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ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA -- Guatemala's position as "America's Garden" was highlighted March 19-20 at the Agritrade Expo & Conference 2009. The 14th edition of the show was held for the first time in Antigua at the five-star Casa Santo Domingo Hotel & Convention Center. Previously, the show was held in Guatemala City, which is about 30 minutes from Antigua.

The upbeat mood of the show was captured in remarks at the opening breakfast by Carlos Amador, president of Agexport, who said: "We are in Antigua. The setting and climate are perfect. It looks like a wedding. All we are missing is a bride."

According to figures supplied by Agexport, the agency that presents Agritrade, Guatemalan produce exports consistently grew each year from 2002 to 2008. In 2002, the export total was almost $400 million. By 2008, that number grew to almost $1 billion. Projections for 2009 are for produce exports from Guatemala to top $1.2 billion. Eighty-one percent of the exports go to the United States, and other Central American countries receive 8 percent of the total. Europe and Asia are buyers of 8 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of Guatemala's produce exports.

There were approximately 2,500 people in attendance, including numerous buyers from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany. Mexico had a large contingent in the Agritrade exhibit area, and there were participants from several Central American and South American countries.

Tulio Garcia, who is on Agexport's board of directors, was keynote speaker at the opening breakfast. With a variety of Guatemala export and marketing interests, including being the executive director of Cooperativa Agricola Integral Uni?n de Cuatro Pinos R.L., which has a headquarters in Santiago Sacatep?quez, Guatemala, he told hundreds in attendance that "Guatemala is truly in a privileged position," with Atlantic and a Pacific seaports, and being located just three days by sea from Miami, and six or seven days from the U.S. West Coast. Guatemala is 14 days by sea from Europe.

"This is a land blessed by God," he said. "We have an extraordinary climate," which offers many different growing conditions based on elevations provided by the country's volcanic slopes. As a result, he said, "we offer an infinite number of agricultural products."

Mr. Garcia said that in 25 years, fresh fruits and vegetables have grown from being 25 percent of Guatemala's non-traditional exports to 75 percent of the category.

The produce sector offers jobs that allow Guatemala to move ahead through the world financial crisis. "There is no crisis, only opportunities, for producers in agriculture," he said.

Mr. Garcia noted that Guatemala's sugar industry ranks as the largest in Central America and fifth in the world. The valley that is home to Antigua produces premium coffee that sells at premium prices. Guatemala exports 35,000 containers of melons and 4.5 million boxes of mangos a year. He said that Guatemalan mango production will expand by 500,000 boxes this year.

Overall, Guatemala's fruit sector is growing by 15 percent per year, Mr. Garcia said.

Guatemala's vegetables are filling world demand and satisfying "the most demanding clients," said Mr. Garcia. Retailers that merchandise Guatemalan vegetables are Sainsbury's, Walmart, Costco, Publix and Wegmans.

He noted, "We are looking at the world market as our market. We have great capacity to produce significant volumes of fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants for the world."

In the 30 years that Guatemala has been developing its produce export industry, small-acreage growers have been central to the work. With that came social responsibility to respect those growers, as well as technical assistance, including high food-safety standards, to ensure growers meet international demands.

He said that the Guatemalan government is involved in an irrigation development project to irrigate an additional 25,000 acres of farmland. Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, also spoke at the opening breakfast. Mr. Colom comes from the agriculture export industry and was on the committee that organized the first Agritrade in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Colom said that Guatemala is building its exports in part by improving relations with Europe and expanding regionally with Mexico and South America.

Because of Guatemala's many assets, "I am totally convinced Guatemala has the components to be least-hit by the global crisis," Mr. Colom said. Guatemala's banks are locally owned, so they endured "little pollution" from the global banking fiasco.