18 February 2013

Coffee Ecological Disaster

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

Coffee production exploded from 5.5 million bags in 1890 to 16.3 million in 1901. Coffee planting doubled in the decade following abolition, and by the turn of the century over 500 million coffee trees grew in the state of Sao Paulo. Brazil flooded the world with coffee. This over reliance on one crop had a direct effect on the well-being of most Brazilians.

The ecological historian Warren Dean in his book [The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest] documents the devastating affect that coffee had on Brazil’s environment. During the winter months of May, June, and July, gangs of workers would begin at the base of a hill, chopping through the trunks just enough to leave them standing. “Then it was the foreman’s task to decide which was the master tree, the giant that would be cut all the way through, bringing down all the others with it,” Dean writes. “If he succeeded, the entire hillside collapsed with a tremendous explosion, raising clouds of debris, and swarms of parrots, toucans, and songbirds.” After drying for a few weeks, the felled giants were set afire.

At the end of this conflagration, a temporary fertilizer of ash on top of the virgin soil gave a jump-start for year-old coffee seedlings, grown in shaded nurseries from hand-pulped seeds before transplanted. The coffee, grown in full sun rather than shade, sucked nutrition out of the depleting humus layer rather quickly. Cultivation practices guaranteed wildly fluctuating harvests. Coffee trees always take a rest the year after a heavy bearing season, but Brazilian conditions exacerbated the phenomenon. When the land was “tired,” it was simply abandoned and new swathes of forest were then cleared. Unlike the northern arboreal forests, these tropical rain forests, once destroyed, would take centuries to regenerate.

By the late nineteenth century the Rio coffee lands were dying. The Rio region was “quickly ruined by a plant whose destructive form of cultivation left forests razed, natural reserves exhausted, and general decadence in its wake,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in Open Veins in Latin America. “Previously virgin lands were pitilessly eroded as the plunder-march of coffee advanced.”

Guatemala's coffee rust 'emergency' devastates crops
09 Feb 2013
Guatemala has declared a state of agricultural emergency after a coffee tree fungus blighted about 70% of the national crop. Coffee rust causes trees to lose their leaves, resulting in fewer beans, of inferior quality. Honduras and Costa Rica have already declared national emergencies. El Salvador and Panama are also affected. Coffee rust first became a significant problem in the 1860s in what was then called Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). More than 90% of crops were wiped out, and coffee-growing was abandoned on the island. Coffee is Guatemala's main export, and coffee growers warn that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost.

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