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A worker dries coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in February 2013. (AP)

Rust Devastates Guatemala's Prime Coffee Crop And Its Farmers

Jul 28, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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A coffee leaf damaged by coffee rust fungus in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, in May 2014. The airborne disease strikes coffee plants, flecking their leaves with spots and causing them to wither and fall off.

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Outside the northern Guatemalan town of Olopa, near the Honduran border, farmer Edwin Fernando Diaz Viera stands in the middle of his tiny coffee field. He says it was his lifelong dream to own a farm here. The area is renowned for producing some of the world's richest Arabica, the smooth-tasting beans beloved by specialty coffee brewers.

"My farm was beautiful, it was big," he says.

But then, a plant fungus called coffee rust, or roya in Spanish, hit his crop.

"Coffee rust appeared and wiped out everything," he says.

That was in 2012, and it was Diaz Viera's first crop. The rust took it all. The fungus roared over the hillsides, covered the valleys and clung to the slopes of Guatemala's shady volcanoes.

Diaz says it was like an atomic bomb — it wiped the whole place clean.

The fungus has spread through Central America at an alarming rate, causing crop losses of more than a billion dollars. And it is leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed in its wake.

In El Salvador, nearly three quarters of all coffee trees are infected with the fungus; in Costa Rica more than 60 percent are infected. And in Guatemala, coffee rust now covers 70 percent of the crop, resulting in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs and a 15 percent drop in coffee output over the last two years.

Francisco Anzueto, of Guatemala's Coffee Board, Anacafe, says coffee rust has been in the region a long time. But recently, it has become more aggressive.

It's due to climate change, Anzueto says. Temperatures are up and the fungus thrives in hot weather. It attacks the leaves of coffee trees, eventually choking off nutrients to the cherries that encase the beans. And now that it's hotter, the rust has spread to higher altitudes, where it had rarely ventured before and where and Guatemala's finest beans are grown.

To fight the scourge, several coffee companies, including Starbucks and Green Mountain, have teamed up with the U.S. Agency for International Development. They've pooled more than $23 million to offer financing to repair crops and train farmers to fight the disease.

I asked Mark Visocky, who heads USAID in Guatemala, if that's going to be enough money.

"It's a big problem, and if it's not crisis it is very close to crisis," he said.

Visocky says it will be a full-fledged crisis when coffee prices spike and illegal immigration to the U.S. rises. Right now, coffee prices are up, but it's mostly due to the prolonged drought in Brazil.

Humanitarian organizations insist that the current flood of immigrants out of Central America is not a product of coffee rust-induced unemployment. But ask around Olopa by the Honduran border, and you'll get a different answer. One farmer estimated that a third of the tiny town's residents are in the U.S.

Jose Ramirez Mendez's house is guarded by a very skinny mutt. His crop was wiped out two years ago by the fungus and both he and his younger brother took off for the U.S. His brother made it to New York, but he got caught in Arizona and was deported back.

Now that he's back, he says he tried planting a new coffee variety that is supposedly resistant to rust. Many farmers are turning to these new resistant plants, but the coffee quality is said to not be as good.

Mendez's brother sends money when he can. But the family is deep in debt, both from the smuggler who tried to help them cross the border, and from their previous failed crop.

Other farmers affected by coffee rust are pruning back trees with hope that new growth will improve resistance. And some just getting out of the coffee business altogether.

Humberto Mendez Perez digs a shallow hole, grabs a few black beans from a plastic cup and tosses them. He and his seven-year-old son and 10-year-nephew do this repeatedly up a steep hillside. He lost his crop to rust last year and has to plant corn and beans if his extended family is to survive.

"It's really a nightmare from an environmental perspective," says Daniel McQuillan, an agricultural specialist with the charity Catholic Relief Services.

His group is trying to help coffee farmers stay in the business. The non-profit gives farmers vegetable seed and fruit trees — which also provide shade and some protection from rust — so coffee growers can diversify their incomes. They also provide some of these farmers with loans for bigger projects.

Edwin Diaz was a recipient of one such loan. He used the $800 to buy 100 chickens. Now his eggs are selling like crazy, and he can't keep up with demand. Once he pays of the loan, the money will go to another farmer.

Diaz says he doesn't want to depend solely on coffee. He too has planted the rust resistant strain of coffee, but he doesn't like the lower quality. He's got two small coffee plants set aside — that's all that remains of his fine Arabica trees, he says. He's saved them so that he'll have a good supply of seeds in case one day the rust goes away from Guatemala.

If that day doesn't come, he jokes, he'll donate the plants to a museum, so people will have some way to remember Guatemala's once fine coffee.

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A worker dries coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in February 2013. (AP)

Business News

Jul 28, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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A coffee leaf damaged by coffee rust fungus in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, in May 2014. The airborne disease strikes coffee plants, flecking their leaves with spots and causing them to wither and fall off.

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A worker dries coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in February 2013. (AP)

More Than Half Of Spaniards In Their 20s Are Unemployed

by Lauren Frayer
Jul 28, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Volunteers help roll up a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the United States Constitution during an October 2010 demonstration against the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington. (Getty Images)

When Did Companies Become People? Excavating The Legal Evolution

Jul 28, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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Are corporations people? The U.S. Supreme Court says they are, at least for some purposes. And in the last four years, the High Court has dramatically expanded corporate rights.

It ruled that corporations have the right to spend money in candidate elections and that some for-profit corporations may, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in their employee health plans.

These are personal rights accorded to corporations. To many, the concept of corporations as people seems odd, to say the least. But it is not new.

The dictionary defines corporation as "a number of persons united in one body for a purpose." Corporate entities date back to medieval times, observes Columbia law professor John Coffee, an authority on corporate law. "You could think of the Catholic Church as probably the first entity that could buy and sell property in its own name," he says.

Indeed, having an artificial legal persona was especially important to churches, says Elizabeth Pollman, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

"Having a corporation would allow people to put property into a collective ownership that could be held with perpetual existence," she says. "So it wouldn't be tied to any one person's lifespan, or subject necessarily to laws regarding inheriting property."

Later on, in the United States and elsewhere, the advantages of incorporation were essential to efficient and secure economic development. Unlike partnerships, the corporation continued to exist even if a partner died; there was no unanimity required to do something; shareholders could not be sued individually, only the corporation as a whole, so investors only risked as much as they put into buying shares.

By the 1800s, the process of incorporating became relatively simple. But corporations aren't mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, leaving the courts to determine what rights corporations have — and which corporations have them. After all, Coca-Cola is a corporation, but so are the NAACP and the National Rifle Association, and so are small churches and local nonprofits.

"All these truly different types of organizations might come under the label 'corporation,' " Pollman observes. "And so the real difficulty is figuring out how to treat these different things under the Constitution."

In the early years of the republic, the only right given to corporations was the right to have their contracts respected by the government, according to legal historian Eben Moglen.

The great industrialization of the United States in the 1800s, however, intensified companies' need to raise money.

"With the invention of the railroad, you needed a great deal of capital to exploit its purpose, " Columbia professor Coffee says, "and only the corporate form offered limited liability, easy transferability of shares and continued, perpetual existence."

In addition, the end of the Civil War and the adoption of the 14th amendment provided an opportunity for corporations to seek further legal protection, says Moglen, also a Columbia University professor.

"From the moment the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, lawyers for corporations — particularly railroad companies — wanted to use that 14th-Amendment guarantee of equal protection to make sure that the states didn't unequally treat corporations," Moglen says.

Nobody was talking about extending to corporations the right of free speech back then. What the railroads sought was equal treatment under state tax laws and things like that.

The Supreme Court extended that protection to corporations, and over time also extended some — but not all — of the rights guaranteed to individuals in the Bill of Rights. The court ruled that corporations don't have a right against self-incrimination, for instance, but are protected by the ban on warrantless search and seizure.

Otherwise, as the Cato Institute's Ilya Shapiro puts it, "the police could storm down the doors of some company and take all their computers and their files."

But for 100 years, corporations were not given any constitutional right of political speech; in fact, quite the contrary. In 1907, following a corporate corruption scandal involving prior presidential campaigns, Congress passed a law banning corporate involvement in federal election campaigns. That wall held firm for 70 years.

The first crack came in a case that involved neither candidate elections nor federal law. In 1978 a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled for the first time that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend money on state ballot initiatives.

Still, for decades, candidate elections remained free of direct corporate influence under federal law. Only money from individuals and groups of individuals — political action committees — were permitted in federal elections.

Then came Citizens United, the Supreme Court's 5-4 First Amendment decision in 2010 that extended to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wish in candidate elections — federal, state and local. The decision reversed a century of legal understanding, unleashed a flood of campaign cash and created a crescendo of controversy that continues to build today.

It thrilled many in the business community, horrified campaign reformers, and provoked considerable mockery in the comedian classes.

"If only there were some way to prove that corporations were not people," lamented the Daily Show's John Stewart. Maybe, he mused, we could show "their inability to love."

Fellow Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert tried unsuccessfully to get the question of corporate personhood on the South Carolina ballot, and also formed a superPAC, which asked whether voters would be comfortable letting Mitt Romney date their daughters' corporations.

But there are serious people on both sides of this issue.

Cato's Shapiro sees all corporations, when they spend on political campaigns, as merely associations of like-minded people.

"Nobody is saying that corporations are living, breathing entities, or that they have souls or anything like that," he says. "This is about protecting the rights of the individuals that associate in this way."

Countering that argument are those who note that individuals are perfectly free to give money to candidates with whom they agree, and to spend unlimited amounts independently supporting those candidates. They shouldn't need a corporation to express themselves, the argument goes.

Some critics, like Pollman, see a difference between for-profit and non-profit corporations. A non-profit corporation formed to advance particular political views is one thing, she says. A large for-profit corporation is something else entirely.

"There's no reason to believe that the people involved — shareholders, employees, even the directors or managers — have come together for an expressive purpose related to anything other than really what the business is doing," she argues.

And shareholders and employees, Pollman observes, have no real recourse if they disagree with how corporate money is spent in campaigns.

And then there is the money-is-not-speech argument. The problem for First-Amendment believers, Moglen says, arises not because they think corporations shouldn't have rights so much as they think money isn't equal to speech.

"And we are now winding up using constitutional rules to concentrate corporate power in a way that's dangerous to democracy," he says.

That, of course, is not how the Supreme Court majority sees its decision. The court has said that because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, the First Amendment forbids discrimination against any class of speaker.

It matters not, the Court said just this year, that some speakers, because of the money they spend on elections, may have undue influence on public policy; what is important is that the First Amendment protects both speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.

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People Who Feel They Have A Purpose In Life Live Longer

Jul 28, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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We know that happiness and social connection can have positive benefits on health. Now research suggests that having a sense of purpose or direction in life may also be beneficial.

To find out if having a sense of purpose has an effect on aging and adult development, Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, looked at data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Hill and his colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center looked to see how more than 6,000 people answered questions like "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them," and other questions that gauged positive and negative emotions.

They found that 14 years after those questions were asked, people who had reported a greater sense of purpose and direction in life were more likely to outlive their peers.

In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death,compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s.

Hill's analysis controlled for other factors known to affect longevity, things like age, gender and emotional well-being. A sense of purpose trumped all that.

Hill defines it as providing something like a "compass or lighthouse that provides an overarching aim and direction in day-to-day lives."

Of course, purpose means different things to different people. Hill says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity.

"Often this is individuals who want to produce something that is appreciated by others in written or artistic form, whether it's music, dance or visual arts," Hill says.

It's not exactly clear how purpose might benefit health. Purposeful individuals may simply lead healthier lives, says Hill, but it also could be that a sense of purpose protects against the harmful effects of stress.

An experiment in Chicago tested this theory. Anthony Burrow, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University, had college student volunteers of different races and ethnicities ride rapid transit through the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago, recording their emotions as individuals of different racial and ethnic groups boarded.

Earlier research has shown that when people are surrounded by people of different ethnic or racial groups than their own, their level of stress increases. Burrow wanted to know if thinking about their sense of purpose might reduce that stress.

He had about half the students write for about 10 minutes about their life's direction. The other half wrote about the last movie they saw. They were all then given packets that listed the name of every stop. When they got to a stop, they were asked to assess how they felt and how much they felt that way by placing an "X" in a box next to negative emotions such as feeling scared, fearful, alone or distressed.

It turned out that the students who wrote about the last movie they saw experienced the expected levels of stress as the percentage of people of different ethnicity increased. But the students who wrote about their sense of purpose reported no feelings of increased stress at all.

More research is needed, but Burrow says his findings suggest that having "a sense of purpose may protect people against stress," with all of its harmful effects, including greater risk of heart disease. And that may explain why people with a sense of purpose live longer.

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