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By Jason Woods, World Ark senior editor

Cardamom is the third-most expensive spice in the world, and Guatemala exports more of it than any other country. But in the highlands of the Central American country, the farmers who depend on the crop receive only a small fraction of its final worth.

Normally, farmers sell to coyotes, or middlemen, for less than 30 cents a pound. The coyotes then sell the cardamom to drying facility managers for a higher price. At the drying facilities, cardamom is heated in large vats for two days, then the price is marked up again and sold to exporters. Globally, the commodity sells for $5 or $6 per pound; by the time it reaches stores in places like the United States, the price can be $20 or $30 per pound.

Elvira Pec Beb stands in front of her cardamom plants with three of her children.
Elvira Pec Beb stands in front of her cardamom plants with three of her children.

Since 2013, Heifer International Guatemala has been connecting cooperatives of cardamom farmers to domestic and international buyers, cutting out the coyotes. They have also helped develop natural methods to deter thrips, small insects that persistently damage cardamom crops. And to diversify farmers’ income sources, Heifer Guatemala has helped them cultivate other high- value crops like cinnamon, cloves and pepper.

In the future, the Heifer Guatemala staff hopes that the cooperatives can expand the scope of their businesses. Cardamom has been linked to a wide variety of health benefi ts, from freshening breath to improving cardiovascular health. Heifer Guatemala is working with Dr. Luis Cisneros-Zevallos of Texas A&M University’s Department of Horticultural Sciences to study a couple of those claims — specifi cally, cardamom’s eff ect on infl ammation and diabetes. The hope is that the results of the investigation will increase the value and marketability of cardamom to the food, health and cosmetic industries, and then cooperatives can take advantage of the boost.

Heifer Guatemala is also helping innovate a solution to one of the biggest technical problems with the cardamom industry. The drying process is fueled by firewood, and lots of it, which leads to significant deforestation. Guatemala has 4,500 mostly inefficient drying facilities. Each uses an average of five acres of trees a year.

“We are a highly forest- covered country that produces a lot of cardamom, but to dehydrate and export the cardamom, we have to cut down the forest,” Hernandez said. “It’s a suicide, right?”

Cardamom pods sit in a vat at a drying facility.
Cardamom pods sit in a vat at a drying facility.

Heifer Guatemala is working on developing a drying process that is more efficient. Usually, uncovered vats that dry the cardamom are heated by firewood from below, and much of the heat escapes through evaporation. The Guatemala team is looking into a version that covers the vat and heats from both the top and bottom, making the most of the energy used. This method also leads to a more uniform heating process and a better quality of dried cardamom.

The improved drying process is powered using combustible fuel instead of wood to lessen the impact on the forest, and the process takes less time to complete. The new drying operation also has a byproduct: cardamom-infused water, which Heifer Guatemala is exploring ways to use and market.

“There’s a large gap in cardamom research, development and innovation,” said Gustavo Hernandez, Heifer Guatemala country director. But Hernandez and his team are working to change that.

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