If you have ever experienced the delights of Indian food – the coconut-milk curry or the masala chai – then you’ve encountered “the queen of spices.” Cardamom, with its characteristic green pods and black seeds, offers an intoxicating aroma and a beguiling taste profile of menthol, citrus and pepper. Used in Middle Eastern cuisines as well, it features in an array of dishes, from fragrant rice to Turkish coffee.
What you may be surprised to learn, however, is that the majority of the world’s cardamom comes not from the subcontinent, but from thousands of miles away, in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle.
The story of the spice in Guatemala began with an experiment more than a century ago. Oscar Majus Klöffer, the German owner of the Chinasuyub estate in Cobán, first planted it in 1914 to diversify the local agricultural economy. The pods would quickly make the new soil their own.
In 2019, a shortage in India and high demand in the Middle East made cardamom the fastest growing of Guatemala’s exports. Today, the country is the top producer and exporter of the spice in the world, accounting for 60% of the global stock.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that despite its economic importance, the industry is not controlled by large agricultural corporations.
“Cardamom is one of the products that generates significant foreign exchange for the country, [but] it’s the least studied and the only one in the hands of small producers,” says Leonardo Delgado, an agricultural technician at the Federation of Cooperatives of the Verapaces (FEDECOVERA). “Approximately 350,000 families depend directly on cardamom.”
Founded in 1976, FEDECOVERA is the first producer and exporter of organic cardamom and pepper in the world. Today, it comprises 36 cooperatives with 60,000 small, Mayan producers, each carefully tending to the plants under as the shade of pepper or cinnamon trees. Those efforts yield 20% of the country’s cardamom output.
FEDECOVERA’s success stems from a model that integrates the small producers into a system of agroforestry production chains that is environmentally and socially sustainable.
At its industrial plant, a biotech lab clones plants with desirable characteristics, such as resistance to pests and droughts. After an acclimatization phase in greenhouses, the plants are distributed to the cooperatives and their producers. The cardamom is then cultivated using natural, traditional techniques that ensure a high-quality product without degrading the forest.
“This is a fight. When we go to a farmer and tell him not to apply insecticides, we are there; we control and certify him,” says Delgado.
Patience is also required; the cardamom plant needs at least three years to start bearing fruit, and the full production cycle can take up to 20 years. But the assiduity has paid off.
“We currently have five organic certifications: for Japan, for Europe, for the United States and Canada, and we also have the MercoKosher certification to sell to the Jewish market,” Delgado reports.
Within the framework of the national REDD+ climate-change strategy, the IDB is supporting the Guatemalan government to take advantage of this and other successful experiences in sustainable forest management. The goal is to scale them and enhance their positive impacts.
“Cardamom is one of the crops we have identified as having the potential to support the process of evolving towards a sustainable agroforestry system,” says Jorge Omar Samayoa, a senior climate-change specialist at the Bank.
“We are not only interested in this experience due to its carbon-capture potential, but also due to the number of small producers involved,” he adds. “The social impact this can have is enormous.”
FEDECOVERA producers have an economic incentive to improve the quality of their production, and they also receive preventive health services, training, and technical advice on family-farm management. The Federation also trains and involves youth in the different stages of production. Currently, more than 100,000 people benefit from the 14 free services it provides.
In addition to the cooperatives, FEDECOVERA’s model has benefited 33 other groups of small farmers who cultivate coffee, black tea, turmeric and wood, along with the aromatic pods. Each product comes with a guarantee of “Mayan traceability."
As the world imagines a more sustainable future after COVID-19, a trail of Guatemalan cardamom pods could help guide the way.
To learn more about green pandemic recovery, download the Inter-American Development Bank's 2019 Sustainability Report and the publication Natural Capital in Latin America and the Caribbean (in Spanish).