How a coffee rust epidemic escalated in Chiapas, Mexico

Climate change will worsen agricultural pests and diseases, but are institutions ready for it?
coffee beans, coffee leaf rust epidemic, CLR, Mexico Chiapas, smallholder coffee, agroforestry
A farmer picks red coffee cherries Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR

Related stories

The thought that climate change is threatening our daily cup of coffee might be too much to bear for some of us. But the available land suited to grow Coffea arabica, the world’s most loved coffee bean, could be reduced by half by 2050, according to some predictions. Producers well know the challenges brought on by climate change are not reserved for the future – they already exist today.

In 2012, a coffee leaf rust outbreak brought on by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix riddled crops in Mexico’s Chiapas region. The deep green leaves which had soaked up Mexico’s blazing sun and abundant rain in this altitudinous coffee region, were now blistered brown or shed completely. This is the work of the fungus Hemileia vastatrix. It can only survive by feeding on the coffee plant, and in turn stifles the ability of its host to feed itself through photosynthesis. The result is a year-on-year dwindling harvest.

Coffee leaf rust (CLR) continued its spread through Latin America, where it still ravages crops from Mexico to Bolivia. Climate change has promised to increase the expansion and frequency of such epidemics, further burdening smallholder farmers. In a recently published paper I wrote with Claudia Ituarte-Lima and Thomas Elmqvist from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, we pinned the outbreak on just that: increased affectation by pests and diseases brought on by climate change.

We analyzed legal and institutional responses to this social–ecological crisis, zooming in on the Chiapas Sierra Madre, a mountainous region of south-eastern Mexico. We found that the legal and institutional arrangements designed to deal with the fallout of such outbreaks actually deepened the coffee rust crisis, leading to greater vulnerability of smallholders and of the agrobiodiversity of shade-grown coffee ecosystems.

If climate change has caused the epidemic, then should its burden land solely on the producers of the global South?


Learning from a social–ecological crisis

Recent calls from the youth have reminded us to name global environmental change for what it is: a climate crisis. At the same time, the scientific community has confirmed that we face an unprecedented biodiversity crisis. How can we learn from moments of crisis in order to be better prepared to face future challenges?

Moments of social–ecological crisis may become policy windows whereby we can strengthen resilience and build sustainable livelihoods. However, a crisis tends to accentuate preexisting power dynamics, which marginalize people based on gender, ethnicity, class, age or ability, making marginalized groups more vulnerable. In the context of an emergency, short-term, urgent measures may prove to compromise resilience in the longer term.

Our study found that a short-sighted response to a social–ecological crisis may dictate pathological solutions by increasing both costs and risk in the long term, as poorly thought investments in emergency situations can undermine future sustainability. By applying the framework of legal resilience building when analyzing landscape governance, the study shows the importance of matching scales of social–ecological systems with legal and institutional arrangements. This can prove a useful tool in addressing the multiple challenges that emerge in landscape management, where different actors compete to determine the future of the landscape.


The coffee leaf rust epidemic

The coffee leaf rust is a disease that has been present in the Americas since 1979 and in Mexico since 1981. In 2012, an outbreak of this fungus in south-eastern Mexico devastated coffee production and jeopardized the livelihoods of coffee smallholders and workers. Linked to a regional epidemic, 10 to 55 percent of arabica coffee crops were lost throughout Central America in the three years that ensued. Although this was not the first coffee rust outbreak, a new record was set for spread, impact and duration.

In the Chiapas Sierra Madre, one of the last relicts of shade-grown coffee, agroforestry systems connect  biosphere reserves and agricultural ecosystems. Smallholders whose livelihoods depend on polycultures of shade-grown, organic coffee have yet to recover from the CLR epidemic, which continues to hamper production. As of 2018, coffee prices are at a historical low, further deepening this social–ecological crisis.

The institutional response to this epidemic in the Chiapas Sierra Madre focused on crop modernization and intensification strategies. Through credit schemes, private–public partnerships promoted rust-resistant coffee varieties previously unknown to the region. These new varieties come with recommended changes to coffee plantation structure, such as increasing the density of coffee plants per hectare and reducing the amount and type of trees used for shade cover. Combined with the economic losses caused by the coffee rust epidemic, this institutionally promoted agricultural transition has led to land use change, and has caused concern about increased deforestation and forest degradation in this biodiversity hotspot.


Multiscale mismatches in legal resilience building

Scale analysis within the framework of legal resilience building provides a better understanding of the consequences of this crisis.

Resilience speaks to the capacity of social–ecological systems to recover, adapt and transform when faced with unexpected change. In this context, legal resilience building discusses the manner in which laws, institutions and policies are capable of responding to nonlinear and unforeseen changes. Promoting flexibility in light of unpredictability, legal resilience building argues for matching the scales of social–ecological phenomena with legal and institutional arrangements.

In our paper, we argue that legal concepts and political jurisdictions are not always in line with the unclear boundaries of social–ecological systems, in a mismatch which can undermine system resilience and the enjoyment of the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

In the case of the coffee rust outbreak, the scales of space and time provide insight into mismatches in responding to this social–ecological crisis. Beginning in 2008 in Colombia, the H. vastatrix epidemic  caused a 31 percent drop in production compared with the previous year, generated serious losses in Central America as of 2010, and then in Mexico as of 2012; severe losses have been reported in Ecuador and Peru as of 2013. Despite this regional coverage, the response to the outbreak has been slow to emerge, sporadic and isolated. In what McCook and Vandermeer (2015) have called “a neoliberal epidemic,” the coffee rust thrived as changes in the structural conditions of coffee production were taking place. Here, international collaboration was conspicuous by its absence, while subnational jurisdictions came into conflict with Mexico’s central government over how to manage the crisis.

With regard to the scale of time, the study illustrates how short-term thinking led authorities to promote emergency interventions in the Chiapas Sierra Madre which, by emphasizing productivity over livelihoods, risk generating future costs while ignoring longer-term nature-based solutions.

This research proposes two new scales of analysis within the framework. On the one hand, analyzing existing power relations facilitates an understanding of which interests benefit from the responses to the crisis. In the absence of robust responses to the coffee rust problem, institutional and private actors implemented intensification strategies that favor quantity over quality in coffee production. By doing so, they failed to recognize the particular environmental and economic conditions of marginalized smallholders in this mountainous region, who are now threatened with increased rural debt and environmental vulnerability.

The analytical lens of modularity- simply defined as the organization of a system’s components into modules- allows for a recognition of the importance of ‘in-between’ ecosystems (neither primary forest nor degraded land) in resilience building. Understood as the spatial configuration of habitat patches in the landscape, modularity may range from low modularity, where there is high connectivity throughout the system, to high modularity, where there are many small isolated patches and low connectivity throughout the system. According to our research, policies supporting islands of conservation (high modularity) and coffee monocultures without shade (low modularity) present a problem of fit with small-scale farmers’ production of shade-grown coffee in the biodiversity-rich areas (middle modularity) of the Chiapas Sierra Madre.


Agrobiodiversity and the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment

Learning from social–ecological crises is vital for safeguarding diverse agroforestry systems and for fostering an enabling environment for small-scale coffee farmers to enjoy their right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

But despite the maladaptive nature of institutional responses to the coffee rust epidemic, our research identifies legal and policy instruments to match the scales of law with agroforestry systems. Authors point to international environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which recognize the role of agrobiodiversity and the importance of safeguards in biodiversity financing mechanisms. Furthermore, collaboration between organized coffee producers in the Chiapas Sierra Madre, research institutes and concerned coffee consumers has seen the application of international sustainability standards. This has allowed for innovative solutions to the coffee crisis by recognizing local knowledge about biodiversity and agricultural management.




This research was supported by CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors, and by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This research was supported by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).
Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting