History of Coffee in Ecuador

Ecuador is known to be one of the world's most biologically diverse countries. There are over 1500 bird species in the country, roughly 1/6 of all bird species in the world. Despite its small size (comparable to Colorado), Ecuador ranks not only fifth in total bird species, but also seventh in reptiles, third in amphibians, and sixth in butterflies. In fact, Ecuador has twice the plant and animal species of the United States and Canada together, four times more than all of Europe, and the largest number of plant species per unit of area in the Americas. Unfortunately, the rate of deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate: today only 6% of the country's rich tropical forests remain.1

The Decline of Ecuadorian Coffee

Coffee was introduced in Ecuador early in the nineteenth century, and remained one of Ecuador's top export crops through the 1970s. (Today, the top exports are oil, shrimp and bananas.) Ecuador produces Arabica coffee in the western foothills of the Andes south of Guayaquil, and in the hilly areas of coastal Manabí Province. Some Robusta varieties, used for soluble (instant) coffee, are grown in the north. Most Ecuadorian coffee is grown on small farms, from 1 to 10 hectares. About half of the coffee land is planted in coffee alone, while the rest is co-planted with cacao, citrus fruits, bananas, and/ or mangoes.2

The decline in Ecuador's coffee production began in the 1980s as the amount of land in cultivation began falling, with coffee often going unharvested because of low prices.3 Since 1997, production has decreased significantly (1997: 709,000 quintales; 2001: 392,000 quintales; 2002: 200,000 quintales). In terms of world coffee production, Ecuador now accounts for less than 1%. Income from coffee has diminished as well, especially considering that during this period international prices have been quite low, often falling below the costs of production.

Farmers have been given little help in solving the problems of the failing coffee industry. Very low yields, estimated at between 5 and 6 quintales per hectare yearly, are about half the yields of other countries4 (which are, on average, 11 quintales per hectare.) While the Ecuadorian government supported the formation of COFENAC, the National Coffee Council (Consejo Cafetalero Nacional) and allowed it to impose a 2% surcharge on all coffee exports, small farmers complain that they see few benefits. Despite their mission statement5, COFENAC has not delivered the training, technology transfer, agricultural credits, or producer support that most observers claim is needed.

Instead, it could be claimed that COFENAC actually contributes to the decline in quality and market access for Ecuadorian coffee. Concerned more with brokering coffee sales than improving production, COFENAC approved the importation of 100,000 quintales of Vietnamese coffee in order to feed Ecuador's instant coffee production. In a stunning example of the irrationality of corporate-led globalization, the Ecuadorian coffee barons found it more profitable to import cheap, low quality coffee from Vietnam (burning countless barrels of fossil fuel in the process) than to pay a fair price to local Ecuadorian small farmers. While perhaps generating immediate profits, this shortsighted policy has continued the freefall of Ecuadorian soluble and whole bean coffee exports from 3% in 2000 to 1% in 2001 and 2002.6

About half a million people depend on coffee for their livelihood in Ecuador, which is about 1 out of every 8 farmers and their families. An unbearable poverty is the reality for small coffee farmers and has led to the abandonment of many coffee plantations. Many impoverished farmers have migrated to Spain, Italy and the U.S. to search for work and survival. Problems with pests, caused by leaving coffee to rot on the bushes when prices are too low to justify the harvest, plague coffee farmers struggling to hang on.

Sources

  1. Estrella, Eduardo. BIODIVERSITY IN ECUADOR: HISTORY AND REALITY Quito: National Museum of Medicine of Ecuador, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 1993.
  2. Ecuador Crops
  3. ENCUESTA DE SUPERFICIE Y PRODUCCIÓN AGROPECUARIA 2002 – 2005
  4. Pivot Irrigated Coffee Production
  5. Consejo Cafetalero Nacional (COFENAC)
  6. HISTORIA E IMPORTANCIA DEL CAFÉ EN ECUADOR