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EL SALVADOR: Organic Collective Coffee Beans for Development

Raúl Gutiérrez

COMASAGUA, El Salvador, Dec 4 2006 (IPS) - “We need to produce more coffee, because our customers want more of it, the demand is greater than what we produce,” José Antonio Sandoval, a Salvadoran small farmer and an expert on growing and selling organic, traditional, gourmet aromatic coffee, said with pride.

Sandoval is a leader of the Santa Adelaida cooperative, aimed at protecting the environment by producing coffee without agrochemicals, while increasing income and consolidating social programmes for its members, who have historically been marginalised, have little education and are stunted by poverty. It’s a perfect undertaking, an ideal match with their cooperative vision.

The cooperative, high on the Bálsamo mountain range, 30 kilometres south of San Salvador, collectively owns about 860 hectares of land, and grows coffee on 650 of them.

Santa Adelaida’s location, 1,200 metres above sea level, provides an ideal climate for growing organic coffee with excellent aroma and taste. It is highly prized by discerning consumer markets in the United States, Europe, Japan and, shortly, also in China.

In contrast, most traditional coffee growers are facing a crisis because of low coffee prices, insecurity, lack of field hands and, above all, bank embargoes. Many have abandoned their lands, or are splitting them up into smaller plots for sale.

Sandoval, 44, is a former soldier who served in an army counter-insurgency batallion during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992). His background in the cooperative movement and his business skills have served to promote Santa Adelaida coffee to a leading position in the international markets.

A few weeks ago he presented the cooperative’s aromatic coffee at fairs in Germany and Italy, where he clinched a deal with a Chinese buyer who, having tasted the flavour of the coffee, placed an immediate order for a first shipment from Comasagua.

“Large markets are opening up to us, and now we’re going to export to China. That’s very good for the cooperative, it means more jobs and more income for the families,” said Sandoval with satisfaction.

Sandoval knows how to use new communication technologies for his purposes. His cellphone keeps him up to date with New York prices, via reports supplied by the office of the Union of Agrarian Reform Cooperatives of Producers, Processors and Exporters of Coffee (UCRAPRODEX), to which Santa Adelaida is affiliated.

The farmland worked by the coooperative was formerly owned by the wealthy Dueñas family, and was allocated to the rural workers belonging to the cooperative during the agrarian reform process undertaken by the Christian Democrat administration in power in 1980, in the prelude to the civil war.

It was intended as a mechanism for neutralising support for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was then a guerrilla movement, and is now a political party.

>From 1992 onwards, because of the crisis brought on by low international coffee prices and, as a result, the fall in their profits, the cooperative took advice on how to grow organic coffee. At first they devoted 70 hectares to agrochemical-free production, and since then they gradually increased the area for this kind of cultivation. This year, they have 265 hectares of organically grown beans.

Their organic coffee is grown without chemical inputs of any kind, and is monitored strictly by independent specialist organisations that certify, every year, that the coffee beans are in compliance with the standards required by organic produce markets.

Since 1995, the cooperative receives its certification from the International Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). Thanks to this accreditation it was able to make its first export of 69,000 kilos to Japan. This led to acceptance in the U.S. and European markets, where its coffee commanded prices of up to 170 dollars the hundredweight (equivalent to 46 kilos), when prices for conventional coffee were no more than 125 dollars the hundredweight.

Santa Adelaida hopes to export some 736,000 kilos of conventionally-grown coffee and 276,000 of organic coffee from its 2006-2007 harvest. It has obtained prices up to 100 dollars the hundredweight higher for its organic coffee than for the beans grown using agrochemicals on the international market. In 2004-2005, the cooperative exported 179,400 kilos of organic coffee and 644,000 of conventionally grown beans.

“We can visualise our entire production going organic by 2012, that is to say, 650 hectares,” Sandoval told IPS. With the extra income the cooperative will be able to expand its educational, healthcare, housing improvement, drinking water and electricity programmes for its 200 members, in addition to distributing profits of some 600 dollars each at the end of the year.

Outside the rustic cooperative office, dozens of workers were sun-drying coffee beans in 24 yards, before selecting and packing them for the next shipment. Machine noise is constant in this modern plant, where 50 cooperative members forming two lines were removing impurities from the dried beans which circulated on an automatic conveyor belt.

Like Santa Adelaida, some of the other 55 cooperatives under the UCRAPROBEX umbrella, such as Las Lajas and El Pinal, have well-known brands, international accreditation from the Rainforest Alliance, and the support of Equal Exchange, a fair trade company that promotes producers of organic coffee, cocoa and other foods in Latin America, and markets their products around the world.

According to Mario Acosta Oertel, the president of the Salvadoran Foundation for Coffee Research (PROCAFE), the crisis being experienced by many coffee growers was exacerbated when coffee exportation was nationalised in 1980, a move he called “ominous.” In his view, this measure contributed to a decline in coffee quality, a fall in national output, and indebtedness on the part of producers.

“Debts mounted up, as did interest payments, which were charged at an annual rate of 25 percent, so that farmers couldn’t even cover their production costs. On top of that, international prices plummeted in 1989.”

He added that the banking sector, and the economic model which emphasised the service economy, have an outstanding debt toward coffee growers, since “the banks’ financial involvement with producers hasn’t given them the support they deserve.”

These conditions have led to a fall in coffee production over the last few decades. According to statistics from the Salvadoran Coffee Council (CSC), the coffee harvest of 1980-1981 was 165 million kilos, while in 2001-2002 it was barely over 110.5 million kilos, and it dropped to 93.3 million kilos in 2004-2005.

José René Ramírez, head of quality control with 17 years experience at UCRAPROBEX and 22 years with another coffee plantation, told IPS that Santa Adelaida’s aromatic coffee is “highly sought after” internationally, not only because it is organic, but also because of its excellent quality.

“Their variety – like Bourbon coffee, which is the best El Salvador has to offer, and has special attributes: its flavour has chocolate, caramel, and fruity overtones, like peaches” – accounts for the attraction of Salvadoran coffee beans, Ramírez said. His display cases contain coffee liqueurs with labels in Japanese and English, and an award for excellence as a coffee connoisseur.

Ramírez said that many of the large producers of conventional coffee, who are still living in opulence and nostalgic for past glories, “were left behind working on the basis of an obsolete system, because previously customers demanded volume, but now they want quality.”

“UCRAPROBEX, on the other hand, has adapted to the new situation and to customers’ requirements tday. We produce small quantities, but with high quality. Customers must be catered to; you have to be in the vanguard.”

Tomás Bonilla, head of exports at CSC, said that Santa Adelaida “has strictly managed organic coffee plantations that, according to the analyses, produce very good coffee” that meets the standards for quality and physical attributes, such as bean size, humidity and absence of flaws.

These achievements make it feasible for Santa Adelaida to begin “a pilot project for roasting and grinding” coffee for the local market, using 10 percent of their total coffee production, in January 2007.

“It means less poverty, less crime; that is the vision that people should have in mind when they’re in charge of a company,” Sandoval said simply.

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