Americas, Coffee Producing Countries, Features, Guatemala, Profiles

Why Guatemalan coffee farmers are emigrating

Guatemalan coffee farmers

Guatemalan coffee farmers have been emigrating for decades in search of a better life outside the country. Global Coffee report examines the roots of the issue, and what can be done to preserve the country’s future coffee production.

Over the past decade, the Guatemalan coffee industry has had to navigate a series of devastating hurdles. From the catastrophic outbreak of coffee leaf rust (Hemileia Vastatrix) in 2016 which saw smallholder farmers on average lose 71 per cent of their crop according to a study by the University of Maryland*, to the COVID-19 pandemic which caused great disruption to the global coffee supply chain, these monumental challenges left many of the country’s coffee farmers without an income.

Some of these farmers simply gave up the profession and left the country in search of a better life, escalating what was already a huge emigration issue in South America’s coffee-growing nations. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations International Organization for Migration, Guatemala has reported mass labour shortages in the coffee sector, with 353,504 people leaving the country in 2021 alone.

Another factor contributing to the issue is a lack of adequate financial support for the country’s agricultural industry. The United States Agency for International Development reports that 59 per cent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, and 77 per cent of this population sector intends to migrate in search of economic opportunity.

This mass exodus of coffee farmers could have a devastating effect on the country’s economy, as well as the world’s supply of coffee. According to non-profit agricultural research organisation World Coffee Research, Guatemala produced 3,441,000 bags of coffee from 2019 to 2021, compared to 3,553,000 bags from 2009 to 2011.

Juan Pablo Cassasco de Groote works with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala as an immigration expert. He says the migration crisis is worsening as the country experiences an increase of legal and illegal emigration.

“Guatemalan workers are highly regarded as reliable workers in the United States, therefore are drawn to better working conditions, even under perilous conditions towards the north,” says Cassasco de Groote.

“There have been a number of systemic issues in Guatemala, including a lack of rule of law, constant corruption, and a lack of proper education, that have led to a vicious cycle for society.”

This cycle, according to him, is the reason Guatemala receives less foreign investment compared to neighbouring countries. He adds that Guatemala could have great potential as an exporter of goods if given the right opportunity to succeed.

“Guatemala is an agricultural country with agricultural tradition,” he says. “It is rich in natural resources, and it has a hard-working population that is driven to obtain better opportunities.”

Despite this, Cassasco de Groote says there is reason for hope in solving these issues. Bernardo Arévalo assumed the Guatemalan presidency in January 2024, which Cassasco de Groote says could signal the end of corruption in the country.

“Change must come from inside the country before we can accept foreign help,” he says. “As a society, we need to come together and agree on a common group to develop our economy in order to reduce emigration.”

Guatemalan coffee farmers
Guatemala has reported mass labour shortages in the coffee sector, according to the United Nations. Image: Fairtrade.

Building from within

World Neighbors, a US-based international development organisation committed to promoting financial literacy to underdeveloped regions around the world, has worked with Guatemalan farmers since the 1980s.

“We are under pressure to convince these farmers that they can, in fact, make it on their own,” says World Neighbors CEO Kate Schecter.

“We’re looking to get each farmer to be self-sufficient to the point where they don’t even need us anymore. We don’t bring donations, goods, or equipment, but instead we help them raise money in their own communities.”

Part of World Neighbors’ work in Guatemala is encouraging coffee farmers to diversify their crops.

“We’ve seen that coffee growers don’t want to be totally dependent on coffee,” Schecter says. “These other crops can be either for personal consumption or for sale, for example chickens are a small and profitable business.”

Beyond the farm, Schecter says it’s important to consider living quality when convincing farmers to stay.

“Some of the communities we work in are not on the grid for water or electricity, so we make sure our farmers have access to these necessities,” she says. “A lot of farmers who stay in their communities do so because they have nice homes that they’ve invested in, with clean water and working stoves for cooking.”

Farmers are able to afford such necessities through a series of financial programs that World Neighbors has implemented in the community.

“We have created savings and credit groups, where we teach the farmers how to best manage their money,” Schecter says.

“The farmers who end up saving and starting small businesses eventually become the ones that train and teach new members of the groups to impart some of this knowledge. What we’ve seen in Guatemala is that some farmers are saving up so much money that they need to form a community bank or a cooperative.”

Empowering female farmers

While World Neighbors has seen noticeable improvement among the Guatemalan farming community, the migration issue hasn’t gone away, particularly among men looking to pursue a better lifestyle.

“This is why we are focused on empowering women to make money from farming,” she says. “Guatemala is still a very traditional society, and women do not have much political power, and they are often the ones left behind in the poorer communities.”

One female farmer working to make a difference is Olga Marina. Her farm, based in Chucte Centro in the municipality of Olopa, Chiquimula, primarily grows coffee of the Anacafé 14 variety, but has expanded to include a smaller domestic garden to grow vegetables for her family. World Neighbors has helped Marina by providing training, seeds for coffee seedlings, and compost bins to ensure the farm remains self-sufficient moving forward.

Marina thinks the migration issue comes down to the lack of benefits some farmers believe they are entitled to, particularly in regard to their coffee crops.

“Some have as little as one cuerda (0.1 hectare) of land dedicated to coffee, while the largest small farmers have up to 10 cuerdas (one hectare),” she says. “Coffee crop production can vary considerably from year to year, which means income is not constant, and harvest only comes once a year.”

Marina adds the work of World Neighbors is crucial in providing financial education to the local community in order to incentivise farmers to stay in Guatemala.

“It is essential to raise financial awareness among families and to create local job opportunities,” she says. “Support for technical assistance, access to funding, training in sustainable agriculture practices, and access to water and sanitation are all required to create the conditions for wellbeing and prosperity in communities.”

According to Marina, smallholder farmers rely heavily on the success of each harvesting period to stay afloat. However, the wages coffee farmers receive for each harvest is approximately US$8 per quintal (100 kilograms), making it difficult for them to cover family expenses let alone reinvest in their farms.

“Farmers cannot afford to cover the whole coffee production process,” says Marina. “For some, the only option is to turn to large high-interest loans from local lenders.”

Marina says labour shortages have become a primary concern for larger farms, with farmers having to pay higher wages in order to secure workers.

“This situation also creates internal migration, bringing farmers from other regions or even neighbouring countries such as Honduras or El Salvador,” she says.

While Marina understands the issues many local farmers face, she has made the decision to remain in Guatemala and continue to farm coffee. She has learned from the experiences of others that the grass is not always greener outside of the country, especially for struggling farmers.

“I have witnessed the difficulties faced by those who emigrate to the United States, especially when it comes to the wellbeing of their children,” she says.

Because of this, Marina has stayed committed to providing her children with a proper education in Guatemala.

“My eldest daughter is studying to become an accountant, and my second daughter is progressing in her primary education. It is important for me to be with them to support their educational journey and help achieve their goals and aspirations,” she says.

Marina suggests awards for coffee producing from large roasters should be focused on smaller coffee farmers, as she says they might otherwise become disenfranchised to commit to coffee.

“Often, awards and prizes are left in the hands of intermediaries, who enjoy it for themselves, depriving us of our merit and benefits,” she says. “It would be very valuable for roasters to consider implementing programs such as insurance for coffee producers, which would help us mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and ensure the stability of our farms.”

Guatemalan coffee farmers
Olga Marina, a Guatemalan coffee farmer, says it is essential to raise financial awareness among farming families. Image: World Neighbors.

A fair price

Marina is not the only Guatemalan local aware of the lack of assistance. Asociación de Cooperación al Desarrollo Integral de Huehuetenango (Acodihue) was founded in 1996 with the support of the Guatemalan government and the European Union. Its mission is to provide assistance and services to producers to help maintain quality coffee while developing social and economic programs that benefit farmers and their communities.

Acodihue Co-director Felix Camposeco has been a part of the coffee industry his whole life. His parents were coffee producers, and he has worked with Acodihue for over a decade. Camposeco and Acodihue work closely with Fairtrade to maintain a suitable minimum coffee price to help farmers remain financially stable.

“Often, people think of Fairtrade as an organisation that keeps and maintains a certain minimum price, but for small producers it’s a way of life,” he says.

He adds that most coffee farms in the country are Fairtrade certified, which has proven to be a disadvantage in the global market. Fairtrade products often cost more because they have a minimum price that helps farmers cover production costs.

“A lot of companies are looking for coffee that is of poorer quality which can be sold at a lower cost,” he says.

Camposeco says it is crucial for coffee roasters to consider their product beyond the profit. He urges others to look at the “black drink of energy” as a representation of an entire community of hardworking people.

“Behind that cup of coffee, there’s a family getting up at 6am every morning and putting in a lot of effort to make their crops sustainable,” he says.

“They are dedicating their lives to uphold the country’s coffee culture and to give you that boost of energy in the morning. We need to have these people producing coffee, because if they don’t, they might have to abandon the crop altogether.”

* The impact of coffee leaf rust on migration by smallholder coffee farmers in Guatemala. (Dupre et al, 2022).

This article was first published in the May/June 2024 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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