El Salvador coffee woes
Cultivation of coffee has played an important role in the history of El Salvador. It was a source of great wealth for the country's landed elites during much of the twentieth century and the country's leading export crop. But today the industry is falling on increasingly hard times.
A London-based coffee buyer, Mercanta, described the history of the Salvadoran coffee industry:
El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American nations, but don’t let its diminutive size fool you. It produces exceptional coffees to a consistently high standard. Mercanta regularly buys selected single varietals such as Orange/Pink Bourbon, Red Bourbon and Pacamara, and has strong, long-term relationships with many producers and mills in this small, coffee powerhouse.
The history of coffee in El Salvador is inextricably linked to the development of the nation, itself. Introduced in the late 1880’s, coffee quickly displaced indigo as the country’s chief export, and by the 1920s, coffee accounted for 90% of all El Salvador’s exports.
This substantial production was under the ownership of a small landed elite who possessed large swathes of land (by 1895 Pres. General Tomás Regalado, alone, had amassed more than 6,000 hectares!) and who were very much linked to the governance of El Salvador, which had negative and positive consequences for the development of the country. On the one hand, these leaders of the coffee economy (and the nation) heavily invested in internal infrastructure, such as roads, that benefited the coffee industry; on the other hand, those without land (which was most of the population of El Salvador) were largely omitted from the generated wealth.
By the 1970s, El Salvador was the world’s 4th largest producer of coffee; remarkable considering the size of the country. However, politics and overdependence on coffee for economic growth led to periodic struggles that culminated in a civil war lasting from 1979 through to 1992. This period and the aftermath of the war also saw the country engage in significant land reform and redistribution, which broke up many of the country’s large, traditional estates. Today, some 95% of the country’s producers grow coffee on fewer than 20 hectares, and no single person can own more than 245 hectares.Currently El Salvador ranks 19th among coffee producing countries.
The volcanic mountainsides of El Salvador continue to shelter certain farms able to produce high quality coffees for a profit, but the overall outlook for the coffee industry in El Salvador is quite bleak.
These prospects were highlighted in an article titled The decline of El Salvador's coffee at TheWeek.com:
The decline of El Salvador's coffee industry goes back decades and is the result of a lot of problems: the low price of coffee on the market, lack of investment in the farms, and agricultural pests. But farmers, agricultural experts, and environmental academics also point to another factor compounding the challenges: climate change.
Coffee exports, once the backbone of El Salvador's economy, have fallen by more than half in the last 10 years, according to the Salvadoran Coffee Council. And as production has plummeted, work has dried up. El Salvador's coffee industry has lost more than 80,000 jobs over the same period, contributing to the wave of migration north. Nearly 20 percent of the population of this tiny Central American country now lives in the U.S.
"In past decades, you had hundreds of thousands of people working on coffee farms to harvest coffee and to process it. Because of the low production and low investment in coffee, a lot of those farm workers are choosing to migrate to earn seasonal income rather than to work on coffee farms," said Paul Hicks, a coffee and water specialist with Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador.Read the rest of the article here. (There may be a little temporary help for coffee farmers this year as prices are projected by some analysts to strengthen this year with reduced production from Brazil).
More of the effects of climate change on coffee cultivation were described in an article from the Sustainable Food Trust:
The Trifinio region, which encompasses parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is dealing with instability when it comes to coffee. Farmers in this region primarily grow arabica coffee, a higher quality coffee than robusta. Arabica is generally grown at around 1,300-1,500 meters above sea level. It can grow at a maximum temperature of around 32 degrees Celsius but prefers 18-22 degrees.
The current altitude where this coffee is grown is becoming hotter, with higher mean and maximum temperatures. In order to keep growing arabica coffee, farmers must move to higher altitudes, assuming such an option is available. In Guatemala and Honduras, farmers could move uphill but many cannot afford to. In addition, the higher altitudes are currently forested, and if farmers move upwards to plant coffee, they will have to cut the forest down to do so. Deforestation is already taking place, releasing greenhouse gases and further accelerating climate change.
In addition, the distinction between the region’s ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ seasons is fading. It’s raining more during the dry season and staying drier longer during the wet season, and there are more extreme rain and weather events, such as hurricanes.In addition to coffee rust, climate change, and low world market prices for coffee, coffee farmers in El Salvador must also deal with the country's gangs who may extort "rent" payments or may block the passage of workers to the farms during the harvest time.
With these challenges, it seems unlikely that El Salvador will ever return to high volumes of coffee production. Instead, we may see more concentration on small farms producing quality coffees which will fetch higher prices, coffees like this year's winner of the Cup of Excellence judging in El Salvador:
J. Raul Rivera of Santa Rosa farm has won the 2019 El Salvador Cup of Excellence (COE), with a score of 90.57 for his honey processed Pacamara varietal.
“At Finca Santa Rosa, we proudly represent [the] Alotepec mountain range and the variety which was developed locally, and the result of years of hard work are rewarded to farmers throughout the country,” Rivera says.