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Back on track: Central American shipments overcome Mitch.

While many of the wounds inflicted upon Central American nations by Hurrican Mitch are still healing, its people have fostered the strength to rebuild and move on. The countries are making speedy progress in terms of the rebuilding of vital infrastructure following the devastation. Although the damage to worst-hit Honduras and Nicaragua by the storm that crusaded through the region last October and November continues to demand many billions of dollars more to recover fully, the countries' key exports of coffee are now getting back on track with regular shipments reaching ports from growing regions.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid has flowed into-Central America and major operations supported by U.S. marines and other volunteers are working intensively to repair thousands of kilometers of roads and hundreds of bridges destroyed by the storm.

"We are progressing a lot," said Roberto Bendana of the Nicaraguan Coffee Commission (Conicafe). "The roads continue to be rehabilitated and maintained, and the overall road network in Nicaragua now looks very good compared to right after Mitch. At least it is now functional.

"Most of the direct damage from Mitch will take longer to rebuild, but all the main areas in the coffee producing regions are connected again and have access to the main roads."

According to the most recent Conicafe figures, Nicaragua saw total exports through April 15 reach 694,010 quintals (46-kg bags), 12% lower than last year at this time of the season, but a strong recovery from the start of the coffee crop year when October exports were down over 64%.

But Bendana noted that the most important coffee road to the Pacific port of Corinto from the key growing regions of northern Matagalpa and Jinotega, where some 80% of all Nicaragua's coffee is produced, is still down.

Where lush green coffee trees flourished in Matagalpa just days before Mitch's deadly mud slides swept through the area, massive craters were the only remaining feature in this once fertile highland valleys, while roads were left to narrow and treacherous one-lane tracks.

In growing areas throughout Matagalpa, Mitch's deadly mudslides stripped away lush green coffee trees, leaving only massive craters behind, and reduced many two-lane roads to treacherously narrow one-lane tracks.

"Almost half of all our coffee is exported via Honduras and the rest is shipped from Corinto," said Bendana. "The road from Matagalpa to Leon for connection to Corinto is still down. That road was severely damaged and it will take a couple of years before it will be repaired"

This has up until recently forced producers in the rural and remote northern provinces to ship their coffee all the way down to the capital of Managua and then back up along the coast to the port, causing long delays.

"It's a long way, but at least it does not stop the exports," he said, while adding that Conicafe expects overall exports to drop some 10% by the end of the 1998/99 crop year, from the 1997/98 level of 1.2 million quintals.

In Honduras, the Central American country worst hit by Mitch with more than 7,000 people killed and many thousands more still remaining unaccounted for, infrastructure has been rehabilitated to an operational level. Agricultural officials have estimated that 70% of all Honduras' crops were lost because of Mitch.

"We are working on repairing infrastructure all over the country," said Emilio Medina, president of the major Honduran coffee exporter Beneficio de Cafe Montecristo. "Honduras' infrastructure was damaged very badly, and while all the principal roads have been repaired for [a necessary level of operation], transport is very slow and there are still many areas without bridges."

The official Honduran Coffee Institute (IHCAFE) said exports from October 1 to April 9 reached 1.602 million quintals, down 8.9% compared to the same period in the previous 1997/98 crop year. Loss estimates for Honduras following Mitch remain the most speculative of the region, a fact analysts and producers attribute to the more severe devastation suffered there, which has made collecting even the most basic statistics extremely difficult. In Honduras' Comoyagua area, entire farms of high-quality coffee were swept away and buried by landslides, while in the region's town of Libertad, the floods crushed the store rooms and left mills in ruins.

Medina said exports, which initially had a strong start after Mitch due to some stocks of already harvested coffee, were now catching up with the damage and were so delayed they likely would continue through August. IHCAFE has estimated a loss of some 600,000 quintals, down from the record 1997/98 crop of 3.5 million quintals, in line with Medina's private forecast. "The situation for coffee here is that we will see a major drop, in the region of at least 600,000 quintals (46-kg bags). We have registered a production of 2.7 million quintals so far and may reach 2.8 million, but this is still severely down from last year where we had a crop of 3.5 million quintals."

"Total exports are unlikely to reach more than 2.5 million quintals," he said, "and the beans have suffered; the beans are very small and quality is definitively down."

Guatemalan officials had a similar story to relay. "During Hurricane Mitch there was some damage, mostly from excess water which damaged the principal export platform of the port, but fortunately it was only minor and everything has now been repaired," said Clementino Jimenez Sandoval, General Administrator of Guatemala's Santo Tomas de Castilla port. Jimenez said that coffee exports which were delayed in the chaotic days which followed right after Mitch all were back on track and shipments were leaving the port on a regular basis, and all port operations were running smoothly.

As another result of Mitch, the port had now received some funding to buy additional new equipment and make some long-awaited renovation work of buildings and other port facilities, Jimenez told the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, which would further improve general handling capacity.

According to latest Anacafe export data, Guatemala's total coffee exports from the current 1998/99 crop year reached 2,401,779 60-kg bags from October 1 through April 15, almost back to 1997/98 levels which were some 200,000 bags higher at this time of the year. Guatemala exported a total 3.9 million 60-kg bags in the 1997/98 crop cycle.

Esther Eskenasy of Guatemala's National Coffee Association (Anacafe) said that while Anacafe is more optimistic than in the aftermath of Mitch, the overall crop is still expected to be down.

"Exports are recovering now and we estimate total exports to reach 3.5 million 60-kg bags, but this is still 10% lower and the damage is likely to also affect the next crop. All over the country, we are working on the infrastructure, but there are no problems with the shipments getting to Santa Tomas de Castillo (on the Caribbean coast), which accounts for about 80% of Guatemala's coffee exports."

"Some access roads to farms in rural areas are still down. At my own farm about 20 km south of Coban I had no problems. I was lucky. But some of my neighbors were less lucky and they lost a lot of their coffee which just fell to the ground because of the heavy rains."

Northern Coban (where 8% of all of Guatemala's coffee is produced) renowned among European coffee lovers for its high-quality single-origin blends, is home to Guatemala's first coffee farm. Television footage from Coban in early November, days after Mitch hit the region, showed enormous mud slides flowing down through coffee farms.

El Salvador and Costa Rica escaped most of the damage and side effects of Mitch. But while Costa Rica is expecting to see moderate losses of some 100,000 quintals for a 1998/99 production forecast to reach between 2.2 million and 2.5 million 60-kg bags, El Salvador struggles with the impact of the six-month El Nino-inflicted drought last year.

"It will not recover completely because...the crop is lower, mostly because of the drought by El Nino. We are very much behind, and I don't think we will see exports of more than 2.2 million quintals," said the El Salvadoran Coffee Council's executive director Ruben Pineda. This compares to previous estimates of 1998/99 exports to reach some 2.5-2.6 million quintals.

According to the Council, El Salvador's exports reached a total 1,180,979 quintals through April 16, trailing 33% behind 1997/98 figures at that time of 1,761,680 quintals, but much improved from coffee exports from the beginning of the crop year which were down 50%. Exports for March alone were down only 13.6% at 316,263 quintals from the previous year's level of 366,094 quintals.

Exports from Mexico have also finally caught up with the delays and infrastructure problems suffered temporarily in southern Chiapas. The area is the country's biggest coffee growing region and experienced severe flooding last September which killed hundreds.

The Mexican Coffee Council said total exports for the first six months of the 1998/99 crop year reached 2,223,853 (60-kg) bags, only slightly below the 2,457,619 (60-kg) bags exported during the Oct-March period in the 1997/98 crop year. But March exports alone recorded another strong recovery with 553,420 bags shipped, mostly to the U.S., compared to 442,251 bags in March 1998.

"We are getting there: we are still going to be lower than last year, but now the figures are catching up. We don't have any infrastructure problems in Chiapas, the roads have all been fixed, and there are no problems with shipments," said the Council's Executive Director Ruben Castillo.

Castillo's comments were backed by major Mexican exporters. "Mitch really didn't affect Mexico but we were affected by the drought. The crop has been coming out very fast in the last few months and by the end of June most of the exports [should] be done."

Exporters and producers now see a total crop of 4.2-4.5 million 60-kg bags, and exports 3.2-3.5 million 60-kg bags.

With exports back in the ports, Central American producers still fear that both the drought and the damage from Mitch can have a long-term impact on the region's famous mild-washed Arabica crop, which accounts for some 13% of global coffee output. Add to that low international prices, and international coffee analysts believe that some Central American producers may hold back on the last exports in the hope of seeing market prices rising.

One international coffee analyst summed up the general perspective on exports. "Central America has been very difficult for us this year. There has been some unusually severe weather patterns. While exports are going to progress from here and forward, there may be some holding back."

Maja Wallengren is a freelance journalist based in Mexico. She specializes in covering coffee, and during the past five years, she has reported on coffee from all over the world. She can be reached via email at
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Title Annotation:effects of Hurricane Mitch on Central American coffee exports
Author:Wallengren, Maja
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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