Interestingly, although Columbus never set foot on any “new world” land outside of the tropics, he has long been credited with discovering all of the Americas, as if it were a package discovery deal. Inhabitants of North America adopted him as their own long ago, right after the Revolution, around the 300th anniversary of his first voyage. At times, Americans have ranked him alongside their founding fathers, as if he had originally set out to discover wintering in Miami. But he never did touch down on what would one day be the United States part of the Americas.
In fact, Columbus was an island hopper who bounced around the Caribbean like Captain Jack Sparrow. Only on rare occasion did his toes sink into the sand of what was a portion of an actual continent. Among the first and few of these was Honduras.
It wasn’t called Honduras at the time, of course. Columbus first spotted what would one day become Honduras from an island off the coast, which he named Guanaja.
The story goes that while sailing along the coast of Honduras, Columbus and his ships encountered one of the worst storms of his exploratory career. It was so bad that some of his men were wishing for death. Eventually, they found safe harbor and Christopher declared, “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras,” thank God we have left these depths, Honduras meaning “depths.”
It was not an auspicious naming ceremony. We cannot know how Columbus’ being thankful for surviving a storm became the name of a region. It is just as likely that the name simply comes from the depth of the bay off Puerto Castilla.
When Columbus was thanking God and Ferdinand and Isabella for the opportunity to sail again from Honduras, coffee was still an exclusively Arab experience and had not yet reached even as far as Cairo. Not only did Columbus never drink coffee, he didn’t even know what coffee was. Coffee as an agricultural plant would not reach Honduras for another 300 years and it would not be grown commercially for another 400 years.
Prior to 1900 coffee was essentially a garden crop in Honduras, grown on small lots of land and traded within the country for internal consumption. Less than 10 percent of the coffee harvested was exported in 1894. By 1900 exports had more than doubled. But banana was king; or, Godfather is more like it, as in “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” The record of the United States in Central and South America is certainly no better than Europe’s in Africa, it’s just more “corporate.”
Honduras has fought many fights for independence, one of the most recent being independence from King Banana, which was 88% of all exports at one time. A decline in banana production over the decades coincided with a slow but steady growth in coffee production. Today, Honduras is the largest coffee producer in Central America, exporting 6.6 million bags in the current crop year. Honduras is high on the list of coffee exporters worldwide, surpassing India for the number five spot in 2016/17, a 40% increase over the previous crop year.
More than 60 percent of Honduran coffee is grown above 12 hundred meters and as high as 16 hundred. Almost 90 percent of Honduran coffee in grown on small (less than 153 bags) and medium (between 153 and 766 bags) sized farms. Coffee is now pervasive in Honduras, grown in 210 of the 298 municipalities. Although the Lempira variety of coffee plants was found to have lost its resistance to leaf rust this year, only 3 percent of the crop was affected and dramatic increases in production will more than offset the loss. Nevertheless, the coffee industry in Honduras has responded aggressively to rust.
In the mountains of Copan in western Honduras, coffee grows as high as 16 hundred meters and is home to the CAFESCOR and COCAFAL cooperatives, from which Olam acquires organic specialty EP coffees. East of Copan, in a portion of the district of Santa Barbara designated as the “La Paz” coffee region, Olam sources several micro “Top Lot” separations from Beneficio San Vicente.
Honduras is somewhat unique in that it experienced the most significant growth in export volume after the emergence of the specialty coffee industry, so new farmers and new mills begin with quality as their goal rather than having to shift old thinking and ways of doing things. Honduras is not only one of the largest exporters in the world, it is one of the largest exporters of specialty grade coffee.