|Once you wake up and smell the coffee, it's hard to go back to sleep...
Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil. It
is estimated that the global coffee industry earns in excess of $60
billion dollars annually, yet less than 10% of those earnings end up in the countries where the coffee is produced, and slightly less than 0.5% of the total earnings translate into wages for
those who actually labor to produce the coffee. For every $3.25 latte sold in
the U.S., approximately 1 penny of that goes to the workers who do the actual work of growing and harvesting the coffee beans.
Approximately the size of the state of Tennessee, Guatemala is well
known for its many volcanoes, picturesque lakes, and coffee. After Colombia, Guatemala ranks second
in the world in the amount of high-grade coffee it produces, and has
the highest percentage of its crop classified as “high quality” by
world-wide buyers. Over half of its coffee is exported to the U.S.,
representing around 15% of the Guatemalan Gross National Product and
generating about 1/3 of Guatemala’s foreign exchange.
With its mild subtropical climate, combined with well-drained volcanic
soils, Guatemala produces a mild coffee with distinctive aroma and
flavor characteristics. Mountain slopes are often covered with Coffee
Arabica plants growing under a canopy of taller shade trees. The
coffee trees, which usually stand between five to ten feet in height,
blossom throughout the months of May through October, and then will
yield ripe fruit, or cherries, from November through February,
depending on the elevation. The majority of the country’s coffee
plantations can be found on the coastal slopes in the central and
southern regions of Guatemala, where altitudes range from 2,500 to
|History of Coffee in Guatemala
The coffee plant was originally
brought to Guatemala in the 1750’s by Jesuit priests to be used as an
ornamental plant, and was not actually cultivated until over a half
century later. In the 1800’s, Guatemala’s then primary export crop,
indigo, suffered two setbacks; One, many indigo plantations were
devastated by locusts in the early 1800’s, and then, fifty years later,
the invention of chemical dyes in Europe made indigo production
unprofitable. It was at this point that the Guatemalan government began
to provide economic incentives to encourage the production of coffee
for commercial purposes and export to Europe. In 1868, the government
initiated a program that distributed more than one million seedlings to
|In the 1870’s President Justo Rufino Barrios enacted a number of
policies aimed at making coffee the primary commodity in the Guatemalan
economy and by 1880, coffee sales made up 90% of Guatemala’s exports.
Unfortunately, not all Guatemalans benefited from this economic shift,
as many indigenous peoples had their land expropriated to become part
of the large coffee plantations, or fincas. |
The 1870’s were a
pivotal period in Guatemalan history. The “Great Liberal Reforms” of
that time can be partially attributed to the rise of the coffee
economy, but also had their roots in the way power was exerted during
the Spanish Colonial period. When the Spaniards first arrived in 1524,
the Spanish crown awarded large swaths of land to Spanish settlers and
what had been traditional communal Mayan lands became large estates
upon which the indigenous peoples were forced to work.
Colonial Period and after Guatemalan Independence from Spain in 1821,
other laws continued to drive indigenous peoples off their traditional
lands or converted them into “residents” of the new plantations. Before
the era of Barrios and the Liberal Reform, much of the land in the regions
between the coastal plains and the mountainous highlands was still in the hands of the
indigenous peoples. However, in
the 1870’s the Barrios administration sold almost 400,000 hectares of
what were legally deemed “public” lands to the coffee elite in the
regions of Guatemala most conducive to coffee production, thus again
depriving the indigenous people of more of their traditional communal lands and
driving them into even more marginally productive areas.
|General Justo Rufino Barrios
|The amount of land sold by Barrios to private interests was so large
that small-scale production for indigenous farmers ceased to be
possible. In addition, laws were passed in the 1870´s that regulated
the flow of labor from the highland villages to the coffee plantations
on the coastal slopes. By the end of the Barrios administration, the
Maya were essentially the property of the state, with the national
government legislating and regulating their movement and use in the
labor force. This increased seasonal labor movement to the coastal
plantations reduced the time that indigenous farmers could work on
their increasingly smaller plots in the highlands. With less time to
cultivate family plots, production of less labor intensive crops like
corn and beans increased. The monoculture in the highlands began to mirror
that of the coastal slope coffee, sugar and banana plantations,
contributing further to the agricultural and economic divide between
the vast majority of indigenous peoples and the controlling elite. Also
critical to the success of these “reforms” in the 1870’s was the role
of the military in quelling many protests and uprisings on farms along
the volcanic (both political and geological) Pacific coast.
|Land Reform and the Internal Conflict (1954-1996)|
relations in the coffee sector have not changed much in the last
century. While there was an attempt in the early 1950’s by the
democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz to implement land
reforms, those reforms were vehemently opposed by the large plantation owners and
the United Fruit Company. In 1954, the Arbenz government was overthrown
by a U.S. backed, CIA organized coup. The land reforms were reversed,
unions and other community organizations were disbanded, and thousands
of people were murdered, including organizers and members of
Eventually, the overthrow of Arbenz
led to the outbreak of civil war in the 1960’s, which lasted until 1996, when the Peace Accords between the government and the guerillas
were finally negotiated. During the 1980’s, the war functioned as a
laboratory for methods of terror as a means to control the population.
Entire villages were massacred as the military, right-wing
paramilitary, and government organized “village patrols” murdered or
disappeared over 200,000 mostly rural, mostly poor, and mostly
indigenous people with impunity. The Peace Accords did finally bring an
end to the longest war in the history of the Americas. However, the
base causes of the conflict: poverty, hunger, unequal land distribution
and racism continue to define Guatemala’s economic and political
|CIA backed Anti-Government Rebels-1954
|The Kaibiles: U.S. trained Guatemalan counter-insurgency forces implicated in the massacre of over 600 Mayan villages during the Guatemalan Internal Conflict
|The Guatemalan Coffee Industry Today
These factors mentioned above: poverty, unequal land distribution and hunger continue to be integral parts of Guatemala’s coffee industry. The harvest or “cutting” of coffee depends on a massive seasonal
influx of indigenous migrant workers who travel from their
highland villages to the coffee growing regions on the coastal slopes.
They do this to supplement the meager income generated by their
small subsistence plots near their villages. Seasonal, and
often weekly or daily contract laborers, instead of permanent employees,
represent significant savings for growers by not demanding year round
wages and benefits. But, this arrangement also tends to lower wages in
general, and makes access to adequate food, housing, medical care and
education for many Guatemalans more difficult. In general, a season’s work harvesting coffee
by a family will generate only enough income to purchase 1/3 of their
minimum food requirements for a year.
|Over the past decade, increased production of coffee in Vietnam
has created a glut on the worldwide coffee market and coffee prices
have dropped drastically in recent years, from
a high of $1.79/lb. in 1997 to slightly under $0.80/lb. in 2006. This decline in
coffee prices has negatively impacted the already marginal conditions
for Guatemala’s seasonal farm laborers. Although statistics vary, even the
more conservative sources like USAID estimate that 56% of the
Guatemalan population lives in poverty, and slightly over 20% in
extreme poverty. Infant mortality is among the worst in the western
hemisphere (39 per 1,000 births), maternal mortality is extremely high
(153 per 100,000 births) and chronic malnutrition remains a serious
problem (49%). Others believe that as many as 85% of children under
five are malnourished and that stunted growth affects up to 95% of
non-Spanish speaking children in some regions.
|Fair Trade Coffee in Guatemala|
The Fair Trade movement was
launched in the Netherlands in 1988. Although coffee was the first, and
most common fair trade certified product, other fair-trade commodities
now include bananas, chocolate, honey, tea, sugar, orange juice and
indigenous handicrafts. Currently, Fair Trade coffee constitutes
approximately 2% of the world’s coffee supply and can be purchased at
over 7,000 retail outlets in the United States. To be classified as
Fair Trade, the coffee (and the growers) must meet several criteria.
Growers must be organized into democratically run cooperatives and the
cooperatives must agree to independent inspections. They must also use
sustainable methods of agriculture. In return, the growers are
guaranteed a slightly higher price for their coffee (plus more if
organic farming methods are used).
However, recent analysis of Fair Trade cooperatives in Guatemala indicate that while Fair Trade
is indeed helping to improve the situation for some growers with small
to mid-size farms, the actual improvement in wages and working
conditions for the seasonal workers have been minimal to non-existent.
Also, according to Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International,
Fair Trade farmers sell only about 20% of their coffee at a Fair Trade
price. The rest is sold at the lower world price due to lack of demand
for Fair Trade coffee, thus continuing to keep worker 's wages below what is needed
to adequately feed and shelter their families.
|A typical highland indigenous home
|Additional Resources & Recommended Readings:
Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America by Carlos M. Vilas, Monthly Review Press, 1995.
Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by S. Schlesinger, S. Kinzer & J.H. Coatsworth, Harvard university Press, 1999.
Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jefffrey M. Paige, Harvard University Press, 1997.
Cutting Coffee: A Personal Essay by Catherine Austin, Avivara, 2010.
Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala by Linda Green, Columbia University Press, 1999.
Globalization on the Ground: Postbellum Guatemalan Democracy and Development, C. Chase-Dunn, S. Jonas, & N. Amaro, (Eds.), Rowan & Littlefield, 2001.
History of Coffee in Guatemala by Regina Walker, Anacafe, 2001.
I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú, translated by Ann Wright, Verso, 1984.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano, Monthly Review Press, 1997 (2nd Ed.)
Poverty in Guatemala: A World Bank Country Study, World Bank, 2004.
School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas by Lesley Gill, Duke University Press, 2004.
Silence on the Mountain, Stories of Terror, Betrayal and
Forgetting in Guatemala by Daniel Wilkinson, Houghton-Miffilin, 2006.
Unfinished Conquest:The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera, University of California Press, 1993.
Information and data for this summary of Coffee in Guatemala came
a wide variety of sources, which were sometimes contradictory in
their descriptions and statistics. Every attempt was made to provide
information with the greatest accuracy and validity, although some
decisions may have been adversely affected by an excess ingestion of
coffee during the writing of this article.
"You haven't had enough coffee until you can thread the needle on a sewing machine that is running."
- Jeff Bezos
"I never drink coffee at lunch. It keeps me awake in the afternoon."
- Ronald Reagan
For an up close and personal look at the coffee industry in Guatemala, please read the article, Cutting Coffee: A Personal Essay by Catherine Austin.