Courtesy World Bank
Field worker in a banana orchard
Courtesy World Bank
Irrigated fields in Imbabura Province
Courtesy Patricia Mothes
A variety of temperature and rainfall patterns resulted in a
diversity of tropical and temperate crops (see
table 12, Appendix).
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
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
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
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.
Data as of 1989