Water scarcity in the coffee fields

Agriculture seems to have one more element to preoccupy of:  lack of water. According to the features presented by Christian Wolthers, from Wolthers Douqué, during the XXV Guatemalan National Congress, held 23 and 24 of July in Anacafé, before the drought in Brazil, estimates of production for 2014 crop were 52.6 Million bags, including 13.8 Million bags of Robusta  and 38.80 Million bags of Arabica. New estimates now point out 30.41 Million bags of Arabica and a total Brazilian production of 44.21 Million bags.

He reported that “regions of Varginha, San Antonio de Amparo, including Oliveira, Carmo de Cachoeira, Boa Esperanca, Tras Pontas and Guaxupe have the highest record of density and quality”, also the regions with the highest impact of drought from November 2013 to February 2014. He also indicated that “while plantations look healthy and with relatively good amount of fruits, when examined closely there were high malformation and defective beans, with no color and empty inside”, a phenomenon he called “origami beans”.  Another fact that he reported was the formation of nodules in branches, where he identified only six to nine nodules compared to 13 that branches would normally have.

All of these translates into less production.

Plant’s Anatomy 

Of course, rust has contributed to the important loss of 4 Million bags in Central America, too. But the new variable added to the rust situation is lack of rain. How would this affect Central America’s crop?  A similar situation reported was during the 2005-2006 crop in Guatemala  and in El Salvador.

Francisco Anzueto indicated in the report The influence of water deficit in the blooming of coffee (1987), that after the flowering phase, “fruits grow in a very slow process during the first six or seven weeks, after which the accelerated phase starts all the way to reaching the third month. This phase contributes to the creation of milky process of the bean where deficit of water can purge the green seeds. The second critic phase, as he continues to explain, follows the endosperm formation during the third to fourth months.  “The bean starts the filling phase where carbohydrates and nutrients are in high demand.  When there is lack of water and high temperature, there is no transportation of these nutrients to the fruit, and thus, its malformation and physical black appearance”.

The rain pattern could vary among regions of a specific country and even within the same farm at places with different altitude. In Guatemala, for instance, regions like Sacatepéquez in the central part, Santa Rosa, Jalapa with lower rain pattern than other regions; and, Huehuetenango and Sololá in the higher elevations, normally report higher presence of black beans. Some of the factors considered for this coffee defect to appear are: distribution of the rain; amount of shade trees; orientation of the coffee plants and its nutrition; over-production and stress of the plant ; type of soil; and, the variety.  Catimor 5175 has proven to present more black beans than other varieties according to the same study.

The impact

Central America will report more realistic statistics in the 2014-2015 crop, since now it would be a bit early to have some numbers of the impact of drought. Flowering in places like Huehuetenango happened around March-April. By now, the fourth month process is taking place for the filling of the fruit phase. The impact first noticed was in the new trees planted in the fields.  With very little or none water, they soon started to dry.

Anacafé’s technicians estimated damages of “3% of the total coffee cultivated area, specifically in nearby zones of the dry corridor”. Here is a map with the main areas of Guatemala’s departments included in this corridor: Huehuetenango, El Quiché, Guatemala, Baja Verapaz, Jalapa, El Progreso, Zacapa, Chiquimula and Jutiapa. The Meteorology Institute of Guatemala stated in its July bulletin that after the second half of August rains will intensify until reaching its highest pick in the month of September. The influence of winds from the North are also expected to finish the rainy season earlier than usual, perhaps in the second half of October.

Map of the Minister of Agriculture.
Map of the Guatemalan Minister of Agriculture.

In Costa Rica, for instance, rain patterns have also changed according to the Meteorology Institute’s Monthly Bulletin.  It stated “rain between January and May highlighted deficit in almost all the country in percentages from 20% to 40%; the only exception was the South Pacific, with an annual accumulative within the normal range”. The bulletin also indicated that “June had a significative change in the Caribbean slope, presenting more rain than normal and contrary to Guanacaste accentuating the deficit compared to May”.  With the influence of the Niño phenomenon and the Caribbean and the Atlantic cooling effect, “the most probable rain scenario for the Pacific slope and Central Valley is of major deficit compared to the last years”.

Faces behind drought

Raul Pérez from La Soledad farm, in Acatenango municipality, in Chimaltenango department (Central Zone of Guatemala) shared the farm’s rainfall patterns for the past five years.  According to him, the accumulative for this year until end of July is 109 mm more than last year.  He also said that 4,000 mm of rain registered in 2010, one year before the leaf rust outbreak, and  since then, an average of 2,100 mm has been the constant.

Annual rain fall pattern 2004-2014
La Soledad farm: Annual rain fall pattern 2004-2014 (Courtesy of Raul Pérez)

Perez highlighted the importance of  a detailed graphic.  A comparison of days with rain in the month of July during 2013 and 2014. “You can see that the same dates in 2013 that show rain, during 2014 did not receive any.  In the previous year, those days were cloudy and foggy, which provided humidity to the plants, while in this year they were just like the days we have in November: sunny and dry”.


La Soledad farm: Daily rain July 2013-2014 (Courtesy of Raul Pérez)
La Soledad farm: Daily rain July 2013-2014 (Courtesy of Raul Pérez)

When asked about the effects of the drought, Perez mentioned three specific activities:

1. New plantations transported to the fields during the expected normal period of rain, that did not happen. They did artificial watering, but this increased the cost of production and probably the quality of fruits.
2. Those plants, from 2-3 years old, stopped the growing process and this will affect next year’s crop.
3. Adult plantations were in the filling stage of the fruit. Without water, this cannot be done so they expect to have  partial or full black fruits. This will be notorious during the harvest season from January to March.
But there is another face behind drought, that is famine among workers and small holders that depend on agriculture.  Specially, corn and beans have been severely damaged.  The media reported by August 12, that an estimate of 20 thousand families from Huehuetenango reported about $3.3 million loss (destruction of about 50% to 60% of the crop).
The Meso-American project and its country members from Central America, Colombia and Mexico through a video-conference discussed in the first week of August about the situation and possible solutions. Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala have already declared state of emergency while Nicaragua and El Salvador have announced funds to address the agricultural crisis.  Nicaraguan Minister admitted that “it is the worst drought since 1976”, indicating that rice and beans will be imported to alleviate the scarcity.
Mayan ancestors knew it their way and their descendants still believe it. They pray to Tzultaká, the god of the hill, who had a mechanical or manipulative character, so if people lighted some candles to request for food and beverages he would provide. It is time to make a special request for rain, for the good of all those who depend on agriculture. Or maybe just a sincere hope, like Juan Luis Guerra would say in a more modern language: Ojalá que llueva café en el campo.