Grains of gold

In El Salvador the coffee bean is known as ‘el grano de oro’ – the grain of gold. And for good reason. No other country in the region has depended so heavily on coffee in its history and economic development.

Since the 1880s coffee took the place of indigo as the country’s main export crop. Chemical dyes replaced the use of indigo in the textile industry so the country turned to the coffee craze. Land was expropriated from campesino communities to grow the new crop, and the displaced campesinos forced to slave away on the plantations for a pittance.

Every president from 1891 for 31 years thereafter was a coffee baron. In the 1920s and ’30s coffee accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s exports. The industry was hit badly by the depression of the ’30s but bounced back, and by the 1970s El Salvador had become the fourth largest exporter of coffee in the world. Pretty impressive for a country the size of Wales (interestingly, the population of El Salvador is twice that of Wales – I’m not sure how this compares with the sheep count though). However, the landed elite of the coffee plantations showed no willingness to address the poverty of the campesinos on whom they relied.

It was during this time that discontent in the countryside grew and progressive members of the Catholic church began to support finca workers to organise in unions. The Salvodoran elite opposed these efforts and formed vigilante groups, or used the National Guard as an instrument of repression. A leftist insurgency known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) front was eventually formed. Enter Uncle Sam (a pattern is forming here) – fearing a communist domino effect in the region, the US stepped up military aid and advisors in the late 1970’s to confront the guerrillas.

A result of all this was some semblance 0f land reform in an effort to quiet rebel forces. Practically overnight, plantation workers were declared owners of cooperatives (with thirty years to pay for the land). Despite this newly acquired land ownership however, the former coffee pickers were given very little, if any technical assistance, bank credits, or trainings in administration and management.

Coffee barons were none too happy about these reform efforts and the violence escalated. From 1980 to 1992 the country was ravaged by civil war, and any attempt at land reform halted.

In the years following the civil war El Salvador faced overwhelming poverty, high foreign debt, low education levels and many other challenges. Coffee presented an opportunity for socially distributed wealth. Still accounting for half of El Salvador’s GDP, by the 1990s, 78% of coffee farms and 40% of the total area were in the hands of small producers.

Over the past years, the politics of repression has given way to elected, civilian governments, but coffee farmers have faced a new challenge: the global coffee market. Fluctuating coffee prices have forced more than 80,000 small scale coffee producers and coffee pickers off the land and into desperation. Thousands migrated to the cities in search of work—in the informal sector as street vendors and the sweat shops —and to live in squatter communities. Thousands more risk their lives in journeys to Mexico and the US in search of work. Over two million Salvadorans now live in the US sending over $2 billion per year home in remittances to their families keeping the economy afloat. This represents 20% of total GDP.

The Fair Trade movement seems to have helped a bit. In the province of Ahuachapan – where we entered the country – Las Colinas is a coop that is now receiving prices two or three times that of neighbouring communities. Ahuachapan was one of the communities most affected by the low coffee prices of the past. The coop is helped by Equal Exchange, itself a worker-owned coop in the USA. It is relations like this that is enabling small farmers to succeed in a global market where the modus operandi is very much sink or swim. The insurance of a higher price come what may enables social, economic and (hopefully) environmental development.

Coffee can have a very high environmental price – apparently it takes 150 litres to grow and produce one cup! Not to mention the chemicals used in non-organic production methods. Coffee is grown in the mountains, on steep slopes. The run-off from chemicals down into rivers and streams has to be great. Growing coffee under the shade of other trees can increase biodiversity and lessen the need for fertilizers. However, unshaded plantations require chemicals to increase yields and are ultimately environmentally damaging.

Literally mountains of coffee, in the area around Ahuachapan. It's difficult to identify the coffee plants themselves as they are grown under other (nitrogen-fixing) trees for shade.

Murals in Ataco

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