– Pope Leo XII
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 6,000 feet.
Early Coffee Production-Guatemala
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 rural farmers.
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.
Throughout the 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
Central America Coffee Production
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)
Labor 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 agricultural cooperatives.
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 landscape.
CIA Backed Rebels 1954
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.
Coffee Prices Chart
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.
Guatemalan village home
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.
Guatemalan Family Harvesting Coffee
Roasted Coffee Beans
Information and data for this summary of Coffee in Guatemala came from 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