Notes from the Field: COVID-19 in Latin America
By José María Gómez Vargas, WCR Latin America Program Manager
Elly Castro, my WCR colleague and the organization’s Nicaragua Country Agronomist, used to spend much of his professional life driving into the mountains of coffee-producing areas to talk to farmers about their coffee plants in WCR research plots, of which there are currently 153 across Latin America. But for much of 2020, these visits have been put on pause. “Producers often call and ask for me to go and visit their farms; they even send me pictures through WhatsApp,” says Elly. “But I must explain to them, that for our protection and their protection, we are not visiting their fields.”
This is just one snapshot of life in Latin America’s coffee-growing areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. As WCR’s Latin America Program Manager, I am regularly in touch with our staff throughout the region; I’m based in El Salvador, and we have WCR team members in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Puerto Rico. All of our countries have seen incidences of COVID-19, and have been impacted by our governments’ responses to the viruses, most notably sanctions against travel inside the country and crossing borders to visit other nations.
At World Coffee Research, our team in Latin America has done our best to adapt to these challenging times, starting with instituting a no-travel policy in March as the effects of the pandemic started to be felt globally. With our team unable to visit farmers in person, we shifted largely to digital conversations. We hold monthly check-ins via Zoom, WhatsApp, or email with all stakeholders to monitor the status of trials, relying on video and/or photographs to gauge the progress of plants in farmer field trials. The vegetative growth and other plant data our agronomists would normally collect is now being noted by agronomists from partner organizations and communicated via email or WhatsApp. We are also conducting remote sessions with our partner agronomists working on farmer field trials to train them on WCR research protocols.
Jimmy More, our Peru Country Agronomist, says that the virtual connection with farmers has been essential during COVID-19, but it requires frequent monitoring to ensure information about tending to their trials is not being lost. “The use of cellphones and internet allows us to keep close communication with partners,” Jimmy says, “but coordination is difficult because some agronomists and farmers are not familiar with the use of technological devices and including these in their work. Additionally, not being able to physically interact with them gives room for misinterpretation of recommendations.”
While we’ve implemented the aforementioned steps to keep our team safe during the pandemic, we have still needed to conduct some field activities in person. Specifically, WCR country agronomists have had to deliver plants for replanting trials, as well as conduct seed source sampling in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua as part of other initiatives. These field visits have been made in observation of national regulations that included WCR staff wearing face masks; maintaining social distancing; obtaining a signed authorization letter from the regional director for vehicle circulation; and observing curfews and other travel restrictions.
Elly in Nicaragua says following COVID-19-focused protocols has been important during these visits. “The outbreak has led us to be prepared with face masks and hand sanitizer, as well as to always be aware of distancing when talking to farmers,” he says, “especially because most farmers in the field do not wear face masks. Farmers think they are isolated from other farmers and know their neighbors, and the only instances in which they will wear a face mask is when running errands in the cities.” Jimmy in Peru offers a similar experience of following strict protocols to visit farmers: “When conducting monitoring visits to four trials in Tingo María, I had to demonstrate I carried work permits, face mask, and hand sanitizer in three different communities.”
WCR has also been working closely during the pandemic with Promecafé, a regional platform bringing together national coffee institutes from Latin America. Salvador Urrutia Loucel, WCR’s Regional Director for Latin America, has met frequently with Promecafé representatives as COVID-19 has continued, discussing individual countries’ action plans and assessing time-bound program delays. Promecafé has released a compendia of resources from national coffee institutes that WCR has shared with the farmers and partner organizations in our network.
As summer rolls on, countries are beginning to reopen their economies through controlled phases while instituting COVID-19 prevention methods. As these restrictions are easing, WCR’s country agronomists are restarting their field activities to conduct trial follow-ups in August, and they will be taking strict precautions as they reenter the field in an effort to preserve the health of our collaborators, our greatest asset.