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Ecuador: Land of Fire

Ecuadoran cigar wrapper tobacco thrives in a world of volcanoes and perpetual cloud cover.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

Volcano Guagua Pichincha is blowing its top, sending plumes of ash and gas six miles into the sky. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, just seven miles away, is coated with layers of hot soot and the airport has shut down. Ninety miles due south in the Andes chain, another volcano, Tungurahua, is doing the same thing, spitting ash at the sky like an angry god.

In the Andes foothills, some 90 miles to the southwest of Pichincha and 80 miles northwest of Tungurahua, John Oliva Jr. points at the gray flecks on the bright green leaf of tobacco in his hands. It looks as if someone has flicked a burning cigar over the tobacco plant.

"That's volcanic ash," he says. He's standing on a rise near the town of Empalmé. In front of him are hundreds of acres of lush, green tobacco plants. Each is about four feet tall; each has a sprinkling of ash. The winds have carried it to Oliva's plants, repeating a cycle that has played out for tens of thousands of years.  

Ecuador is a small nation in northwestern South America, slightly smaller than the state of Nevada, but it's home to 32 active volcanoes. The rumbling mountains are bad for nervous travelers but good for farmers—volcanic ash is one of the most fertile substances in the world. "It's like a fertilizer," says Roberto Baquerizo, who runs the Ecuadoran operations for Oliva Tobacco Co. "It messes up the leaf, but for the soil, it's good." Some of the ash is creating trouble in Oliva's curing barns, where tobacco dries from bright green to light brown. The ash on the leaves is impeding the curing process, but it's not affecting all the leaves.

The Olivas consider the ash a minor problem—tomorrow, most of it will be gone, washed away by the gentle, misting rains that are common during the Ecuadoran tobacco growing season, which stretches from May into January.  

"Volcanic soil is ideal for growing tobacco," says Joe Perez, a vice president with Miami's ASP Enterprises Inc., the largest tobacco grower in Ecuador. The constant cycle of erupting volcanoes peppers Ecuador's soil with nutrients, constantly replenishing the earth. Perez, whose family also grows cigar tobacco in Mexico and Nicaragua, says the soil in Ecuador is the best he's encountered.  

"This is the most unique environment in the world for growing tobacco," says Oliva, a 35-year-old executive with Tampa Florida's Oliva Tobacco. In addition to the volcanoes, there are the clouds. First-time visitors to Ecuador tend to stuff their suitcase pockets with sunblock—after all, the nation sits right on the equator. But travelers to the interior, where bananas and tobacco are grown, find that the nearly constant cover of thick, gray clouds provides its own healthy measure of SPF.  

"The sun shines for 500 hours a year here," says David A. Perez, Joe's brother and the assistant vice president at ASP. He stares for a moment at the clouds looming over several acres of six-inch-tall plants, which will soar to more than 10 feet in less than two months. "That's our cheesecloth," he says.  

Cheesecloth, or tapado, is used in Connecticut, Cuba and Nicaragua, among other places, to protect tobacco from the direct rays of the sun. The shade keeps tobacco leaves silky and thin, with small veins. In Ecuador, the clouds provide that protection.  

"You don't need shade here," says Oliva. "The tobacco comes out perfect. It's one less artificial manipulation you have to do to the product."  

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