THE story of coffee begins in the highlands of Ethiopia.
There, tribesmen chewed the caffeine-rich beans to sustain them while hiking across mountains in the freezing cold.
About 1,000 AD, the plant made its way to Yemen on the back of an invasion by the Ethiopians. Soon, the Mullahs cultivated the plant, dried the beans for storage over long periods and brewed the first cup of Arabica.
The bean soon made its way to Persia and Turkey and onto Europe. By the 16th century, the plant went global. The Dutch introduced it to the East Indies and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The Dutch did not spend long there as it lost the colony to the British.
The British, ever industrious and being meticulous and sticklers for order, decided to experiment with and grow only one fine tasting aroma filled species, Coffea Arabica. By 1870, Ceylon had planted some 400,000 acres to easily become the world’s largest producer of coffee.
Ceylon depended on nothing else. This monoculture, which in good times raked in huge profits, was headed for trouble when the hemileia vastratrix fungi, or coffee rust, hit. This uninvited visitor also came from Africa.
In less than a decade, the rust killed Ceylon’s coffee industry.
Exports fell from about 45 million kilograms in 1870 to 2.3 million kilograms at about the time Great Britain and Germany were planting separate flags over the territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1889.
The plant terror did not end there. It went on to destroy most plantations in Asia and the coffee trade moved off to fungi-free South America and Brazil.
The fungi did show up in 1970 and alarmed Brazilians burnt an area 65km by 800km to get rid of the invader. The country was unsuccessful in that and the coffee rust remains a constant threat.
A decade later, in 1986, coffee rust made its appearance in Papua New Guinea.
Yellow orange fungus spores appeared on coffee leaves in plantations in the highlands. The spores get carried about by the wind, insects, birds and workers’ clothing and, once they land on a healthy coffee leaf, the spore germinates immediately and sucks the life out of the plant.
The story of rust was well known in Papua New Guinea by then.
Towards the end of 1986, a state of emergency was declared by then prime minister Paias Wingti covering all coffee-growing areas of the country.
The advice to the government was that, unless urgent and drastic measures were taken, it would take only months for the plant pathogen to lay to waste the country’s K300 million industry.
It was, for Wingti, a politically opportune time as his new government (he was installed in a successful motion of no-confidence in November of that year) was embroiled in the Placer Pacific shares controversy and he needed something to latch onto that he could convince the people with at the 1987 elections.
Using coffee rust as an excuse, Wingti pumped millions into the economy, mostly in the coffee-growing highlands provinces, through an entity calling itself the Coffee Development Agency, thereby ensuring that he swept back into office the following year.
It was a good thing he did because the coffee industry could have been laid to waste in no time as the industry, while aware of the disease, was ill-prepared to launch a counter offensive in time and on the scale that was needed to battle the invasion properly.
The rust was contained, but it remains a constant threat and it will be a matter of time before it rears its microscopic head again.
The story of coffee rust can be the story of just about any other cash crop, and indeed food crop, in Papua New Guinea.
The cocoa industry continues its annual battle against cocoa pod borer and black pod diseases and, unless more resources are brought into the fight, the disease can easily gain the upper hand and destroy a crop that sustains tens of thousands of families throughout the country.
More recently, the potato blight nearly wiped out the industry in the highlands.
The industry revived itself only after labourious tests with new varieties of the crop.
The point to this discourse is that while the temptation is great for industries to develop single, high yield varieties of each crop and to mass produce them, it is always good to have other varieties as well in case the selected variety attracts a particularly virulent plant disease.