A strong and penetrating smell of coffee comes from the ‘Cafeteria El Paraiso’. Inside, behind the counter, you can see an old cylinder-shaped coffee machine. The ‘El Paraiso’ coffee shop, with rough and smoky interior walls is in the Morazan district, located in the mountains surrounding Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.
Don Aleman, a serene looking, 80 year-old man says. “When I arrived here, after doing several jobs, I set up a coffee shop, which seemed natural to me because I had worked on coffee plantations since I was a child. From the very beginning, I decided to have the coffee beans delivered to the El Paraiso district from my land”. The district is located in the east of the country, on the border with Nicaragua. The capital of the district is the colonial city of Yuscaran. In 1979 the town, which is also famous for Yuscaran brandy production, was declared a National Monument.
“In the El Paraiso district – says Don Aleman – 700,000 quintals of grains are produced annually by growing the crop in 75,000 hectares of land. In my municipality alone, about 18,000 hectares of coffee cultivation produce about 100,000 quintals of grains. The coffee grows between mountains and valleys at an altitude of about 1400 meters, that’s why it has a strong taste with rum and tobacco flavour”.
There are approximately 200 brands registered in Honduras, and over the past few years the number has further increased. The country is the world’s seventh largest coffee bean producer. Honduras’s annual coffee production amounts to 800,000,000 quintals. Coffee represents 8,5% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and is the country’s second largest income source, after migration remittances (representing 15% of the GDP). In Honduras, the Arabica Coffee is the most common variety of coffee plant and other coffee plants are the Lempira, Indio, Caturro and Noventa. “Preparation is what makes the difference, and gives coffee the special taste”, Don Aleman underlines.
A middle-aged man gets closer to the coffee shop counter. His face is toasted by the sun and his rough hands are holding a sombrero. His name is Don Tránsito Lopez, but people here call him Don Tancho. He is the owner of a small coffee company. It is interesting to note that coffee production in Honduras is mainly managed by small producers; in eight out of ten cases, coffee production is managed by family–run plantation owners, about 100 thousand small and medium enterprises scattered across the 16 of the 18 districts of the country. Small-scale coffee companies in the country implement a strategy that involves bringing together small producers under the umbrella of cooperatives and providing them with comprehensive technical assistance in good production practices, quality standards, certification. Through this process and other strategies the small coffee enterprises can, in most cases, be independent.
During coffee harvest more than half a million workers are hired in Honduras. In Central America, the coffee sector is a job opportunity for about 2 million workers every year.
According to Don Tacho, some companies hire even up to 150 people per day. They get paid around $15 a day. “Wages vary according to the worker’s skills. The more coffee grain containers that are filled, the more a worker is paid. Each coffee bean container’s capacity ranges from 8 to 10 kilograms”, Don Tacho explains. “During the harvest season, entire families move to the coffee plantations, sometimes, five or even nine-membered families; they can fill up to 30 containers per day, making a good profit”.
This year, coffee beans have been seriously damaged by roya, Spanish for rust (the killing fungus that affects crops). According to the Honduras’ National Coffee Institute (IHCAF), the 2013/2014 output will not exceed six million quintals, due to severe infestation of roya fungus; the expected revenues will be around $700 million. A sharp decline compared to the seven million and 200,000 quintals output of the previous year.
But, what really worries Don Tacho and the other coffee growers, is the increasing presence of drug gangs in the high mountain areas.
“At night you can see Pick-Up vehicles going up rough trails to load plastic bins. The vehicles are often escorted by armed men”, Don Tacho says.
The police recently discovered a laboratory in the mountains at 1600 meters above sea level in the La Iguala municipality. Eugenio Sosa, from the University of Honduras, says that “Honduras is no longer just a transit country for drug trafficking, but it is becoming a place to develop the processing of illicit production”.
Mirna Flores, expert in security matters, has said, “Honduras, due to its characteristics is a country that is increasingly attracting the Mexican cartels”.
“Corruption and law immunity in Honduras create favourable circumstances for illicit drug production and trafficking. Mexican cartels, have several logistical bases in Honduras, they buy coffee companies in the mountains. They have the support of some corrupted state institution authorities, in particular among the police and the army. They control entire areas and several youth gangs, known as Maa. Honduras has become one of the most dangerous places to live in the world; the country stands to break world records with its murder rate, estimated at 86 per 100,000 inhabitants”. (P.R.J.)