When I’ve driven west out of San Salvador to the volcanic mountains of Santa Ana that are home to many of El Salvador’s coffee farms I’ve gone past the Plaza de la Reconciliación. A controversial monument to the the post-civil war peace. Beside the monument is a large plaque showing the history of El Salvador. From the pre-colonial period to today. Among the images of Mayans, Conquistadors, politicians, and revolutionaries is one consistent thing, coffee.
The history of El Salvador cannot be told without telling the story of its coffee. From when it first took root to today it is shaping the people, culture, and climate of this Central American country.
History of Coffee in El Salvador
The land that became El Salvador was first brought together by the Spanish and their brutal wars of conquest. Several nations resided on the land when it was invaded. The Cacaopera, Mangue, Chorti, Alaguilac, Poqoman, Mixe, Xinca and the largest two, the Lenca and Pipil peoples all existed and mostly still exist in El Salvador. The invasion began in 1524 and by 1525 the Spanish had succeeded in taking decimating the native nations.
Coffee first came to El Salvador in the 1800’s. Grown in very small amounts it wasn’t long after the 1821 independence that in 1830 a Brazilian school teacher name Antonio Coelho on a farm called La Esperanza started figuring out how to grow it commercially. At the time indigo used to dye fabrics was the primary product grown in El Salvador producing almost 95% of Central America’s export of the dye coming form El Salvador. By 1840 when indigo prices collapsed because of the rise of synthetic dyes driving producers to switch to coffee and adopt the growing techniques created by Colho. Finally in 1855 the first coffee exports left El Salvador and within 15 years coffee was almost the sole product that would leave the country.
The explosion of coffee led to the rise of an oligarchy in El Salvador. Known as the 14 families they would come to control 70% of El Salvador’s banks, mills, television, newspapers and most of all coffee. Using their influence they created laws they privatised land expelling natives and farmers from areas they had inhabited for generations. They also gave land owners like themselves an overwhelming majority in the legislature so laws were only passed with their permission.
This system of oligarchy and authoritarian dictatorship ran until 1931 when a coup by General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez ushered in an era of military dictatorship. This ended with the breakout of a civil war from 1980 to 1992 between the different political factions. The right wing factions were supported by the US who feared a leftest government taking charge . Through this period coffee production collapsed from its high in 1979 of 175,000 tones to 37,140 in 2022.
The Rise of Specialty Coffee El Salvador
Specialty coffee is an idea that there is a way to objectively evaluate the flavour of coffee and then connect those flavours to financial value. Higher quality coffee tends to taste more fruity with more acidity. To make that kind of coffee you need a certain kind of micro-climate and the skills grow and harvest coffee the right way to make it.
The rise of specialty in the early 2000’s has meant for many producers an explosion in what they can earn on their farm. In El Salvador it’s meant some farms are on the world stage, used by some of the best baristas to win competitions and be served in the most acclaimed shops. These coffees, usually a rare kind of coffee like pacamara, pink bourbon or gesha can go for over 70 USD a pound at auctions like Cup of Excellence or more while the commodity price price for coffee over the last 50 years is $1.69 per-lb.
The problem is specialty can’t help all farmers. By using quality as the only mechanism to break coffee out of the low cost in coffee it means farmers whose farm are not in a micro-climate the allows for specialty coffee just can’t grow it. This can be seen in the average amount an El Salvadorian producer makes from coffee. 2022 was seen as a 30 year high for coffee with producers earning $2.3 per-lb but those prices have now collapsed. The average commodity price for coffee in 2023 currently is at $1.57 per-lb while the cost of production is estimated to be $1.39. Along with a relatively low income for producers globally the share they get in the final price of your cup of coffee has gone down, from 30% in 1991 to 10% in 2020.
Climate Change, Coffee, and El Salvador
The climate emergency means of all the worlds coffee origins the El Salvadorian coffee producer is most at risk of seeing their land become unsuitable for coffee. Under current climate models it’s estimated 35% of coffee land will become unusable for growing by 2050.
El Salvador Deforestation
Coffee has played an important part in protecting El Salvadors bio-diversity. To produce higher quality coffee the fruit that surrounds the coffee seed needs to ripen slowly. Reducing the exposure the trees have to sunlight slows the ripening which increases the quality of the cup.
90% of farms in El Salvador practice shade grown coffee while only 24% of farms globally. Their farms look more like organised forests than mono-cultural farms like cornfields in the UK or the US. They need less fertilisers and help maintain a more dynamic ecosystem. El Salvador has lost 90% of its forest cover and the remaining 80% is located on shade grown coffee farms. Throughout the 90’s deforestation occurred mostly at high-altitudes in coffee regions driven by the collapse of coffee prices which became unable to support producers. This land primarily turned into urbanised areas.
Shaded coffee farms sequester 189 t C/ha of carbon compared to 113 t C/ha for unshaded or about 55.4 t C/ha for urban areas. This means every hectare of landed preserved as a shaded coffee farm stores the carbon output of over 66 El Salvadorian people. In total the coffee industry stores carbon equal to almost 3.5x the whole population of El Salvador.
The Future of Coffee in El Salvador
Coffee farmers are a critical part of El Salvador, it’s history and future. By supporting farmers and making coffee more profitable we can help preserve the ecology of the country. In turn those areas can not only create the coffee we love but they can sustain the people creating it and offers an important carbon storage.
Specialty has been instrumental in helping many producers earn more from their coffee but the wealth gap between producers who can create higher quality coffees and those that can’t is growing. We need ways of supporting the people on coffee farms, ways that can help reverse the El Salvadorian coffee trades decline.
*Cost of production estimate is built on using a Caravela study from 2019 on cost of production & applying El Salvador’s inflations rates.