Institutt for sosialantropologi

"Before there were no diseases". Perceiving the Coffee Rust Epidemic in the Intersection of Knowledge Systems


Master's thesis submitted at Department of Social Anthropology, spring 2016.

By: Isabelle Hugøy
Supervisor: Associate Professor Cecilie Ødegaard

In January 2013, Costa Rica declared a state of emergency to combat the spread of a fungus manifesting itself on coffee plants. The fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is called roya in Spanish (rust). Between 2012 and 2013, a rust-epidemic caused severe damages and yield losses throughout Central- America. However, its repercussions would continue in the ensuing years, creating socio-economic impacts on small-scale coffee farmers who, in many cases, depended mainly on coffee cultivation to provide for their respective families.

This thesis is about how the rust epidemic of 2012-2013 and its aftermath were experienced and conceptualised by small-scale coffee farmers in Turrialba, Costa Rica. The perceptions and experiences of agronomists too, have been an interest of mine, as they interacted with coffee producers in trying to combat roya. By treating the epidemic as an “event” (Kapferer, 2005), the thesis explores the fungus as a social-, rather than a biological phenomenon. As such, it analyses the different agents, social relations, knowledge systems, and various practices that are set into motion by the fungus. More importantly, the thesis aims to contribute to a more symmetrical study of knowledges, by discussing how smallholders are increasingly relying on technological tools in their daily management practices. It exemplifies how farmers are continuously shifting between local/globe perspectives (Ingold, 1993), technique/technology (Ingold, 1993) looking/seeing (Okely 2001), and approaching the coffee plant as a subject/object. In short, the thesis illustrates the need for new concepts to grasp the knowledges in between such static categories.