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In Mideast, Guatemalan cardamom goes hand-in-hand with coffee
The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / May 1997

By Larry Luxner

GUATEMALA CITY -- Coffee drinkers in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere throughout the Middle East have helped made Guatemala the world's largest cardamom exporter.

Cobán, capital of the Central American nation's Alta Verapaz province, is the source of much of the Arab world's cardamom -- a sweet, pungent and highly aromatic spice widely used in Indian cuisine. In fact, cardamom coffee, known in Arabic as kahwe hal, is considered a symbol of hospitality throughout the Middle East.

Today, cardamom ranks as Guatemala's fourth-largest agricultural export -- right behind coffee, sugar and bananas. In 1995, the country exported 13,900 metric tons of the spice worth $40.7 million, with about three-fifths of that volume ending up in Saudi Arabia. Another 10% goes to the United Arab Emirates; smaller amounts are exported to Syria, Kuwait, Singapore, the United States and Western Europe. The 1996-97 crop is projected at 15,000 tons worth $60 million.

Manfred Topke, a leading Guatemalan coffee exporter who also grows the sweet-smelling spice, says 70% of the Central American nation's cardamom crop is cultivated by small producers with fewer than 10 acres of land.

"Cardamom in Guatemala became a big crop in the volcanic slopes of the Pacific coast, but then the mozaic virus came in and wiped out those plantations," he explained. "Most cardamom production has now moved to Alta Verapaz -- close to the Honduran border -- and away from the south coast." The new farms are located in mountainous areas with better natural humidity and at altitudes above 3,000 feet, which increases crop yields.

Interestingly, cardamom isn't indigenous to Guatemala at all, but to southern India and Sri Lanka, where it is still produced, though mainly for domestic use. In Saudi Arabia, cardamom enjoys widespread popularity, particularly during the pilgrimmage to Mecca.

Besides cooling the body and settling the stomach, cardamom coffee is sometimes also marketed as a sexual stimulant, especially among the older generation. No wonder Saudis prepare and offer their guests cardamom coffee as a ceremonial ritual. Green coffee beans are roasted, crushed with a brass mortar and pestle, and boiled for a few minutes along with cardamom seeds, a touch of saffron, ground cloves and some sugar. After straining, the mixture is ready to be drunk. The huge quantities of cardamom used -- about two teaspoons of seeds for each cup -- give the brew a powerful, spicy flavor and heady fragrance. Guests are served the coffee according to their rank or status. Accepting up to three cups of it and making audible slurping noises are considered signs of appreciation.

"Cardamom seeds are like Christmas trees," says Dr. Luis Pedro Torrebiarte, president of the Gremial de Exportadores de Cardamomo (Cardamom Exporters Association). "The greener and bigger the seeds, the more they're worth."

Torrebiarte, 49, has been in charge of his family's cardamom business, Comercial Agricola Magdalena S.A., since 1985. He's also a psychiatrist with a degree from Syra-cuse University. In the morning, Torrebiarte surrounds himself with cardamom sampless in his Guatemala City office; afternoons, he sees patients at a nearby clinic.

"Right now, we're at a very even balance between production and consumption," observed the executive, noting that Guatemala surpassed India in production about 10 years ago. Other cardamom-producing countries include Tanzania (5,000 tons a year) and Sri Lanka (4,000 tons). Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have also tried to cultivate cardamom on a commercial scale, though without success, due to poor growing conditions in those nations.

In 1995, Guatemala sold 306,500 quintales (hundredweights) of cardamom, a 5.2% jump over 1994 figures. Nevertheless, the average export price dropped to $132.79 per quintal, an 8.3% drop from the year before.

"The reduction in average prices is a reflection of bigger crops in Guatemala and India, as well the entry of other countries in the global cardamom market, such as Papua New Guinea, Honduras and Costa Rica," says a government commodities report, adding that Honduras is emerging as one of Guatemala's strongest rivals in the export trade.

Even so, Guatemala -- with its cheaper prices and aggressive marketing -- is clearly the world's No. 1 cardamom exporter. According to some reports, it's even begun penetrating India's huge domestic market (via Nepalese smugglers) despite Indian laws that strictly forbid the importation of cardamom.

In the early 1990s, Guatemala's cardamomeros found themselves in the midst of an international controversy, when Guatemala decided to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia protested, threatening to cut off all cardamom purchases if the planned embassy transfer went through. In the end, says Torrebiarte, "the government decided not the change the embassy, and it saved us a lot of trouble."

With that political debate out of the way -- at least for now -- Guatemala's carda-mom growers aren't worried about losing their most important market. In fact, Torrebiarte is asking the Guatemalan government to open a trade office in the Middle East, to facilitate sales not only of cardamom but also of other Guatemalan products such as gourmet coffee, apparel and manufactured goods.

At the same time, everyone seems encouraged by the December 1996 signing of a peace accord between President Alvaro Arzú and Guatemala's biggest guerrilla groups, ending the country's 36-year-old civil war.

"Many man-hours have been wasted in patrolling and civil defense that could have been better spent in more productive activities," said Torrebiarte. "We hope that with the signing of this treaty, we will no longer have to pay illegal war taxes or live in fear."

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