By Paola N. Montalvo Miró
Coffee berry borer best known as “broca” invaded Francisco Miró’s plantation in Maricao, PR, four years ago. His passion is his land, where he grows his coffee to feed his family. Francisco, a farmer of 48 years, graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) with a bachelors in agriculture and a masters degree in phytopathology.
The coffee berry borer is a little dark-brown/black beetle that makes its “home” inside the grain of coffee leaving around 40 eggs that will become larva. While the larva grows up, its food is the coffee grain. Once the “broca” attacks the grain, the damage is irreversible.
This insect is the most harmful plague for coffee plants around the world. The investigation “Enemigos naturales y competidores de la broca del café Hypothenemus hampei en Puerto Rico” (Natural Enemies and Competitors of the Coffee “Broca”) stated that the global damages of this insect might reach $500 million and affect more than 20 million families. If ten percent of the coffee plantations of Puerto Rico were affected by the “broca,” the estimated damages would be $5 million annually.
As Mr. Miró remembers, the first year he did not notice any decrease in his productions, but in the second year, the decrease was devastating. Before the arrival of the coffee berry borer, Mr. Miró bought unprocessed coffee for $13.25, but today he pays $39.75. “The difference in price used to be my gain,” said Francisco while he holds a damaged grain in his hands.
Miguel Monroig was the first person who detected the presence of “broca” in Puerto Rico. Monroig has a farm in San Sebastian, PR where he saw the insect for first time.
Then farmers from Adjuntas discovered the presence of the insect too. This was evidence that the beetle was spreading fast.
One interesting fact about this insect is that the female can auto reproduce and when this happens all the progeny is female. Females are the only ones with the capacity to fly. The “broca” can live without eating for approximately nine months inside the seed of the Royal poinciana, also known as “flamboyán,” or inside a rotten coffee grain.
Miró has observed that in days of rain the movement of the “broca” from plant to plant is limited, so rain does help prevent the spread of the “enemy”.
Mr. Miró concluded that after the “broca” reached Puerto Rico he was buying the same amount of coffee but his production was less. Mr. Miró cultivates, produces, and distributes his coffee called “Café el Mañanero”.
Biological and chemical methods exist to control this plague, but in Puerto rico, only the biological method is approved. It consists of spraying a fungus, Bauveria bassiana, over the plants. The Bauveria attacks the respiratory system of the “broca” killing them. The government offered Mr. Miró this resource but he is still waiting for it. Dr. Massol, professor of microbiology at UPRM, confirmed what Mr. Miró said, that the government offered help to small independent businesses, but never appeared. He estimated around 2,000 farmers have abandoned their lands.
In places where coffee production is important as in Puerto Rico, also Costa Rica, Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Domican Republic and Africa, the chemical control is legal. They can only use it once a year because of the fatal results over other species of organisms. Bauveria is controlled too because the fungus can penetrate the bees and other insects and kill them.
Another resource besides the chemical and biological methods is the cleaning of the land, which consists of removing all the damaged ripe grains off the ground where the “broca” hides. This one is very expensive because the workforce is limited.
A common question consumers ask is if they are consuming the damaged grain of coffee while taking their morning cup of coffee; the answer is no. When the grain of coffee is attacked by “broca,” it becomes empty; so in the process of toasting, it is automatically rejected by the machinery as any other particle.
To educate the public about the devastation of the “broca,” a group of Puerto Ricans made a movie entitled “The Last Harvest” which premiered at UPRM. This documentary presents how the “broca” have affected small independent proprietors and how people have lost their lands. It clearly presents the desperation that the invasion of “broca” has caused. A highlight in the movie is the investments farmers have made to try to fix the problem of the plague. Mr. Miró knows this hardship too well.
“These lands are the only thing I know better than me. I won’t allow “broca” to defeat us. Coffee has been the support of my family since I was born and it will be till I die,” those were the words of a hard worker man, Francisco Miró.