May 24, 2007 / 1:10 PM / 12 years ago

Weekend homes swallow El Salvador coffee fields

NUEVO CUSCATLAN, El Salvador (Reuters) - El Salvador, already the most densely populated country in the Americas, is fast losing its remaining green areas as traditional coffee farms make way for weekend homes and urban sprawl.

Since El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1993, the manufacturing and financial sectors have taken off. Add money sent by a Salvadoran population established in the United States during the war and home construction has gone wild.

New houses — from modest weekend retreats to homes with swimming pools and sports areas — are engulfing this Central American country.

“This is the way things are, people need housing, too,” said Guiseppe Angelucci, patriarch of a coffee-growing family in Nuevo Cuscatlan, just southwest of the capital San Salvador, that is selling its 112 hectares of coffee trees for housing.

Some 28 hectares have already been cleared for a recreational and weekend home project. At other farms nearby, it is the same story.

At a development called “Emerald Eco-Zone,” dozens of $250,000 houses are due to go up on what was recently a productive coffee farm of 32 hectares.

LOW PRICES

Only the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador has lost some 35,000 hectares of coffee farms, or 21 percent of the planted area, since its 2001 census, some to abandonment or other crops but much to urban sprawl.

In its first harvest after its civil war, El Salvador produced 3.3 million 60 kg bags of beans. This year’s harvest is estimated at just 1.24 million bags, and yields are well below international standards.

Once the backbone of the economy, coffee growers have suffered from years of low international coffee prices, many are in debt and the decision to sell is easy.

“El Salvadoran producers have had a series of setbacks that have made us lose our links with agriculture,” said Jeff Holman, president of coffee exporter Volcan, who blames an economic structure based on workers who live abroad.

“The housing boom is a boom based on the fact that there is no real income apart from what goes on outside the country,” he said.

A quarter of El Salvador’s 9 million citizens are estimated to live outside the country, primarily in the United States.

They sent home $3.3 billion in remittances last year, and much of it was used by families to make down payments on new homes, particularly in coffee-rich western El Salvador.

El Salvador has a density of 330 people per square kilometer, the highest of any country in the Americas and similar to Japan or Belgium. By comparison, nearby Costa Rica has 81 people per square kilometer.

For a country that is already severely deforested, the construction boom is a looming environmental disaster.

The bulk of El Salvador’s forest cover comes from coffee farms, where aging bourbon-variety trees grow beneath a towering canopy of secondary forest. These “coffee forests” provide the little water table protection and migratory bird habitat that is left.

A report last year by Washington-based think tank Resources for the Future warned that El Salvador faces grave environmental challenges in the near future unless the destruction of coffee farms is halted.

URBAN PRESSURE

Coffee farming took off here in the 19th century, and coffee families with huge landholdings soon dominated the country’s economy and politics.

Its coffee farms are split between family plot owners in cooperatives and huge oligarchs. For many small farmers, low coffee prices have killed any qualms they might have had about selling out, exporter Holman said.

“The urban pressure is strong,” said Roberto Inclan, president of the El Salvadoran Coffee Growers’ Association, known here as La Cafetalera.

Some farmers are determined to hold out.

In another suburb west of the capital, the El Espino organic farm peters on the edge of former coffee-growing lands that now house shopping malls and office parks.

A new highway will bisect the road that runs from the cooperative office to its farms, and yet farmers vow to keep developers at bay. “This is a source of employment that we cannot eliminate,” cooperative member Antonio Bertran said.

And, near the Emerald Eco-Zone project, farm worker Jose Miguel Ramirez says the land is too valuable to be wasted on housing.

“There is always going to be coffee here,” he said. “The forest maintains the cold for the water table, but if we remove it all that will be left is a desert.”

But for many, like the Angelucci family in Nuevo Cuscatlan, the decision is easy.

“I am not too concerned as I am already very old,” said Angelucci.

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