Boom or bust? Why Salvadorans can’t agree on the state of their coffee sector

Green coffee beans lie on tar to dry out in El Salvador.
  • El Salvador’s coffee sector produced an average of 2.5m bags per year in the period 1963-89
  • Civil war, disease outbreaks, and minimal govt support has led to falling yields
  • Some believe a renewed focus from the state will boost production, but others remain sceptical

OPINIONS ABOUT El Salvador’s coffee-producing powers couldn’t be more divided. Depending on whom you speak to about the coffee sector, you could hear totally contrasting views, from wild optimism to cries of despair.

Carolina Padilla, a third-generation coffee farmer and executive director of the Salvadoran Coffee Council falls into the former camp. The resilience of the country’s coffee producers and the state’s support, according to her, have given plenty to feel good about for the 2022-2023 harvest.

“Even with the difficulties of the past decades, minimal government help, and several crises, Salvadoran coffee farmers have not given up,” Carolina says.

She points to the creation of the Salvadoran Coffee Institute, in particular, which has allowed farmers to have access to scientific research, new technologies, and technical assistance to improve their productivity.

The owner of Finca Divisadero in Ahuachapan, Mauricio Salaverria falls into the latter camp. He suggests that variability in climate, high input costs, and low coffee prices have given rise to a slightly less optimistic outlook among coffee producers.

“For the upcoming harvest, projections estimate a volume slightly below 767,000 60kg bags,” he says. “In the last decade, production has decreased due to minimal government investment in renovating coffee fields.

“Some farmers have privately invested significant amounts in specific regions to renovate their plantations because they understand that one of the main problems is the age of the coffee trees on most farms, which exceeds 25 years.”

Although different experiences naturally breed varied outlooks, the topic of El Salvador’s coffee production is on a different scale altogether. So what’s driving the divide?

A coffee farm worker rakes coffee beans that are drying in El Salvador.

On-the-ground realities

In the 1970s, El Salvador was a coffee-producing powerhouse. Estimated to be the fourth-largest coffee sector in the world, its success was largely due to modernisation efforts in the 1950s, which included the use of fertilisers, new pruning systems, and improved farming practices.

Between 1963 and 1989, the country produced an average of 2.5 million 60kg bags per year.

However, output has plummeted in recent years, dipping below one million 60kg bags.

A number of factors are to blame, including a civil war that sent the country into turmoil from the late 1970s to 1992 and left a long-term impact on land policies, which has led to the abandonment of farms.

Additionally, some believe that government institutions have become weaker and less effective over time, which, along with logistical issues due to Covid-19, is thought to have exacerbated the problem.

To combat this, President Nayib Bukele’s government has launched a renewed focus on supporting coffee producers, with the aim of returning production to its 20th-century peak.

The Sustainable Coffee Takeoff Plan and the Program for Strengthening the Climate Resilience of the Coffee Forests of El Salvador, both backed by the Inter-American Development Bank, aim to renovate 25% of the country’s coffee areas with a projected investment of $377 million. These efforts emulate previous successful coffee farm renewal cases in Colombia and Honduras.

However, Mauricio says many producers have found it difficult to take advantage of any support that the government offers – which is why there is such a discrepancy between projections and on-the-ground realities.

“In our case, we were able to renovate 75,000 coffee plants thanks to government aid,” he says. “But I heard about issues with available coffee trees supplied by the government due to the inability of farmers to transport the coffee trees because of high costs. Then there’s a complicated situation with the higher input costs that directly affect producers’ motivation and the possibility of increasing overall production as a country.”

Based on this, Mauricio believes, realistic production for the following years would be above the 537,000 60kg bags disaster of 2013, but unlikely to be much above the one million 60kg the government has targeted.

Carolina, on the other hand, predicts that next year’s production will exceed 767,000 60kg bags, with an estimated growth between 11% and 20%.

“Now, there’s an actual plan on track sponsored by the current government for the recovery of coffee production,” she says. “With the creation of the Salvadoran Coffee Institute, there’s now an institution that can help coffee farmers and improve the productivity of their farms.”

As such, she believes that the country is on track for sustained increases in production in the coming years. “Indeed, we are unlikely to reach the quantities achieved in the early ’90s, but certainly, we are aiming to achieve 1.5 million 69 kg bags of high-quality coffees,” she says.

Necrotic spots of coffee rust Hemileia vastatrix, which has damaged the Salvadoran coffee sector in the past.

Common ground in the coffee sector

Pessimism towards the future of El Salvador’s coffee sector tends to stem from three main sources: chronically low coffee prices, rising costs, and ineffectual government support.

However, despite these challenges, those on both sides of the divide are united in their approach to tackling climate change and the problems it brings.

This is largely down to the collective experience of La Roya outbreaks. The coffee leaf rust disease has plagued Central American coffee farms for years, decimating harvests in 2013 and 2014, and again in 2021. Having witnessed its devastating impact on yields, few have any doubts about the urgency of action required to prevent future outbreaks.

As a result, combined efforts are underway to address the rising frequency and ferocity of these outbreaks. For example, to address the lack of diversity in coffee varieties and improve resilience against leaf rust, the inclusion of new varieties such as Cuscatleco, Marsellesa, Parainema, Anacafe 14, and Casitic is planned through the Climate Resilience of the Coffee Forests of El Salvador program over the next five years.

Additionally, farmers and consumers will have the opportunity to try new cup profiles from Sarchimors and Catimors.

As part of providing greater resilience, Carolina emphasises the importance of renewing coffee plantations for the preservation of the country’s forests. “It goes beyond being only one of the country’s main industries,” she says.

“It is a matter of protection of natural reserves; the issue of coffee cultivation represents more than 34,000 hectares, which means one of the main species that compose secondary forests for water filtration. Of the 11% of El Salvador’s forest, 7% is coffee plantations.”

In addition to these efforts, the government could also support the industry through financial incentives and policies aimed at improving financing interest rates for agriculture, making it more sustainable for producers.

Long-term planning, technology, processes, and research investment are crucial for consolidating Salvadoran coffee as a sought-after boutique product.

It will take a joint effort between farmers, the government, and consumers to achieve this goal. But, no matter on which side of the debate you fall, it’s clear it will be with the benefit of El Salvador’s coffee-producing future in mind.