So it is only fitting that cardamom, a green and aromatic member of the ginger family, should follow the coffee crop downward in a spiral of glut, plunging prices and abandoned plantations.

Cardamom is half the price it was four years ago and while that is good news for fans of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, it is a serious worry for the estimated 250,000 Guatemalans who produce it.

Even an expected revival of the cardamom market in post-embargo Iraq may not be enough to prevent the kind of crisis that has hit Guatemalan coffee growers in recent years.

When coffee prices began a drastic decline, coffee-growing peasants in east Africa and Central America were pushed deeper into poverty and there were deaths from hunger last year on abandoned coffee farms.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalan highland peasants moved into growing cardamom to make a living but that pushed output up and prices duly collapsed.

"It's almost the same as coffee, almost as bad," said Gerardo Xi Coy, a Maya Indian who grows both crops at the Santa Maria Chipur Sanimtaca cooperative in Guatemala's central mountains.

"This low price is causing us a lot of difficulties," he said, clearing weeds from around a long-leafed cardamom bush.

Guatemala is the world's No.1 cardamom producer and sends all of its harvest abroad, mostly to Arab countries where it is prized as flavouring in food and drink. 
 
Peppery tang

Cardamom is also part of the spice mix garam masala, omnipresent in Indian cooking, and is used in pharmaceuticals to take the sour taste out of medicine.

Popular "qahwa" coffee in Arab countries often contains either ground cardamom or a dried grain the size of a small peanut popped into a coffee pot and boiled. It adds a smoky, peppery tang.

A greenish-brown mix of coffee and cardamom is popular with Gulf Arabs and Bedouin and is drunk in tiny cups topped up from a metal pot.


World coffee prices are slowly recovering from a three-year slump but for tens of thousands of Guatemalan peasants improved earnings from coffee will be offset by the cardamom pinch.

The fallout from a cardamom crisis should not be as severe as that of the coffee crash because the spice does not generate as much money, but some growers are already abandoning their cardamom plants.

"The next two years are going to be crucial for the future of cardamom," said Leonardo Delgado, head of Guatemala's Fedecovera agricultural federation.

World coffee prices are slowly recovering from a three-year slump but for tens of thousands of Guatemalan peasants improved earnings from coffee will be offset by the cardamom pinch.

Top range VD1 cardamom sells at around $7.80 per kg compared to $16 per kg in 1999 when prices rocketed after production was devastated by Hurricane Mitch which swept through Central America.

Delgado said Guatemala earned some $125 million from cardamom sales last harvest season, compared to around $250 million from coffee exports.

The price of Guatemalan cardamom is fixed directly with buyers abroad, but regular auctions are held in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the world's second biggest exporter. 
 
Oversupply

Guatemalan cardamom exports from the 2002-2003 harvest were a bumper 22,000 tonnes and this harvest, starting in September and ending next spring, should reap 25,000 tonnes for export.

The weather in Guatemala during this year's blooming season was ideal, with plenty of rain, sun and temperatures that were high but not above 31 C (88 F).

"The sunny days, hours of light, maximum and minimum temperatures, humidity, precipitation - all perfect. This year even the stones are going to bear fruit," said Fedecovera marketing manager Luis Aguilar.

Cardamom is native to southern India and Sri Lanka but also grows in Nepal, Thailand and Mexico. It was first brought to Guatemala in the early 20th century by a German settler who smuggled some seeds from India.

Saudi Arabia is Guatemala's main cardamom market followed by Kuwait. Exporters are pinning their hopes on renewed demand from Iraq, which shook off UN sanctions in May.

"I received the first order from Iraq, from Baghdad, in almost 15 years from an importing company that found me on the Internet," said Aguilar. The Iraqi customer wants 200 tonnes of cardamom.

Still, with prices so low, it may take more than a boom in one country to save Guatemala's cardamom sector from a slump.

Authorities are trying to persuade Guatemalan peasants to diversify into growing clove and pine trees to lessen the impact of the cardamom price fall.