GENEVA - Plunging coffee prices means extreme poverty for the people who
produce the bean, to the extent that in one coffee-growing region of El Salvador
as much as 85 percent of the child population is now malnourished.
The problem is severe in the traditional coffee producing countries of Latin America and Africa -- whose economies are highly dependent on this commodity --, but also in the newer plantation zones of Asia, particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia.
UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) cited the case of El Salvador, where thousands of families in the coffee growing areas have been left without employment and therefore without family income, and are thus falling into extreme poverty.
”Food has become scarce, and children are suffering as a result,” Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF's press officer in Geneva, commented Tuesday.
But the troubles are not limited to El Salvador, nor to the rest of the coffee-producing countries of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
The small-scale coffee growers in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico and of other Latin American countries are also suffering the impacts of the low prices of this commodity on international markets, Néstor Osorio, executive director of the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), told IPS.
Osorio explained that everywhere, including Indonesia and Vietnam, coffee growers are being paid less than the cost of production for their output.
The price paid for a pound (460 gm) of coffee reached 1.6 to 1.8 dollars on the global markets immediately after the hard frosts in 1994 that wiped out a large portion of the plantations in Brazil, the world's leading coffee producer.
The high prices prompted an explosion in the world coffee supply as more countries and their farmers sought to cash in on the situation.
As the supply grew, prices began to fall, settling at an average of 43 cents on the dollar per pound. The case of Vietnamese coffee is startling in that at one time it fetched just 15 to 18 cents on the dollar per pound on the New York exchange.
The ICO follows a composite price, which is the result of a calculation of the coffee of lesser value, the Robusta variety grown widely in Vietnam and in some African countries, of the mild Arabicas of Colombia and Central America, and of the intermediate natural Arabicas of Brazil.
In September, the average saw a slight improvement, reaching 48 cents on the dollar per pound. The ICO indicators corresponding to the first three weeks of October also marked a slight rise in prices.
However, Osorio noted that, while there is no need for pessimism, a study of the foundations of the global economy and the high volume of coffee supplies suggest that prices will continue to be weak through next year.
World Bank research indicates that the international coffee crisis has cost 400,000 to 500,000 jobs in Mexico and Central America.
These large unemployed populations increase the pressure to emigrate, Osorio noted.
He cited the example of what happened to a group of impoverished coffee growers in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, who suffocated to death in a shipping container in which they had tried to enter the United States illegally.
Hunger is already affecting parts of many countries as a result of the coffee price crisis, Osorio told IPS in a conversation from the London headquarters of the ICO, the agency whose mandate is to administer the International Coffee Agreement and foment sustainable coffee production, in other words, an approach that takes the economic, social and environmental dimensions into account.
Figures from the government of El Salvador indicate that 40,000 families have been hurt by the coffee crisis, 30,000 of which live in the coffee-growing departments of Ahuachapán, Sonsonate, Santa Ana and La Libertad.
UNICEF spokeswoman Belmonte said a study by the Salvadoran Ministry of Health shows that half of the 6,393 children under age five in Ahuachapán suffer some degree of malnutrition. The national average for now stands at 23 percent among that age group in this country of 6.2 million people.
In the municipality of Juayúa, also in that Central American country, the rate of under-nourishment (”moderate to severe” by World Health Organisation standards) for children under five had been recorded at seven percent in 1998 but has shot up to 85 percent this year.
Belmonte noted, ”this period corresponds to the worse years of the crisis of international prices for coffee,” one of the world's most traded commodities.
ICO chief Osorio underscored the growing phenomenon of poor coffee plantation workers leaving the countryside and heading to urban areas, while in Colombia coca plantations (the raw material for cocaine) are replacing coffee bushes.
”It is an explosive situation,” said the head of the organisation that coordinates the international coffee debate among its 44 member countries, which include both importers and exporters of the bean.
According to the ICO's figures, more than 60 countries produce coffee, and
coffee production serves as a livelihood for some 100 million people worldwide.
Copyright 2002 IPS