Coronavirus puts Honduras’ coffee harvest in jeopardy

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic is threatening Honduras’ coffee harvest by keeping Hondurans who would normally travel for the work at home and preventing foreign harvesters from entering the country, local coffee producers say.

The risk to one of Honduras’ most important crops is just one of the many devastating economic impacts of the pandemic. Mobility restrictions meant to slow the virus’ spread caused widespread job losses in the already struggling country. Two destructive November hurricanes that hit Honduras’ most economically productive region in the north only compounded the problem.

Coffee represents 3% of Honduras’ gross domestic product, according to the Honduran Coffee Institute.

In El Paraiso, one of Honduras’ main producing areas, coffee growers say they need about 70,000 workers for the harvest, but so far this year only have about 40,000. In the region, which borders Nicaragua, the harvest began Dec. 15 and will continue into mid-February.

Coffee grower Fredy Pastrana said that many workers who typically come from the cities have not traveled this year over COVID-19 fears. But the bigger problem has been at the border, where Honduran officials are requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before allowing foreigners to enter.

“I’ve spoken with producers in other regions and I believe the problem is nationwide,” Pastrana said.

There is minimal testing in Nicaragua and the $24 cost is out of reach for many of the harvesters. Coffee growers are trying to convince Honduras’ government to set up low-cost testing facilities at border stations to help speed the Nicaraguan workers across the border.

Costa Rica, another important coffee producer, also relies heavily on foreign labor for its harvest. It anticipated a problem due to the pandemic and the Costa Rica National Coffee Institute launched a campaign months before the harvest to recruit Costa Ricans to work.

The campaign played on nostalgia by a generation that may have spent time in the coffee groves as children but hadn’t worked there as adults. It also hoped unemployment hovering above 21% could make the work more attractive.

But the recruitment drive did not produce the desired results, so officials worked out an agreement with Nicaragua in October for an orderly arrival of workers from that country. The coffee institute estimates that about 75,000 workers were needed for the harvest.

The Nicaraguan workers were tested for COVID-19 at the Costa Rican border and required to quarantine on their assigned plantations for 14 days before starting to harvest. The agriculture ministry said that about 45,000 foreign workers were needed.

Costa Rica used a similar system at its southern border with indigenous Ngobe-Bugle workers from Panama who carry dual Costa Rican citizenship. They also had to isolate before working and this year were not allowed to bring their children as they traditionally do.

Costa Rica is anticipating a much larger harvest this year than last.

In Honduras, coffee producers are harvesting with the personnel they have, but there is concern that if rains come before the coffee is picked, much of the crop could be lost.

In far western Ocotepeque, grower Virgilio Pacheco said he had to go to Guatemala to find workers, convince them to come and pay for their COVID-19 tests.

Alexander Welcher, a coffee grower in central Yoro, said the lack of labor for the harvest is nationwide.

“The problem is generalized,” Welcher said. “There are producers whose coffee is ripening and drying because they don’t have the capacity to cut it in time.”

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Cordoba reported from San Jose, Costa RIca.

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