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Gov’t looks for quick coffee fix

The months of September, November and December have been disastrous for Costa Rican coffee production. Due to “ojo de gallo,” an invasive plant fungus, and heavier-than-usual rains that closed important transportation routes this season, the coffee crisis is putting farm owners and workers in a tight spot.

The unforeseen blows to the industry led the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE) to drastically lower its projection for the country’s total output of the commodity for 2010. The shortage, which is also happening in other coffee producing nations, has driven prices higher than $2 a pound. ICAFE officials predict that coffee prices will stay high for the next two to three years (TT, Nov 26).

The Costa Rican government is taking advantage of this period of low production to financially support coffee farmers, both in disaster relief and coffee field renovation, which will help yield a stronger crop in the coming years.

Last week, Second Vice President Luis Liberman and Agriculture Minister Gloria Abraham, along with legislator Alicia Fournier and Banco Nacional General Manager Fernando Naranjo, visited Dota and Tarrazú, two heavily impacted cantons south of the capital. Farmers in Dota and Tarrazú, located in a region known as Los Santos, produce some of the world’s most popular coffee.

The aim of the visit was to better understand farmers’ needs and look at ways government and private agencies could help support rehabilitation efforts.

 “We know that losses are great and they won’t be recovered right away, but as government [officials], we are ready to help, even in the middle of a financial crisis,” Liberman said.

Liberman also said upcoming road construction projects would help farmers more easily transport coffee to market.

But the Coffee Renovation Plan, a mixed public and private initiative designed to boots productivity and replace aging plants, should be revised to make responding to crises faster and easier, he said. One way to do that would be to simplify the process required by Banco Nacional to give credits to affected farming families. The bank has about 10 billion ($20 million) in credits to disperse.

Abraham reported progress on a pension agreement allowing farmers to be paid subsidiary wages. The Labor Ministry will pay recipients a monthly stipend of 180,000 ($358) from a special fund.

Abraham also said a training program was needed on how to keep coffee plants healthy, a measure aimed at preventing ojo de gallo.

The agriculture minister also discussed efforts to facilitate National Emergency Commision funds to support the sector’s recovery.

“We have been with you since this emergency began, and we won’t leave you until the work is finished,” she told growers. “We have the programs, we are obtaining the resources and we have a situation that requires us not to think, but to act.”

“We’re going to have stable prices for the next few years, which is going to prompt the recuperation of productivity,” ICAFE Executive Director Ronald Peters said.

“It might not necessarily be the same level of production that Costa Rica has had in the past, but both coffee farms that still are able to produce coffee and those that aren’t are going to have a valuable crop.”

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