The history of coffee in Guatemala

Export crop - coffee

With the invention of chemical dyes in Europe in the 1800s, the export market for indigo and carmine from Guatemala collapsed. Coffee was developed as an export crop to take the place of indigo. It was promoted by the government through preferential trade and tax treatment. In 1859, more than half a million coffee trees were planted around Antigua, Coban, Fraijanes and San Marcos, and nearly 400 quintals (100 lb. bags) were exported to Europe. The next year, production tripled to more than 1 100 quintals.


Guatemalan dictator Justo Rufino Barrios made coffee exports the backbone of the government's program in the 1970s. Barrios expropriated land belonging to the Catholic hierarchy as well as communal lands held by the Maya. By 1877, Barrios virtually eliminated communal land ownership in Guatemala. By 1880, coffee accounted for 90% of Guatemala's exports. While exports of sugar, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables grew, as did beef and clothing goods, coffee remained Guatemala' s largest export.

The economic crisis

Social unrest resulting from the worldwide economic crisis of 1929 led to the Matanza (massacre) of 1932 in neighbouring El Salvador. Discontentwas brought toGuatemala bythe presidency of Jorge Ubico in 1931. Ubico's dictatorship launched a 13-year repressive campaign against trade unions and other forms of popular organization. The situation began to change in 1950, when populist Jacobo Arbenz was elected president and slowly began to implement land reform, which drew the ire ofthe large owners of coffee plantations, as well as the United Fruit Company and the U.S. government. Arbenz's government wasoverthrown in 1954 by a CIA-organizedcoup . Land reform was revoked, unions and popular organizations disbanded, and thousands of people were murdered, including organizers and members of agricultural cooperatives.


The terror triggered by the US overthrow of Arbenz continued by the following government, this led to the outbreak of civil war in 1962, which lasted until 1996 when peace accords were finally negotiated. The war functioned as a means to control the population. Entire villages were destroyed as military, right-wing paramilitary and government-organized "village patrols" murdered most of the rural, poor and indigenous population with impunity. Guatemala's civil war resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths. Fear persists in society to this day because of past violence, distrust of the government and lawlessness.

Is there peace?

Peace accords were concluded, ending America's longest war. However, the causes of the conflict - poverty, hunger, unequal distribution of land and racism faced by the indigenous population - these persist to this day and continue to define Guatemala's coffee economy.

Labour relations in the coffee sector have not changed much in the last century. Plantation residents continue to complain of discontent as some farms encourage debt through rents, credit policies in company stores, and loans for emergency health care. Many say they have been evicted from their ancestral homes without being paid statutory severance. Others, however, have been able to negotiate a cash reward in exchange for leaving their place of residence. Tensions in the country led some large growers to establish private security forces, only increasing the level of fear, violence and inequality in rural areas .

Nomadic workers

The coffee harvest depends on a massive seasonal influx of nomadic workers who travel to supplement the meagre income from small plots in the highlands. Seasonal and sometimes daily contract workers, rather than permanent employees, represent significant savings for growers by not requiring year-round wages and benefits. This arrangement also tends to depress wages in general and makes access to food (and the land on which it is grown), housing, medical care, and schools more difficult. In general, a year's work will earn only ⅓ of a family's income.

The fluctuating price of coffee

Guatemalan coffee production peaked at the turn of the 21st century , when it reached approximately 5 million quintals; however, production has declined by 1/3 in a few years (to 345,000 quintals in 2004) as coffee priceshave fallendrastically. The decline in the price and production of coffee has increased the already difficult conditions for Guatemalan peasants and farmers.

The rural poor

About the same size as the state of Ohio, Guatemala is second in the world (after Colombia) in the amount of high quality coffee it produces and has the highest percentage of its coffee classified as high quality. More than half of its coffee is exported to the US, accounting for 1/8 of the country's GNP and making up about 1/3 of Guatemala's foreign exchange. But when these hundreds of millions of dollars fluctuate, this intensive work generates little income for coffee workers. In the recent crisis, those lucky enough to find work in the coffee harvest found their wages dropping from the previous average of about $3.00 per day to about $2. 00 per day. These declines in wages are occurring in spite of a law that is supposed to keep rural daily wages at $2.48 .

Poverty and its effects on children

Although statistics vary significantly, even more conservative sources such as USAID estimate that 56% of the population lives in poverty and 20% in extreme poverty. Neonatal mortality is among the worst in the region (39 per 1,000 live births), infant mortality is extremely high (153 per 100,000 live births), and chronic malnutrition remains a serious problem (49%) . Others believe that up to 85% of children under 5 are malnourished and that stunting affects up to 95% of non-Spanish-speaking children in some regions. A survey of a region in eastern Guatemala in October 2001 found that 2.1% of children under five were acutely malnourished; a repeat survey of the same region in March 2002 found that acute malnutrition had risen to 4.3%.

How to improve the situation

The only wayto address these serious problems of malnutrition, disease and mortality is through land reform, whereby people are given access to their land and wages in rural areas are increased. Unfortunately, the solution remains among the failed promises of the Peace Accords, as real land reform and an end to discrimination against the Mayan peoples seem to be missing from the government's agenda. Although it is a small step towards correcting centuries of injustice, Fair Trade coffee is helping to improve the situation of small Guatemalan coffee farmers.

Looking forward to better times

According to Jerónimo Bollen, former CEO of Manos Campesinas, "Fair Trade keeps farmers on their land. While low coffee prices have forced thousands of farmers to emigrate to Mexico and the US, no Fair Trade member has to give up their land."

Carlos Reynoso, the current CEO of Manos Campesinas, agrees, "About four or five years ago, coffee prices started to fall. This made our existence and our lives much more difficult. We received less income from our production, but it also meant less money for food, health care and education. The premiums we get from Fair Trade help us send our children to school and provide food and medicine for our families. "

Progress takes a lot of effort

In a world where inequality and hunger are increasing as a result of corporate-led globalization, Fair Trade is a good example of how globalization-as-good helps improve people's lives and strengthen their communities.