the wall street journal, 9. october, 1998
During the darkest years of this country's 35-year civil war, local
farmers (in guatemala) abandoned their land. As the farms became jungle
again and pesticides leached away, wild spieces thrived. At the same
time, a new market in North America and Western Europe was creating
demand for organic produce.
Guatemala's civil war, ironically, was environmentally correct --
it helped reclaim the country's native plants. But these plants are not
just an environmentalist's dream; they have become a meaningful source
of income for some guatemalan peasants who are capitalizing on the
growth in the organic products market. These farmers have learned of
the comparative advantages of selling organic premium-priced goods,
making them some of the country's first enviro-capitalists.
Thomas Fricke, the president of ForesTrade, a vermont-based trading
company specializing in organic spices, coffee, and essential oils from
around the world has connected with the guatemalan farmers. Founded in
1995, ForesTrade began by imprting organic cinnamon, pepper, cloves,
nutmeg, macem and ginger from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, buying
exclusively from small-scale farmers. Mr. Fricke knew the trend:
organic produce markets in the u.s. and europe had been growing at a
rate of over 20% annually since 1990, with an estimated $3.3 billion in
the u.s. sales alone in 1996. Meanwhile, the ethnic cuisine craze was
prompting more americans to experiment with spices that were once
considered exotic. Responding to increasing demand from customers,
ForesTrade went searching for supply and found some of Latin America's
healthiest soil in Guatemala.
"We received organic certification for cardamom (a staple spice for
Indian food) in several months," Mr. Fricke says. "This process can
take 3 years in more chemically-laden countries."
Not long ago, U.S. consumers and lucrative organic produce markets
seemed far beyond the reach of farmers here, 95% of whom speak only
Kekchi, a Maya tongue. Chronic market inefficiencies, typical in the
Latin American countryside, together with the language barrier, had
impoverished rural producers, which arguably gave impetus to the longest
civil war in latin american history. When peace finally came in 1996,
local farmers benefited from an ironic twist of fate: u.s. and european
buyers were paying premiums for certified "organic" labels that
guarantee the absence of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and
herbicides in agricultural production. Their cardamom plants, which
thrive under tall rainforest canopies, fatch even higher prices.
This is a typical tropical economy. Agricultur contributes 24% of
gross domestic product (estimated at $16 billion last year) and accounts
for 75% of exports. But selling eco-sensitive produce into the global
marketplace offers guatemala the chance to compete on something besides
price -- which it would ordinarily do in the commodity market. In this
case, guatemala has a comparative advantage in organic coffee, cacao,
spices, and natural dyes and can thus command premium prices. Though
the market today is small, its develoment in rural areas might have an
important significance for farmers who otherwise would have to compete
For products like spices and coffee, organic farming requires a
shift away from the large plantations carved out of the rain forest to
the smaller farms where cardamom plants, for instance, are grown. In
Las Conchas, this shift has proved a boon to peasant farmers. As
Herminio Gonzalez, a former guerrilla turned organic spice farmer
explains, "Nobody around here can afford to manage our plants and
control pests with expensive chemicals or tractors. Today, with this
new market, we can do well with machetes and sweat equity."
Because Mr. Fricke needs a supply of organic produce, he pays
premium prices and provides technical support to heighten farmer
productivity. To reach their remote suppliers, ForesTrade establishes
joint ventures with existing businesses, individual entrepreneurs,
community associations, and non-governmental organizations. Through
this network, the company forms contractual linkages with small-scale
producers. It also hires U.S. "organic" certification agencies (with
representatives in Central America) to inspect the farms and monitor
product as it moves from the field to intermediary buyers to exporters.
Revenues at ForesTrade are still modest. While the compny has
established strong market links with conventional spice and specialty
coffee companies and leading natural food stores in North America and
Europe, their forecasted sales will fall just shy of $3 million for this
year and are expected to approach only $6.5 million by 2000. Still,
this will rank them among the largest-volume producers and importers of
certified organic spices in the world.
While numerous other U.S.companies are importing organic produce
from small-scale farmers throughout central america -- the organic
commodities project (cacao), equal exchange (coffee), stonyfield farms
(mangos) -- the case of guatemala merits special attention. Full
implementation of the peace accords, signed by the government and the
rebel alliance on 29. december, 1996, is the greatest challenge facing
guatemala today. People in places like Las Conchas are focused on the
economic underpinnings of peace.
At the end of this year, the support that many ex-guerrillas
received over the last three years from the u.n. high commission for
refugees to resettle and rehabilitate their farms is ending. U.S.
official assistance to guatemala, totaling about $965 million since
1986, is also drying up. Yet it is not more aid that the veterans of
guatemala's civil war need, but access to markets, especially ones that
promote grassroots development.
The story in Las Conchas in typical of the remote jungle
territories in northern guatemala: indian peasants -- many of whom are
former rebels -- returning home after being internally-displaced during
the civil war; new thatch huts popping up along lonely dirt roads; the
gray haze from forest fires that ripped across guatemala's tropical
forests this summer. What is exceptional is that unlike most other
places in the country, the humid forests here remain largely intact
thanks to a local campaign against an ingrained culture of
slash-and-burn agriculture. What's more surprising is that the jungle
still stand, and the farmers are living better, thanks to what most
former guerrillas would consider a dirty word: the American consumer.
On Wed, 14 Oct 1998 13:38:09 -0400 (EDT) firstname.lastname@example.org (Andy Clark,
SAN Coordinator) wrote:
>With respect to flaming for weed control, and cover crops:
>The Sustainable Agriculture Network has published *two* books that
>directly address these two issues.
>Steel in the Field: A Farmer's Guide to Weed Management Tools. 1997.
>Included in this 128-page book are:
> * Case studies of a Wisconsin farmer who uses cover crops AND
> flaming for vegetable crops; and a California farmer using flaming.
> * Descriptions of row-crop and backpack flamers,and how to use them.
> * Two pages of HOT TIPS for flaming, and contacts for equipment
> and more information.
> * LOTS MORE INFORMATION ABOUT TILLAGE TOOLS!
>Steel in the Field ($18) is available from the Sustainable Agriculture
>Network (SAN). See below for more information.
>Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 2nd Edition. 1998. Released on July
>15, 1998, this 212-page book explains in detail how to use rye and
>two dozen other cover crops for weed control and for the many other
>benefits commonly attributed to cover crops. $19 from SAN.
>From my own experience, and from research around the country, rye is
>effective at suppressing weeds. Soybeans (or corn) drilled into rye
>are able to germinate through the planter slit, while weeds between
>are controlled. Read more about weed control in these two books.
>Make your check or purchase order payable to Sustainable Agriculture
> Publications and mail to:
> Sustainable Agriculture Publications
> Hills Building, Room 10
> University of Vermont
> Burlington, VT 05405-0082
> Shipping in the U.S., Canada and Mexico included except on rush
>orders. For orders sent outside of North America, please add $6.00 for
>the first book and $2.50 for each additional book.
> Please allow 3 to 5 weeks for delivery.
>or http://www.sare.org/htdocs/pubs/ToOrder.html for ordering
>On Tue, 13 Oct 1998, lloyd kinder wrote:
>> >I have heard of using flame weeding as a pre-emergent herbicide, but
>> >guess it would work later, too, if you could somehow avoid crisping
>> >crop. $3 to $5/ac doesn't seem to expensive, if the control is
>> >I remain skeptical about using a rye crop to choke out weeds then
>> >soybeans to grow through. Why would the soybeans do any better than
>> >the weeds?? I'd suggest trying it on a really small acreage the
>> >around! Tried and true rotation may be the way, particularly with
>> >of the more stubborn weeds like Johnson grass.
>> >I'm sure there are a lot of low-tech methods out there just waiting
>> >discovered by the small farmers who are willing to do a little
>> tinkering and
>> >experimenting on their own.
>> >The potato farmers here battle "quack" or "couch" (pronounced kooch)
>> >grass. This grass sends its rhizomes right through the potatoes,
>> >rendering them unmarketable (I suggested they try selling them as
>> >fiber-enhanced spuds, but no takers!! ). In my experience, the
>> >tend to be the most pernicious and stubborn weeds -- both in farm
>> >and in home gardens.
>> >Good luck going chem-free,
>> Hi Bob. Joel Rissman has been using a flamer for a couple of years
>> think. He's the president of Organic Crop Improvement Assoc. in
>> Illinois. He knows others who use it too and he reported on its
>> in the IL-OCIA newsletter last winter. He said it doesn't hurt to
>> soybeans a little and in fact flaming seems to increase yields by
>> 10%. Some plants are adapted to prairie fires, you know, and maybe
>> soybeans are too. I don't know about corn. I don't know if soybeans
>> be flamed after they're more than a few inches high, but they can be
>> August, when they're nearly full grown. Marvin Manges said they kill
>> broadleaf weeds at that stage. Joel's email address is
>> email@example.com, if you'd like to get info from him. --- As for
>> growing beans in wheat or rye, the reason I think it may work is that
>> clover is normally planted in growing wheat. It grows slowly in the
>> spring and when the wheat is harvested it grows faster. Since
>> are legumes like clover, I figure they may do likewise. I hope to
>> out next summer. --- I guess you'd have to get the quack grass killed
>> off before tato's will grow clean and maybe flaming would help, or
>> vinegar or citric acid. --- Here's to tinkering. Aloha. Lloyd
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