Cardamom – the fine alternative

Cultivating cardamom offers many farmers in Colombia a way out of the misery of coffee production. Cardamom is not a native spice used in Colombian cuisine – it is a major export product.

“Cardamom will be another staple product for my finca”, is the optimistic comment of Iván Dario Rincón, a 39-year-old farmer, whose smallholding is in south-east Colombia. He has planted 650 cardamom seedlings. Together with his family, he has made a living mainly from coffee cultivation. However, several years of steady decline in prices on the coffee market as well as disease and pests have made it unprofitable to cultivate the red coffee drupe. ASAP, the local farmers’ association, realised it is not a question of sitting out the coffee crisis. Rather, by encouraging the cultivation of cardamom, it has found a profitable alternative for its members.

Coffee is still cultivated

“The good thing is that I need not entirely stop cultivating coffee because of this”, says farmer, Wilson López, who planted the seedlings on the same fields as unproductive coffee plants. “It’s comparatively easy to cultivate the spice – much simpler than organic coffee.”

The bad news is that the plant needs three years before it can be first harvested. The farmers’ association ASAP therefore set up a loan fund with the support of SWISSAID. This fund grants loans to small farmers to pay for the investment in crop diversification until the first harvest. The farmers’ association also offers seedlings, organic fertiliser and training courses on cardamom cultivation. “Without the loan of 2 million pesos (about 1,000 Swiss francs), I would never have been able to convert to cardamom”, comments Iván Dario Rincón.

Organic cultivation is mandatory

Farmer Rincón’s family is among the first 60 from Caramanta to cultivate the spice on a total area of 30 hectares, using organic farming methods to grow mixed cultures without pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Next year, the farming community’s first harvest should be at least 60 tonnes of cardamom. According to ASAP, this should give the farmers a net profit of 3,800 Swiss francs per hectare.

By 2014, the processing plant must also be ready for 180 land labourers, who will find temporary work here. With the support of SWISSAID, the farmers’ association has negotiated a supply contract with American company, Merit Trade, an enterprise which already exports cardamom from a neighbouring region. The company contributes half of the building costs for the processing plant, while the farmers and SWISSAID fund the rest. The objective of the farmers’ association is to retain most of the added value on site. In the medium-term, the farmers plan to be self-financing thanks to processing the spice. 

Now the farmers have taken out a loan, planted the first seedlings and attended advanced training seminars. However, in a region where 70 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, they are left with little flexibility for experiments and failures. “But things have worked out really well so far, thank goodness!” says Iván Dario Rincón.

Project code KO 2/11/06
Costs: 199,262.- Swiss francs
Duration: until 2014
Beneficiaries: 2300 persons, of which 360 persons are direct beneficiaries of the cardamom project.