Américas / May-June 1997
By Larry Luxner
CARACAS -- On a breezy hilltop overlooking Venezuela's crowded capital city, agronomist Franco Manrique is doing his part to save a once-proud industry: he's growing Venezuela's first organically certified coffee.
Manrique, 34, is coordinator of Venezuela's Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Ecológica Reciclaje y Energias Alternativas (Foundation for the Development of Ecological Recycling and Alternative Energy). Known by its Spanish acronym Fundagrea, this non-profit organization is located in the Topo las Piñas environmental center, just outside the Caracas suburb of Vista Alegre.
"Our work is mainly concerned with sustainable development, and our main objective is organic agriculture," he said. "Venezuela's population is concentrated mostly in the north, which also has the fewest sources of drinking water. And the few sources that do exist have been dramatically affected by conventional agriculture. So our strategy is to preserve and recover hydrographical basins through organic agriculture."
"Another motivation," he added, "is the need to lower the costs of production to small producers. We're talking about an average two or three hectares per family. When we see the cost of fertilizers going up due to price liberalization, the ones who are most affected are small producers. So organic is an option for them, especially in order to offer products of high biological quality to consumers who demand it."
Manrique is a full-time agronomic engineer, and one of nine full-time staffers at Fundagrea. A graduate of Mexico's Universidad de Colima, he's been working with organic agriculture for the past 15 years, in places as diverse as Paraguay, Peru and California. His assistant, Nataly Bonnet, also works full-time at the center.
"We don't use a single chemical, fertilizer or pesticide to preserve the quality of the product in terms of aroma and flavor," said Manrique during a recent interview, noting that Venezuelan coffee has a distinct taste.
"When the oil boom began in the 1920s and 1930s, Venezuela sadly abandoned its traditional coffee market," he explained. "Agriculture started to fall because there was no incentive to produce. We're now slowly trying to recover our markets."
Indeed, last year Venezuela saw a 643% growth in export volume, with 632,000 quintales (hundredweights) of regular coffee shipped, compared to 85,000 quintales exported the previous year. About 93% of that is sold to the United States, while the rest goes to Europe.
Yet Venezuelan coffee currently sells for only $2.23 per kilo -- the lowest of Latin America's major producers -- and yields are dropping. These days, Venezuelan farmers get only six quintales per acre; the normal yield is over 10 quintales. And because of the devastation wrought on the coffee harvest by the broca crop bug, producers may have to import conventional coffee to meet domestic demand -- for the first time in over 200 years.
Meanwhile, Fundagrea is working to get Venezuelans to buy its organic coffee. One label, Flor de Montaña, is sold in 500-gram yellow-and-green bags at the retail level, with the following inscription: "Café Flor de Montaña is a fine selection of coffee beans from plantations of Unión José Eleazar Mendoza, of the Mixed Cooperative of Sanaré, in the state of Lara. This coffee has been grown organically and with the most strict quality controls. We guarantee the quality and purity of this product."
Fundagrea, whose annual budget is around 15-20 million bolívares ($40,000), works with 25 coffee producers in the states of Lara, Miranda and Guarico; organic production is now beginning in Sucre. It now has 500 hectares in cultivation and plans to produce 3,500 quintales this year. Within five years, however, Manrique says his group will be exporting 20,000 quintales annually.
"In the organic market, we're trying to compete on quality, not quantity. We're creating new varieties through genetic breeding," Manrique said. "We use ingas or legume trees as shade providers to protect coffee trees from the sun. Bucareand cedro are some of the local trees we use to maximize local resources. The shells and husks are used in com-posting. We also make our own insecticides to control diseases. We research what jungle trees can be used to make insecticides and fungicides, and manufacture it. They leave no residue in human tissue, and all of them are non-toxic and completely biodegradable."
Another of Manrique's projects is to get tourists -- both local and foreign -- to visit Venezuelan coffee farms, in what is coming to be known and marketed as "agro-tourism." He's already talking with one Caracas travel agency, Turismo Maso, to incorporate into its offerings a visit to the city of Barquisimeto, which hosts an annual product fair featuring organic produce.
A separate venture aims to bring tourists to eastern Venezuela's lush Paria Peninsula, and in direct contact with farmers who raise coffee, cacao and water buffalo. Package tours now being developed are bringing tourists -- primarily Germans and other Western Europeans -- to such places as Cumaná, Carúpano and other points of interest throughout Paria. In the biggest of such ventures, a $36 million Club Med will rise on a 2,000-hectare site in close proximity to organic coffee and cacao farms; visitors will be free to tour them -- and hopefully buy samples to take home.
"With regard to tourism," says Manrique, "our idea is that the consumer should know where these products come from, and who produces them."