A variety of temperature and rainfall patterns resulted in a diversity of tropical and temperate crops. Moderate or cool temperatures in highland areas allowed the cultivation of products usually associated with more northern latitudes. In the Costa, a warm climate, fertile soils, and proximity to ports led to large-scale production of such export crops as coffee, bananas, sugar, cacao, palm oil, and rice. Smaller plots in the Sierra produced potatoes, corn, beans, wheat, barley, and tea. Larger farms practiced dairy farming as well as increasing production of nontraditional crops such as cut flowers, asparagus, and snow peas. Farmers planted some coffee and tea in transition areas between the Sierra and the Oriente, but in general the Oriente's poor soil made it badly suited to agriculture.
Ecuador began marketing bananas abroad after World War II. By 1947 bananas had become the country's leading export crop. Capitalizing on problems with hurricanes, disease, and labor unrest in the traditional banana-growing regions of Central America, Ecuador emerged as the world's largest exporter of bananas by the mid-1980s. The main banana-producing areas were the eastern parts of Los Ríos, Guayas, and especially El Oro provinces. Banana production involved few very large or very small plantations; most ranged from 80 to 120 hectares.
In 1969 the Ecuadorian National Board of Planning and Economic Coordination recommended that land devoted to banana cultivation be more than halved and that the higher yielding, disease-resistant Cavendish-type bananas replace the traditional Gros Michel variety. This latter change prompted modifications in production patterns. Cavendish bananas bruised easily and required more careful handling. In addition, they could not tolerate transport in open trucks, so boxing had to take place at the plantation. Centralized, specialized packing meant the end of small-farm production. Since the new variety had triple the yield of the Gros Michel banana, the government realized that the hectares planted in bananas needed to be reduced to avoid a sharp drop in world prices. Statistics showed the change: land devoted to bananas dropped from 200,000 hectares in 1972 to about 110,000 in 1980, yet production remained fairly constant. In 1987, 2.4 million tons of bananas were produced on 120,000 hectares of land; 1.4 million tons were exported.
Coffee, introduced into the country early in the nineteenth century, was the second most valuable crop throughout the 1980s. Ecuador produced both arabica and robusta varieties, with over half of the plantings in the hilly areas of Manabí Province; most of the remaining plantings were found in the western foothills of the Andes south of Guayaquil. In 1987 over 380,000 hectares were devoted to coffee, and 373,000 tons were produced. Most of this coffee was exported. Coffee was generally grown on small landholdings with about half the land planted in coffee trees alone and the rest planted with coffee trees mixed with cacao, citrus fruits, bananas, or mangoes.
The small size of typical coffee farms usually resulted in poor production techniques, yields, and quality. Much of the coffee produced retained the pulp after processing and therefore brought a lower price on world markets. Other than establishing minimum prices for coffee, the government provided little technical assistance to coffee farmers.
Cacao was the mainstay of the economy in colonial times. The Spanish found the Indians cultivating cacao when they arrived in the sixteenth century, and it first became an export crop in 1740. Produced on large Costa plantations, the crop was nearly wiped out by a fungal disease in the 1920s. Low world prices during the Great Depression further discouraged production, and the plantations were broken up and diversified into rice, sugar, corn, and bananas. After World War II, increased prices and new disease-resistant strains revitalized the industry.
Most cacao production took place on small farms, frequently only to provide supplemental income to the farmer. Most small producers preferred traditional cultivation techniques and did not harvest the beans in years when the price was low. In contrast, the few large plantation owners systematically replaced older trees with newer disease-resistant varieties and used fertilizer to increase yields. Most cacao farmers grew an aromatic variety used for flavoring. In 1987, 311,000 hectares were planted in cacao, producing 57,000 tons of cocoa beans. Sugarcane was grown widely, both in the Sierra and in the Costa. Over 44,000 hectares were planted in 1987, producing 3 million tons of sugarcane. The sugar extraction rate from the cane was about 10 kilograms of sugar from 100 kilograms of cane. Sugar was an important export crop in the 1960s and 1970s, but production levels dropped in the 1980s, and the supply could not satisfy the domestic market, so that Ecuador had to import refined sugar. Almost all of the sugarcane grown in the Costa was used to make centrifugal sugar, so called because of the means of extracting the sugar. Centrifugal sugar was the type most used in foreign trade. Sugarcane in the Costa was grown on large plantations and processed in one of the five mills located east of Guayaquil. Sierra peasants grew sugarcane on small landholdings and used much of the cane for noncentrifugal sugar, mainly in a form known as panela (a raw brown-sugar cake). Growers also marketed molasses, a sugarcane by-product, exporting some of it and using the rest for the domestic manufacture of alcohol or for livestock feed.
Farmers cultivated rice, a staple of the Ecuadorian diet, mainly on the flood plains of the Guayas River Basin in Guayas and Los Ríos provinces. Rice production fluctuated depending upon the weather, but during the 1980s the harvest increased by an annual average of 7 percent. In 1987, 780,000 tons were produced on 276,000 hectares of land. In years of good harvest, growers produced enough rice to meet domestic demand and to export a surplus. Because of low international market prices for rice, however, the government policy stabilized rice production at the level required to meet domestic needs.
Corn, another basic foodstuff, had been grown since precolonial times. Corn was widely grown throughout the country and could be planted from sea level to an altitude of 2,200 meters. Farmers used about half the crop for animal feed, particularly for poultry. In 1987 over 422,000 tons were produced on 460,000 hectares.
Barley, a crop introduced by the Spaniards, proved highly adaptable to the rigorous climate of the Sierra. Its tolerance for cold and severe weather allowed it to be grown at higher altitudes than corn. Widely planted on small landholdings in the central highlands areas, it was grown both for food and for malt for the beer industry. Figures for 1987 showed 43,000 tons produced on 61,000 hectares.
Wheat, almost all of which was used to make bread, was formerly widely grown in the Sierra. Ironically, however, as bread increased in popularity and replaced potatoes and corn as a dietary staple, domestic wheat production decreased. Perhaps the most significant reason was that the government introduced subsidies on wheat imports in order to ease the effects of the inflation that began in the oil-boom years of the 1970s. As a result, consumption of the more expensive domestic wheat declined from 46 percent in 1946 to 7 percent in 1980. The breakup of the large wheat-producing haciendas in the Sierra also contributed to lower levels of wheat production.
Cotton and hemp were the principal fiber crops. The government carried out a program in the 1980s to increase both the quality and quantity of cotton produced. Output increased, and by 1986 Ecuador was nearly self-sufficient in cotton. Hemp was turned into Manila hemp fiber used to produce tea bags. Lesser fiber crops included aloe, which was used to make cloth for sacks, and ramie, which was woven into a cloth resembling linen.
Tea was produced near Puyo on the eastern slopes of the Andes at elevations of about 1,000 meters. An even distribution of rainfall allowed for year-round harvests, a condition not usually found in tea-producing nations.
African palms were widely planted and were the main source of vegetable oil. The government promoted and financed large plantings to cut imports of expensive cooking oils. Although not as high in oil content as the nuts of the royal palm, previously the principal domestic source of vegetable oil, African palms bore more nuts and matured more quickly.
Cottonseed, sesame seed, peanuts, coconuts, and soybeans were other sources of vegetable oils. Cottonseed production fluctuated, depending upon weather conditions. Sesame could be planted from two to three times a year on the warm coastal plains where it took only three months to mature. About 9,000 hectares of peanuts were planted, but most of the production was used for direct consumption as peanuts rather than for crushing into oil. Production of coconut oil varied because most coconuts were consumed directly and not processed. Soybean plantings had increased, and soybeans could be grown both in the Costa and lower reaches of the Sierra.
Ecuador was one of the world's major castor bean producers. Although the bean was inedible, its oil was used for medicinal purposes and as a lubricant in precision tools. The plant could be grown on dry lands where it was uneconomical to raise other crops, or planted along with corn, peanuts, or cotton.
Black tobacco, Ecuador's traditional type, made up the bulk of the 3,600 tons grown in 1987. Blond tobacco for cigarettes was introduced in the late 1960s and was produced mainly in Loja Province. The growth of a domestic cigarette industry was slowed, however, by the high volume of cigarettes smuggled into the country.
Farmers also grew numerous minor crops for domestic food consumption or for export in small quantities. Growers raised pears, peaches, apples, berries, grapes, and plums in the Sierra and citrus fruit, avocados, mangoes, and a wide variety of tropical fruits in the Costa. Important vegetable crops included garlic, onions, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and various types of melons and peppers. Spices included annatto seed, anise, and cardamon. Rubber and mocora and toquilla grass, used to make Panama hats, were minor nonfood crops.
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