"We need to transform our way of agriculture very urgently."

Interview with Ismael Merlos, Rural Development Director of FUNDE, El Salvador

The National Development Foundation of El Salvador, FUNDE, is an institution dedicated to research, formulation of socio-economic policies, advocacy, and development promotion targeting on the most disadvantaged parts of the population.

CC: How are the Salvadoran coffee farmers doing these days?

IM: The coffee farmers, particularly smallholders, find themselves in a very critical and uncertain situation. One of the aspects that most impacted the coffee production since 2013 is the infestation of the plantations by the coffee leaf rust / roya, which has extended to almost 90% of the national cultivation area. The roya has been favoured by the advanced age of the coffee trees, droughts and irregular rainfalls and by poor technical management due to the farmers’ financial limitations and difficult access to credits. All together, this led to a remarkable decline in production over the last three years. In addition, the drop of coffee prices of approx. 30% compared to 2014/15 has caused high levels of indebtedness. Farmers lack the production and the necessary income to pay their credits for proper farm management. 

CC:  How did the daily life of a coffee farmer change in comparison to 2012?

IM: The already precarious quality of life of the families making their living from coffee, like farmers and workers, has become worse. This is a result of the vanishing employment and income opportunities, most striking among the rural population depending on coffee as their only source of income. Poverty is growing and access to food and health services is limited. In some cases, farmers have chosen to switch to other cultivation crops. More worrying is the fact that some producers and cooperatives decided to sell their land or their plot in order to pay off their debts. This happens mainly with poor producers or cooperatives without direct access to international markets and that have to sell their product for low prices to intermediaries.
As a result of all these circumstances, more and more adolescents and also adults are migrating from the countryside to the cities or even abroad. And the levels of violence and social insecurity are rising, which is hindering producers from continuing their production activities.

CC: How does climate change impact El Salvador's agriculture?

IM: Research institutes dedicated to climate issues, project that the agriculture will become an economic activity of high risk and uncertainty. They estimate that in 2030 it will no longer be possible to grow coffee in altitudes lower than 800m above sea level. If this occurs, the Salvadoran coffee production will decrease by approx. 84%. This percentage is based on data provided by PROCAFE (2010) and the Agricultural Census of 2007, estimating a coffee production area of 153,297 hectares, of which 51,441ha are on medium and 77,975ha on low levels. The plantations in these areas are in risk of getting lost. Consequently, coffee growing families there will have to abandon this activity and develop new ways of making a living.
Furthermore, the reduction of the coffee trees leads to a substantial loss of water resources and water availability for agriculture and human consumption in big parts of the Salvadoran population. This is already happening in rivers and water reservoirs.
The coffee growers should make radical and profound changes in their agricultural practices, but it is hard for them to develop cultivation systems that are resilient to adverse climatic phenomena. The way of practicing agriculture needs to be transformed very urgently.

Transforming coffee production means:

  • renovate the coffee plantations and introduce varieties that are better conditioned to survive droughts and climatic phenomena. They need to be selected according to soil and climatic conditions;
  • restore soils and improve their natural fertility; make use of rainfalls to improve soil humidity;
  • reduce the excessive use of agrochemicals and introduce ecological management techniques.
  • Officials and technicians working in public institutions dealing with the coffee sector need to change their mentality and their vision.

The predicted reduction of coffee production in lower and medium levels should be an incentive for producers, government and traders to focus on specialty coffees in higher altitudes. Specialty coffees from El Salvador are sold for a far better export price. 

CC: What can different stakeholders do?

The government

  • Update policies and strategies for the coffee sector, incorporating measures and actions to address climate change and its consequences in the short and long term.
  • Update coffee politics and lead them towards rescuing coffee production in an integral and sustainable way with a long-term vision and reach.
  • Update and innovate knowledge of technicians and public institutions in line with new ways of technically managing coffee farms.
  • Invest in research and technological development related to coffee and climate change.
  • Support smallholders and cooperatives in processing and marketing activities to create an added value to their product.

The private sector

  • Invest in the development of research initiatives and in innovative plantation management practices.
  • National and international buyers can play a crucial role in supporting their supplying producers by delivering technical and financial resources.

The farmer

  • Actively change his farm and plantation management. The farmer cannot wait for and rely on governmental and institutional support only.
  • Particularly smallholders should unite and strengthen their unions to manage adequate public policies. They should also strengthen entrepreneurial associations to promote the processing of their products and to access international markets.
  • Smallholders and smallholder cooperatives with adequate natural resources should target on specialty coffee production with better income opportunities.

CC: And what is FUNDE's role? Could you describe your activities in the coffee sector?

IM: FUNDE is supporting development activities in the agricultural and coffee sector since the beginning. We have developed studies and delivered trainings and technical assistance, specifically for smallholder organizations, including coffee cooperatives. In this context, FUNDE also supported the foundation of the Federation of Coffee Producing Cooperatives (Foro del Café), with which we are closely cooperating in the promotion of the coffee sector.

In the last four years, FUNDE established support relations with 125 smallholder organizations, including coffee cooperatives.
The promotion of ecologic/organic agriculture has been one of the main concerns in our trainings and technical assistance services. We have offered special classes on harvesting, rainwater usage and soil restoration.
Due to its high economic value for the rural population and for the workers employed in coffee production and harvesting, our work with the coffee sector is one of FUNDE’s priorities. Also the ecological value of the coffee trees for water reserves and mitigation of climate change is an important factor for us. 

CC: Are you facing any challenges in your work with coffee farmers?

To be able to support smallholders producing coffee and other products, FUNDE needs financial resources for delivering technical support for sustainable plantation management and organizational empowerment. In particular, we should motivate the young people in rural areas to take part in agricultural activities and to make it a way of a decent and worthy living. 

                                         Thank you for the interview, Ismael!

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