers to access credits and incentives,” explains Antoine Libert, of the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) in Xochimilco, Mexico City. This alliance between government and business, where the support of the Executive to the agricultural sector has been very prompt, does not exist in the Mexican country. “There are government departments and offices engaged in agriculture, but they are doing so independently and in isolation. There is little coordination in this area within the public sector,” lamented the expert.


An epidemic born in Asia

RoyaCMYK-e1432629625713In 1867, farmers in Ceylon saw a previously unknown fungus completely wipe out their plantations. It was the Hemileia vastatrix, the scientific name for leaf rust, which now threatens the coffee plantations of half the world.

After the voracious fungus attack, farmers in the British colony had to replace their battered coffee plants with tea plantations, and soon the island became the world’s leading exporter of tea. But leaf rust had already begun spreading unstoppably.

The fungus spread through Southeast Asia, and from there to Oceania and Africa. A century later, in 1970, it reached Latin America through Brazil. In 1981, the coffee plantations in Mexico were already infected by the plague. Since then, the rust has been taking over the American coffee ecosystem. Abnormal conditions of humidity and temperature, as a result of climate change, have helped spread what is now already a real epidemic.

The origin of the current outbreak of leaf rust was in Guatemala in 2010. In this small Central American country, the fungus has wiped out 70% of the coffee crop. Peru and the Dominican Republic have also not been spared its destructive effects.

This report was undertaken as part of the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas of the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Connectas




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