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The Wall Street Journal-Coffee-bean oversupply deepens Latin America's woes

Monday, July 8, 2002 Peter Fritsch Associated Press LA DALIA, Nicaragua -- Antonio Luna thought he had seen the worst life had to offer during the 1980s, when his village in Nicaragua's coffee-rich northern highlands sat in the crossfire of a guerrilla war between U.S.-backed "contra" rebels and the Marxist Sandinista government. That was before this May, when his family's home became a plastic tarp pitched along the roadside here. Huddled with about 3,000 other unemployed coffee pickers, Mr. Luna is a hungry refugee from a potentially more devastating conflict than any he has known before: a global brawl over the $55 billion coffee market.

The fight has left the world awash in java and has driven inflation-adjusted prices for beans to their lowest levels in more than a century. "We've had no work since February and are here begging for our lives," says Mr. Luna, a listless 33-year-old, surrounded by a group of visibly malnourished, unshod children. They are living on wild bananas and the charity of passersby. "At least during the war there was food," he says. In lush coffee-growing regions from Central America to Africa, the collapse of world coffee prices is contributing to societal meltdowns affecting an estimated 125 million people.

In former Cold War proxy battlefields such as Nicaragua, the result is a combustible brew of unemployment, hunger and migration. In countries such as Uganda and Burundi, which get 70 percent of their export earnings from coffee, the severe price drop has blunted benefits from international debt relief. The oversupply of beans driving the crisis won't ease quickly because so many small growers see few alternative crops that are profitable and legal. In the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, the price of coffee on supermarket shelves has fallen -- but considerably less than the price paid to growers. That translates into record sales and profits for some of the corporations that process and market coffee, according to industry officials.

Four giants -- Procter & Gamble Co., Philip Morris Cos.'s Kraft Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corp. and Nestle SA of Switzerland -- control about 40 percent of the world's coffee. They buy it in bulk and then roast, grind and blend it into brands such as Kraft's Maxwell House and P&G's Folgers. The low bean prices fueling corporate profits are "causing entire rural communities to disappear and forcing desperate peasants into everything from crime and illicit crops to illegal migration," says Nestor Osorio, a Colombian who heads the International Coffee Organization in London, which represents producing nations. He predicts more tragedies like that which befell 14 out-of-work coffee pickers from Mexico's Veracruz state.

They died of dehydration in Arizona in May 2001 while trying to cross the Sonoran desert to a new life in the U.S. Until the 1990s, the desire for international security made propping up coffee prices a crucial instrument of U.S. foreign policy toward places such as Nicaragua, where coffee supports more than 40 percent of the rural labor force. The world's most-traded commodity after oil, coffee was seen during World War II as key to thwarting the spread of fascism among German immigrants in countries such as Guatemala. During the Cold War, coffee wasn't only a morning pick-me-up but a bulwark against Communism.

At the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey told Congress that ensuring healthy coffee prices for Latin American campesinos "is a matter of life and death. ... Castroism will spread like a plague through Latin America unless something is done about the prices of raw materials produced there." That year, 66 coffee-importing and -exporting countries created the International Coffee Agreement.

The deal imposed strict limits on each exporting nation. Actively promoted by the U.S., the world's largest coffee consumer, the agreement artificially propped up prices for nearly three decades. But when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, so did the coffee deal. In its place arose a new ideology of free trade, championed by the U.S. Many producing nations ended coffee-buying and stockpiling programs that controlled supply. That enabled Procter & Gamble, Nestle and other large foreign buyers to purchase directly from relatively small growers, giving the buyers more muscle to negotiate favorable prices. The result: free-for-all coffee exports and a production boom that continues to generate more beans than the world needs.

Brazil and Vietnam, which emerged as a coffee-growing giant in the last five years, have flooded the market in a battle for dominance. That has left the global market with an annual coffee excess of almost two billion pounds. At the end of the 1980s, coffee-exporting nations received about $10 billion of a $30 billion annual retail market. Today, the total market has nearly doubled, but with big buyers able to play growers against each other, exporting countries receive less than $6 billion, according to the International Coffee Organization.

Coffee prices on New York's Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange -- which provides the industry with its benchmark for beans -- currently hover around 50 cents a pound, down more than 80 percent from their brief peak of $3.15 in May 1997. But production costs in Central America are about 80 cents a pound. That adds up to insolvency for many farmers. "On my farm, I usually have about 100 permanent workers, but now I have just 20," says Jose Angel Buitrago, who has grown coffee in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, for 30 years. "I'm out of money, and in the next few weeks I'll have to let them go, too.

They'll end up on the highway begging for food." When they have work, coffee pickers earn less than $2 a day in most of Central America. Mr. Buitrago is lucky to have held out this long. Neighboring farmers have already abandoned the business, leaving their land overgrown with weeds. The social impact on countries still emerging from the debt crises and wars of the 1980s and 1990s is profound. In Central America and Mexico -- where some of the world's highest-quality coffee is grown -- the World Bank estimates that 600,000 permanent and temporary coffee workers have lost their jobs in the past two years alone.

Relief agencies estimate more than 1.5 million peasants in the region lack food. In Guatemala, where a 36-year civil war with rural guerrillas ended in 1996, relief workers say about 6,000 children of out-of-work field hands face starvation -- a situation exacerbated by a fierce drought. U.S. government officials say struggling coffee growers in Colombia who had resisted the drug trade are now turning to heroin poppies for a living.

The collapse of coffee prices has been a boon for the big companies that process the beans and sell the final product. While prices paid to growers have tumbled more than 80 percent since 1997, average retail prices for ground roast coffee in U.S. cities have fallen only 27 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accordingly, the price differential between international wholesale and U.S. supermarket prices ballooned to $2.54 in May, compared with $1.50 five years ago.

Increasingly, big corporate buyers are substituting less expensive "robusta" coffee from Vietnam and Brazil for the higher-quality "arabica" variety commonly grown on the cloud-wreathed mountain slopes of Central America. "Up to 75 percent of a typical can of coffee is now made up of the cheap stuff, which they then cut with Central American or Colombian (arabica) beans so your coffee doesn't taste like a shoe," says Eric Poncon, director in Nicaragua of ECOM Group. ECOM, a major coffee trader and unit of Brazil's Esteve SA, does business with Kraft and the other big coffee sellers. Some of the industry's leaders have taken note of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. In March, Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks Corp., urged fellow coffee executives in a speech at the National Coffee Association's annual meeting to "share the blanket" of prosperity with growers.

The Swiss Coffee Federation has called for an "ethical coffee tax" of more than one cent per pound to be invested in community programs in the developing world -- a proposal the industry hasn't rushed to embrace. Human-rights advocates and others in the so-called fair-trade movement have pressured big companies to pay coffee prices that will sustain poorer growers. Some upscale coffeehouse chains, including Starbucks, now pay a premium for quality coffee.

But bigger buyers typically don't. Rather than pay above-market prices for coffee, says P&G spokeswoman Tonia Hyatt, the maker of Folgers prefers to provide community aid. She says the company's offices in Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela contributed a combined $10 million last year for things such as community health centers and schools. "We care very much and want everyone in coffee to have a sustainable business along the whole line," she says. Kraft, Sara Lee and Nestle say they, too, go out of their way to help small growers. Sara Lee says it tries to buy at least 10 percent of its coffee from small planters and cooperatives. Nestle buys 13 percent directly from farmers, "ensuring that they receive the full value of their crop," says spokesman Francois-Xavier Perroud. But he adds that increasing demand for coffee "is the best way to ensure a long-term future for the farmers."

Kraft has helped educate Peruvian growers, among other programs, but it, too, believes that its "most important contribution" is to promote demand, says spokeswoman Patricia J. Riso. Coffee consumption in the U.S. is growing by about 1 percent a year, but that offers no panacea. Per capita consumption in the U.S. is about 20 gallons a year, down from about 37 gallons in 1970.

Sara Lee's coffee-and-tea division had sales of $2.9 billion last year and income "after accounting for non-recurring items" of $495 million -- its best financial results in at least five years, says spokesman Joost J. den Haan. P&G'S coffee business, with about $1 billion in annual sales, had "a record year" in 2001, according to the company's annual report. P&G declines to comment on coffee profitability, as do Nestle and Kraft.

But Nestle did say that coffee sales by volume hit a record in 2001. To farmer Buenaventura Gutierrez, sitting in the dusty headquarters of the Nicaraguan Coffee Growers Union in downtown Jinotega, corporate talk of sustaining small planters sounds hollow. "In two or three years, most of our industry will be gone," he predicts. "This is dangerous because we are still coming out of a revolutionary, guerrilla environment in this part of Nicaragua." No one believes Nicaraguans are inclined to take up arms again. But the coffee crisis is complicating a fragile political situation and eroding confidence in the free market. Coffee-related protests and the restructuring of coffee debt have become daily thorns in the side of the new administration of Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos.

In the impoverished countryside, frustration is keeping alive the political hopes of former President Arnoldo Aleman and former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The rehabilitation of coffee fields after the devastation of war and Sandinista mismanagement was a pillar of the government of Violeta Chamorro, who defeated Mr. Ortega at the polls in 1990. "We all just wanted to forget politics and get back to work," recalls coffee grower Miguel Gomez, a former Sandinista official. In the 1990s, some plantation owners who hadn't been in the coffee business took advantage of loan programs offered by the government and a regional development bank.

"Though coffee has been in Nicaragua for well over a century, a lot of the businesses are relatively new, with very small capital bases and lots of debt," says Julio Solorzano, a coffee grower and special adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture. The borrowing continued through the mid-1990s as frosts affecting Brazil's huge crop helped boost international prices temporarily. By 2000, Nicaragua's 32,000 farms had boosted coffee crops back to 1979 levels. But by then, falling prices had rendered grower debt, estimated at $100 million, more difficult to pay off.

While the cash-strapped government is trying to help growers postpone repayment of some of what they owe, there is little money to help starving field hands, officials say. Mr. Solorzano, one of the struggling growers, struck a deal with his remaining workers: They get paid two weeks salary for every three weeks they actually work. His employees, rather than lose their jobs, agreed to let him try and make up the difference at some point in the future.

Other farmers talk of switching crops. They are discouraged, however, by the experience of farmers who have grown peanuts and sesame. Those growers now find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy after trying to compete against U.S. farmers receiving generous subsidies from Washington. With a lack of competitive alternative crops, "the only viable diversification alternative for workers is mass migration," says Mr. Poncon, the coffee trader. An estimated 400,000 Nicaraguans now live in Costa Rica, many of them recent arrivals. They scrounge for work in competition with Costa Ricans unhappy to be their hosts.

The coffee crisis has prompted some fanciful proposed solutions. In Mexico, state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos has been looking at the possibility of using excess coffee to absorb oil spills. Other ideas include using coffee as animal feed and as fuel. International charity Oxfam has suggested a mass destruction program funded by a windfall tax on the big international companies -- an approach the companies reject. The answer for a handful of Nicaragua's best-run farms is selling to the so-called specialty coffee market, which pays a premium for top-quality branded coffee.

But this niche market is small -- about $100 million a year -- and the high-end brands have a hard time winning supermarket shelf space when pitted against powerful marketers such as Procter & Gamble. The U.S. National Coffee Association is hoping to stimulate more consumption by focusing "on more scientific research on the health benefits of coffee," says Robert F. Nelson, the trade group's president. "There's a lot of bad science out there," he says.

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