Last week, El Salvador’s president announced a federal program to subsidize the renovation of the country’s coffee fields by replacing aging coffee trees with seedlings. It is a rare and welcome case of government investment in region where the phrase abandono total (no translation necessary) is the most common answer I get from smallholder coffee farmers when I ask them about state support for the coffee sector. (The timing couldn’t have been better — days later Tropical Storm Agatha rolled into Central America, destroying coffee and other crops and creating an immediate need for renovation.)
One of the biggest surprises we encountered as we conducted field assessments in Mexico and Central America at the start of our CAFE Livelihoods project was the fierce urgency of (renovation) now. El Salvador and Southern Mexico stand out in our experience for the age of their plants. In Mexico, I recall joking with cooperative leaders about the “senior citizens” in their coffee fields and whether the project might invest in creating a “seniors center” next to the nursery where the old plants torn out to make way for the new might be put to a dignified rest. (Perhaps it loses something in translation.)
CAFE Livelihoods is financing nurseries that will put millions of new coffee plants in the ground by the end of 2011, and has helped some participating organizations set up revolving funds to continue to finance this critical function into the future. But the reach of our project, funded for three years by a private donor based in the United States, is limited. More localized, government-led initiatives like El Salvador’s, which will pay farmers 50 cents for every new coffee seedling planted, are necessary to return the country’s coffee sector to previous levels of productivity. The figure being cited in connection with this program is a decline of more than 62 percent over the past decade (from 3.7 to 1.4 million quintales per year).
The government is pledging $1 million for the first year of the initiative, with plans in 2011 to establish a five-year, $24 million expansion that will introduce 80 million new coffee plants nationwide.