The Ixil region is home to indigenous communities that are deeply impoverished, ravaged by war, and plagued with mistrust between neighbors. High in the mountains of Guatemala, families labor daily to earn a small income and provide us with coffee.
Life there has always been tenuous, but when the fungus la roya decimated 75% of the coffee plants in the region, Ixil’s farmers needed to find a solution.
That solution was effective microorganisms (EM).
Women walk down the streets of Chajul in the Ixil region of Guatemala. Credit: Kelly Kowalski
The Rise of Coffee in Ixil
For generations, families in the Ixil region lived off of their land, growing vegetables to feed their families. The agricultural knowledge necessary for this subsistence livelihood was passed down from generation to generation and family to family.
However, in the 1850s many families began producing coffee as a cash crop. It became, and continues to be, deeply rooted in the Ixil culture. From 1871 onwards, land was taken away from the indigenous families to allow for more coffee plantations.
Unfortunately, much of the ancient knowledge used to keep the soil healthy and crops strong and resilient when exposed to disease has been lost. Now, Ixil producers are constantly at the mercy of the volatile coffee market. This means that coffee-growing communities often struggle to provide basic needs, such as education, food, and health care, for their families.
The Sotzil community in the Ixil region of Guatemala. Credit: Kelly Kowalski
La Roya Hits the Ixil Region
The fungus la roya hit the Ixil region in 2014, at which point the local coffee cooperative, Asociación Chajulense, lost 75% of its production. And so the coffee farmers, already dependent on coffee for their livelihoods, also lost up to 75% of their income.
It was a crisis.
The Coffee Trust, a non-profit organization which I am associated with, was invited to work with these farmers to find a solution. We have been operating in the Ixil region since 2008, with funding primarily from coffee businesses and consumers. Our goal is to help coffee farmers and their families empower themselves. We want them to create their own futures based on their priorities, culture, and values.
The organization employs the campesino-a-campesino (farmer-to-farmer) methodology, in the belief that farmers learn best from other farmers. When ideas are shared between neighbors and peers, rather than through top-down training, we see participants become empowered. The boundaries of any given project are pushed.
And so our job was to help farmers find ways to fight la roya, and then spread that knowledge among themselves.
Edgar Asicona, a coffee farmer in the Ixil region. Credit: The Coffee Trust
What Is La Roya?
La roya (“the rust” in Spanish), or coffee leaf rust, is a fungus that appears on the leaves of coffee plants in round, yellow-orange spots. It makes the leaves appear rusted. The infection often begins on leaves at the base of the plant and moves upwards. Once infected, they then fall from the plant.
The leaves, however, are crucial for photosynthesis – the process by which the plants create and store energy. Without them, the coffee trees produce less and less cherries.
The fungus affects both Arabica and Robusta coffee, and, due to the rising temperatures of climate change, la roya is now spreading to higher altitudes. Previously, high altitudes were too cold for the fungus to thrive.
Many solutions to la roya have been proposed. The best strategy for each community will depend on their economic status and the severity of the infection. But for the farmers in Ixil, we have found that restoring their knowledge of ancient agricultural practices and using effective microorganisms is remarkably effective.
La roya on the leaves of a coffee plant. Credit: Kelly Kowalski
Effective Microorganisms: What, Why, and How
Healthy soils provide plants with vital nutrients for growth and fruit production. They can even protect plants from disease. So what makes a healthy soil?
Soils are complex ecosystems, where pathogenic (disease-causing) and beneficial microorganisms compete for resources and decompose organic matter. These microorganisms provide hormones, minerals, and nutrients for the plants.
The Coffee Trust has discovered that effective microorganisms, a specific mixture of beneficial anaerobic bacteria, help fight la roya. They are able to kill the fungus on the leaves of coffee plants and starve it in the soil, out-competing it for nutrients.
“Our coffee is back.” Credit: Kelly Kowalski
Fighting La Roya With Effective Microorganisms
We run a Roya Recovery Project, in which participants learn how to grow their own batches of effective microorganisms. All they need is a starter culture combined with molasses and water. The microorganisms consume the molasses and grow exponentially, making an even larger batch of effective microorganisms.
Participants then spray these microorganisms on their coffee plants and in the soil. Women in the communities also use these effective microorganisms to strengthen their family gardens, and feed them to their chickens to keep them healthy.
Farmers in the Roya Recovery Project are even beginning to experiment with growing the starter culture of beneficial bacteria themselves. By replacing molasses with bananas and other fruits, they can produce effective microorganisms without any outside resources.
This shows the strengths of farmer-to-farmer development. Farmers learning from their neighbors are empowered to experiment with new technologies, find their own best practices, and share them with their fellow farmers.
Effective microorganisms being sprayed on young coffee plants. Credit: Kelly Kowalski
Restoring Lost Agricultural Knowledge
The Roya Recovery Project does not just promote effective microorganisms, however. Coffee farmers learn how to implement organic agricultural practices that their ancestors might have used. These keep their soils nourished and their crops strong.
The farmers learn how to compost the coffee cherry fruit, along with other organic material. They dig ditches around their farms to prevent runoff from neighboring farms, which may use chemical inputs such as fertilizers and fungicides. They strategically prune the coffee plants for healthy re-growth, and they plant legumes within their plantations to replenish the nitrogen in the soil. Fruit trees can be used for shade management within the coffee farms, as well as providing another crop for food or income.
All of these practices work to replenish soil nutrients and strengthen coffee crops. And the knowledge of how to implement these practices is shared, farmer to farmer, throughout the communities.
Pablo Anay Caba, a farmer in the Roya Recovery Project, with nitrogen-fixing legumes. Credit: The Coffee Trust
Sustainability for the Ixil Region
Asociación Chajulense shipped out eleven containers of coffee the year la roya hit. In the 2015-2016 harvest season, they shipped close to twenty. We hope that, with all of these farming techniques, this cooperative will not only eliminate la roya from the region, but also triple their highest previous production capabilities.
The Roya Recovery Project is a long-term strategy. Its focus is on strengthening these crops for the future, so that the coffee plants may be more resilient against the next disease that comes along. By bringing these pieces of ancient knowledge back, the communities are able to work towards a sustainable future for generations to come.
Feature photo: Daniel Carrillo, a farmer and leader in the Roya Recovery Project. Credit: Kelly Kowalski
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