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Having survived Hugo, Puerto Rico now fights roya.

Having survived Hugo, Puerto Rico now fights roya

One year after Hurricane Hugo laced into Puerto Rico, leaving thousands homeless and ruining 20% of the coffee crop, island coffee producers are facing a new enemy: "la roya."

Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican coffee industry is striving to become self-sufficient, and for the second year in a row is exporting gourmet-quality coffee beans to Japan.

Jose R. Irizarry, president of the 100-member Federacion de Productores de Cafe de Lares, warned it won't be easy.

"The main threat to the coffee industry is roya disease. We haven't been able to control it," he said, estimating that at least 10,000 out of the 70,000 acres of coffee under cultivation in Puerto Rico are affected by roya.

Irizarry said damage caused by roya may be as much as $30 million--more damage than was caused by last year's Hurricane Hugo. "Roya destroys the whole plantation, Hugo only destroyed the harvest."

A leaf disease caused by the Hemileia vastatrix fungus, roya has been plaguing Puerto Rico since February 1989, and has been detected in at least seven coffee-growing municipalities in the island's central mountain region.

"If we don't control it, it'll be the end of our coffee industry," said Eduardo Criado, spokesman for the University of Puerto Rico's Agricultural Extension Service.

Criado said the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture is importing 10-hundredweights of roya-resistant coffee seedlings from Costa Rica, in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. According to the department, Puerto Rico's coffee industry brings the island some $60 million in annual revenues (out of total fiscal 1990 revenues of $709 million, down from $731 million the year before, largely because of Hugo).

Alfonso Davila, Puerto Rico's recently appointed secretary of agriculture, said his agency is spending $4 million to fight roya.

Davila recently traveled to Japan to assist Tokyo-based Ueshima Coffee Co. in a $1 million advertising promotion of Puerto Rican gourmet coffee. The firm, working with a local subsidiary known as Nipuspusan International, plans to purchase 2,400 hundredweights of coffee this year, up from 400 hundredweights last year, for consumption by discriminating Japanese coffee-drinkers.

"We want to open new markets in high-quality coffee," Davila said. "In the next two years, we'll be able to produce more than we consume. Our projection this year is for between 300,000 and 325,000 hundredweights."

Puerto Rico, which had been exporting coffee since 1736--and was once considered the best source of coffee in the world--is now a net coffee importer.

According to government statistics, imports account for more than 10% of consumption. The biggest source of coffee in fiscal 1989 was the nearby Dominican Republic (28,752 hundredweights), followed by Costa Rica (11,074 hundredweights) and Columbia (376 hundredweights). One reason Puerto Rico no longer exports coffee in large amounts is the lack of workers willing to pick coffee beans for $2 an hour.

Some 12,000 people already work the coffee crop, but island coffee producers say that's not enough. They want to import workers from the nearby Dominican Republic, where wages of $2 an hour are unheard of.

Irizarry said his organization is negotiating directly with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to get permission to bring seasonal workers to Puerto Rico.

However, the Puerto Rico Department of Labor is opposed to the idea. Agency officials point out that many Dominicans, given worsening political and economic conditions in their country, are likely to stay in Puerto Rico long after the crop is over (in late August, at least 11 Dominicans were killed in riots over the government's new austerity program).

"We have a labor shortage," Davila said, "but that's a problem the labor department will have to solve. Right now, we're in the middle of an ad campaign to get people to work the crop. Also, there'll be government subsidies for transportation."

Davila, 36, is the island's third secretary of agriculture in two years. He took over following the health-related resignation of Felipe Rodriguez, who in turn became agriculture secretary when his predecessor, Juan Bauza, resigned. Bauza is now in business in Isabela, where he has a nursery with more than one million coffee trees.

Indeed, Puerto Rico seems to have no shortage of producers ready to face the challenges posed by the coffee industry.

In the last year, says one official, the Puerto Rico Production Credit Association has approved some 291 short-term loans (more than 22% of the total) to coffee farmers, with a total volume of $4.27 million. Another $1.7 million in long-term loans (more than 10 years) has been approved by the Federal Land Bank. Both agencies are part of a government-sponsored farm credit association.

One of those entrepreneurs is Franco Fullana, who recently started a coffee farm on some 150 unused acres of land near Ciales.

"We're in underproduction of coffee right now," Fullana says.

"If we can increase our production, we have a guaranteed price" of between $185 and $195 per hundred weight.

Fullana said he pays his coffee-pickers $3.25 per almud (a local measurement equivalent to 28 pounds); other workers get a flat $3.50 an hour, which is the legal federal minimum wage.

"It's a growing market," he said. "Within the next five or six years, we will be self-sufficient in coffee production.

Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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Title Annotation:leaf disease
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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