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Organic spices fuel the peace in Guatemala

Guatemalan cardamom farmer
credit: Juan Carlos Lemus Dahinten

Organic farming, guerilla war and environmental protection: civil war in Guatemala brought together some unlikely associations. Five years ago the longest civil war in Latin American history came to an end: thirty five years, during which farms returned to jungle, agrochemicals degraded and disappeared, but indigenous spice plants flourished. Poverty had fuelled the war, and now income from organic spices appears to be sustaining the peace. A new variant of the old biblical cliché of beating swords into ploughshares.

The opportunity was recognised by ForesTrade, an American spice wholesaler that has set the standard for encouraging environmentally beneficial organic farming. Its co-founder, Thomas Fricke, got the idea in Sumatra, where he was asked to identify incentives that would discourage shifting cultivators from encroaching on the Kerinci Seblat National Park. His solution was based around sustainable cultivation both of food and cash crops, in particular cinnamon (see also 'A little cinnamon with your coffee?'. While commercial, export-oriented spice cultivation usually takes place on large areas cleared of forest, Fricke offered the small-scale farmers, firstly in Sumatra and later in Guatemala, the chance to benefit from their more limited production of spices. The profitability, and hence sustainability of the enterprise, was to rest on the premium prices that ForesTrade would be able to obtain for their environmentally-friendly, organic product from both the American and European spice markets.

Establishing a reliable supply chain from populations of cardamom and allspice farmers in very remote areas is a daunting undertaking. In Guatemala this has been achieved through numerous joint ventures. The complex network between grower and wholesaler includes community associations, individual entrepreneurs, established businesses and local NGOs, particularly those dedicated to the preservation of the environment and local cultures. Growers themselves are organised into groups, and ForesTrade employs regional co-ordinators and teams of extension workers, whose jobs include providing training and support for organic certification and promoting sustainable production methods. The growers are required by their contract to use environmentally- friendly farming methods, and of course to avoid the use of synthetic chemicals, whether fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. While much commercial spice production tends to rely heavily on chemical inputs, many of Guatemala's smallholders are unable to afford these inputs. So, they maintain their crop yields through judicious use of composting, crop rotation and biological pest and disease control. The growers are paid for their crop at the market price, in addition, they receive higher incomes through improved yields and are also given a bonus, which goes towards community services, such as education and health facilities.

The success of the first contracted groups has encouraged ForesTrade to expand to new areas. This process takes some time as extension workers are recruited and farmers trained in the organic methods they will need to adopt to fulfil their contract. Once a credible system of assisting and checking has been established in an area, the company begins the procedure of having groups registered as organic suppliers. This is a rigorous process; for a start, the certification agencies check not only that chemicals are not being used, but also that vegetation and soils are being protected and that crops are not being over-harvested. In addition, a spice growing area must have been free from chemical applications for at least three years before it can qualify. The transport, storage and processing systems must also be carefully monitored, to ensure the spices are not exposed to contamination of any kind (see also 'Quality - an added value'). One important element in the processing of spices is sterilization: non-organic spices are sterilized either by chemicals, such as ethylene oxide or methyl bromide, or by irradiation. But both of these methods have raised health concerns, for consumers and for staff working at treatment plants. Organic spices are now commonly sterilized by steam heat, a process that does not damage the flavour of the product, or use potentially harmful chemicals.

The market for organic spices looks encouraging. One key area for growth could lie in the organic packaged food market, with companies looking to include organic spices in their packaged meals and foods. If some of the big conventional spice companies were to start marketing organic lines, this would be even better news for the small-scale growers, who through businesses like ForesTrade, have begun to access this global market.

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New Agriculturist by WRENmedia