Uganda: Rising temperatures increase pest and disease problems for coffee farmers (IPS)

February 19, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Coffee has been part of Abudu Zikusoka’s life for as long as he can remember. As a child in the village of Ndesse, in central Uganda, he watched as his father brought people into their home to package the family’s harvested coffee. After, they would strap the sacks onto their bicycles. He recalls, “I saw one of them give money to my father, who put a few coins aside to give to my sister.”

The family used coffee revenues to pay his sister’s schooling, and his brother’s. Mr. Zikusoka followed in his father’s footsteps so that he too could provide for his family. When he got married in 2005, he received a half-hectare of farmland and decided to grow coffee.

His coffee trees share the plot with bananas, cassava, and maize. But it’s the coffee that provides the family’s main source of income. He even bought another hectare of land with the money he earned from coffee farming.

But in recent years, his coffee production has dropped steadily because of diseases and pests. A fungal disease called coffee wilt spread to his farm, and black coffee twig borers attacked his trees. Many other farmers were hit by the coffee wilt crisis in Mukono District, one of Uganda’s main coffee-producing regions.

Mr. Zikusoka says: “Before coffee wilt disease attacked my fields, I was earning between 700 and 1,000 US dollars in a good season. But the remaining trees [untouched by wilt] brought in only 250 dollars, and now I don’t know if I will be able to earn more.”

When the rain comes late, it’s even more difficult.

In 2013, Mr. Zikusoka lost everything. He adds, frustrated, “I couldn’t even harvest as much coffee as in 2006, the year I started to concentrate on coffee as a cash crop.” Coffee producers suffered huge losses that year.

In Uganda, coffee is still the leading export. About 3.5 million people depend on it.

Coffee wilt disease was first reported in 1993 on robusta coffee plants in western Uganda. Robusta and arabica are the two most common types of coffee in the world, and Uganda is one of the top robusta producers. Coffee wilt spread quickly throughout the country, destroying at least 12 million plants.

The Uganda Coffee Development Authority says 85% of Ugandan coffee is grown by small-scale farmers. Most of their farms are between a half-hectare and 2.5 hectares. But seeing their coffee trees weaken and deteriorate has pushed some producers to abandon their farms.

Dr. Africano Kangire is with the National Coffee Research Institute. He says the increase in pests and diseases is directly linked to climate change. When temperatures are hotter than usual, some pests and plant diseases thrive.

He points out that some diseases that used to be rare in mountainous areas are now quite common.

Experts predict that global temperatures will rise by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Dr. Kangire says that, if this happens, it will be very difficult to grow coffee in the lowlands. Only a few cooler areas such as those in the mountains will remain suitable for growing coffee.

He notes that coffee leaf rust disease, which usually affects coffee at altitudes lower than 1,400 metres, has now surfaced at 1,800 metres above sea level.

Coffee berry disease has also shifted to higher altitudes, and is attacking crops at 1,800 metres above sea level. Previously, it appeared only below 1,600 metres.

Uganda’s coffee sector is trying to adapt. Scientists are working on developing coffee varieties that are more resistant to coffee wilt disease.

Paul Isabirye is deputy commissioner of the meteorology department at Uganda’s National Coffee Research Institute. He says the rains now come later, leaving the coffee beans little time to mature. He adds, “If the coffee beans are exposed to lots of sun and less rain, they will remain small and production will be low.”

Leaf miners also threaten Uganda’s coffee growers. And they don’t only attack coffee. Ugandan researchers say the pest has spread to almost 50 plant species in addition to coffee.

This story was adapted from an article titled “Insectes et maladies attaquent la principale culture d’exportation du pays” published by Inter Press Service. To read the original article, please see: http://www.ipsinternational.org/fr/_note.asp?idnews=8018