National Geographic : 1944 Nov
Coffee Is King in El Salvador By Luis MARDEN With Illustrationsfrom Photographsby the Author COFFEE, their "grain of gold," looms large in the daily life of the people of El Salvador. A rise or fall in the mar ket price of the fragrant beach makes front page news in the Republic; the humble boot black in San Salvador talks coffee "shop" with the knowing air of a planter. Salvadorans do not quibble about their most famous national product; postage stamps of the Republic bear the legend, "The coffee of El Salvador is the best in the world." Though the tiny country has the densest pop ulation of mainland North and South Amer ica, 65 coffee trees grow for every inhabitant. And El Salvador, like Manhattan, is cramped for space. Lack of horizontal growing room has forced plantations to expand vertically, and the flanks of dead and quiescent volcanoes are planted to the limit of cultivation. The best coffee thrives in the altitude and acid ash soil of the mountainsides. "Farming of one kind or another is our chief occupation," a Salvadoran told me. "Our lands are fertile, but we have about 1,830,000 people-139 to the square mile. So many of us live in such little room that we have to scramble to make a living. This partly explains why Salvadorans have so much energy and industry. Their enterprise manifests itself in many ways. Notable in a country with mountain ous terrain is the network of first-class paved roads that virtually covers the country. Vialidad, meaning the public roads system, is a word you see and hear often in El Salvador. The Salvadoran portion of the Pan Ameri can Highway, except for a short stretch from the city of San Miguel to the Honduras fron tier, is paved from one end of the country to the other (Plates VIII and XXII). El Salvador is the only Central American republic without an Atlantic coastline. The west side of the Central American isthmus swings east at this point, and El Salvador runs approximately east and west, with the Pacific to the south (map, page 580). Like Nicaragua,* El Salvador straddles the chain of Central American volcanoes that ends in Panama, only to reappear on the South American Continent as the mighty Andes. But in El Salvador the cordillera runs close to the Pacific. In the mountains near the coast lies San Salvador, the capital, at 2,250 feet. Its many-storied buildings, cool climate, and pine planted parks give it more an air of a north ern city than one of the Tropics (page 578). Laboratories for Coffee Study The coffee planters of the Republic have an association, the 'Asociaci6n Cafetalera de El Salvador, that maintains experimental planta tions and laboratories in Santa Tecla, 7 miles from the capital (page 582). High on a hill overlooking the drowsy colo nial town, a magnificent building houses lab oratories where coffee is studied in all its aspects. In adjacent plantations experts experiment with soils, fertilizers, and cross breeding. White-smocked chemists who showed me through a shining laboratory offered me a beaker of dry white wine. "Like it?" they asked. "Yes," I said. "Local grape?" The chemist smiled. "Very much so. We make it from the pulp of the coffee bean." That same day I tasted a liqueur made from coffee beans, saw sheets of plastic made by pressing vellumlike sheaths of the coffee bean with binders, and even sniffed perfume ex tracted from sweet-scented coffee blossoms. "Of course," my guide went on to say, "these are merely experiments. Our real work here lies in the improvement of the strain and increase of yield, among other things. "We try to guide the planters in scientific methods. In fact, so well have we instilled the progressive spirit that even a small coun try planter will solemnly pick up a handful of his soil and ask, 'What pH has this?' " The pH stands for acid-alkalinity con tent; technicians test soil with litmus paper to determine its suitability for coffee plant ing, then measure its pH degree. Soil rather on the acid side (pH 6) gives best results. Planters here seem not to have the tradition al conservative attitude of farmers. Rather, they come to the experts seeking advice, anx ious to keep their methods abreast of the latest discoveries. This is one reason why Salvadoran coffee oc cupies such a high place in the world market. Yet, as sometimes with oranges in California, the best of the national product is hard to * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "A Land of Lakes and Volcanoes," by Luis Marden, Au gust, 1944, and "Army Engineer Explores Nicaragua," by Lt. Col. Dan I. Sultan, May, 1932.