Harvest Hit by Blight, Civil War and Low Prices : Bad Times for Salvador Coffee Growers

Times Staff Writer

For Luis Vicente, coffee is life itself--a life of gnarled fingers and a twisted spine, but one that feeds and clothes his family.

This year it is hardly a life at all. The coffee harvest, hit by blight, high winds, low prices and an escalating civil war, is expected to be the worst in at least three decades.

Recently, the 48-year-old Vicente, a coffee picker who normally earns about $100 when the crop is good, pushed back his straw hat and said slowly that he "won't have enough to buy food or clothing" for his wife and four children.

Callused Hands

Indeed, this year he'll be fortunate to earn $50 for his three months of picking coffee beans from spiny branches, which has callused his hands so much that he can strike a match on his palms.

And the situation is bad not just for Luis Vicente and the thousands of other pickers: It is an economic calamity for all El Salvador.

Coffee is El Salvador's major cash earner, accounting for nearly 59% of all export income. The government's share of this income, $347 million, represents two-thirds of its contribution of the national budget.

But by conservative estimates, the current harvest will be off at least 30%--some say 50%--and will more than offset a predicted increase in coffee prices on world markets. Production in the coffee-rich province of San Miguel is expected to be about 65% below last year's level, according to growers there.

'Difficult to Recover'

"This will be the worst harvest in 30 years," Roberto Mena Lagos, president of the Coffee Growers' Assn., said recently. "It will be difficult to recover."

Even before this season's catastrophe, El Salvador's coffee economy was in bad condition. Prices in 1987 averaged $1.03 a pound, against an average of $1.85 in 1986. Last December the price was $1.18, while bids for March were running at $1.65.

In addition to poor prices, production is plummeting. According to the growers' association, El Salvador produced 450 million pounds of coffee in 1979. The projection for this year is only 150 million pounds.

Mena Lagos, the association's president, tends to dismiss the civil war and even natural conditions as being responsible for the coffee growers' plight. Instead, he blames government pricing and tax policies, saying they discourage production.

But clearly, there is more to all this than politics. This season was supposed to be better. Early on, there was ample rain and good growing conditions. But just as the trees began to flower, unusually strong winds struck the growing areas, blowing off the blossoms necessary for pollination. This was followed by blight, particularly at lower elevations.

Altogether, about 20% of the trees were eliminated from the harvest, sharply cutting back the yield of industrial-grade beans sold primarily to the United States for instant and other lower-quality types of coffee.

No official is willing to say how much of the loss can be attributed directly to the civil war, but a visit to a large, efficient and productive finca , or coffee farm, indicates that coffee is a serious hostage to the war between the right-wing government and the Marxist-led guerrillas.

Finca Tigre, 55 miles southeast of San Salvador, clings to the side of a 5,000-foot mountain so steep that it can destroy the transmission of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. But the volcanic soil is so amenable to raising high-grade coffee that growers and pickers find it worth the extra investment and spine-bending work.

Finca Tigre covers 200 manzanas , about 143 acres, and this makes it one of the largest and richest in Usulutan province, a major coffee-producing region. About 150 men, women and children work there, and they are paid the equivalent of about $1 for every 80 pounds of coffee they pick. An experienced picker can bring in about 400 pounds of beans a day.

But this year, the picking at El Tigre lasted little more than six weeks, seriously cutting into the pickers' earnings.

The owners--they have not been seen on the mountain for two decades and no one seemed to know their names--grossed $1.5 million last year. This season's figure is still unknown, but obviously it will be considerably lower.

Besides the pickers' wages, a war tax must be paid to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the umbrella group for the five guerrilla organizations at war with the central government. In the case of Finca Tigre, the tax is $12,000 a season. For smaller fincas it is $6,000.

Public Relations Stunt

In addition, the FMLN, as the guerrilla forces are called, tries to force growers to pay workers at the rate of $1 for every 25 pounds of coffee picked. But this appears to be more of a public relations stunt than a real demand. Finca Tigre pays government scale, but because the owners pay the rebel tax it has been left alone.

Just over the mountain, coffee at another large finca went unpicked this year because its owners refused to pay the tax. The guerrillas burned many acres and then mined the rest, making it too dangerous for the pickers to work.

The FMLN often impedes work even while the picking is going on. Last season, at a small finca called La Quinta near the city of Berlin in Usulutan, 10 people were abducted after refusing to observe a guerrilla order against picking.

This year, the army has provided protection and there have been no abductions, even though the owners again refused to pay the tax. Still, the overseer said he has been threatened and has had to spend his nights in Berlin.

Army protection, which officers say takes up much of their time and effort during the harvest, is spotty at best. At a finca only a 30-minute walk from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Salvador, a group of about 200 guerrillas recently appeared in broad daylight, rounded up the workers and warned them to stop picking. The guerrillas stayed for several hours without interference from the military.

But the guerrilla problem goes beyond the fincas. One of El Salvador's largest coffee-processing plants, Beneficio Oromontique, which dominates the town of Santiago de Maria halfway between Berlin and Finca Tigre, was attacked recently by guerrillas who placed at least 32 bombs against the walls of the plant. Plant director Fausto Schonenberg said the bombs caused at least $70,000 in damage.

But even without that setback, Schonenberg said, this year's crop is so meager that "we will make only enough to survive." Last season, the plant processed and exported 15,500 pounds of high-grade coffee. This season, he said, the total will be about 6,600 pounds.

Given the riches amassed over the years, Schonenberg said, the plant "can survive economically for a few more seasons, but the people in the area (who depend on the harvest) can't, and neither can the country."

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