After oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world. Although the coffee industry generates profits of over 60 billion dollars annually, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of those earnings end up in the countries where coffee is produced. Slightly less than 0.5 percent of the total earnings translate into wages for those who labor to produce coffee.
Thus, in a country such as Guatemala, where coffee is the nation’s largest export, extreme poverty and malnutrition are pervasive for a significant portion of the population.
According to USAID reports, an estimated 56 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty, and around 20 percent live in extreme poverty. High poverty rates render infants and children especially vulnerable: infant mortality is among the worst in the region (39 per 1,000 live births), and maternal mortality is extremely high (153 per 100,000 births). Although statistics vary, it has been reported that 85 percent of children under five are malnourished in Guatemala.
Although the Guatemalan government mandated a legal daily rural minimum wage of $2.488, a rapid decrease in the global price of coffee has depressed laborers’ already low wages. The average daily wage for laborers in the coffee industry has fallen from around $3 a day to the current average of just $2 a day.
Experts highlight two primary catalysts to the drop in global coffee prices over the past decade.
In the 1990s, large American corporations such as Nescafé and Maxwell House began to adopt neoliberal economic policies that favored the abandonment of previous agreements with coffee growers that provided for protections against price variation. These agreements, which had maintained coffee prices within predetermined margins regardless of variable harvest qualities, were seen as contradictory to the values of “free trade”.
Then, when Vietnam was introduced to the market as a new, rapidly producing coffee country after the World Bank made significant contributions to the industry through loans, the flood of additional coffee crop caused the bottom to drop out of the market. Per the dictates of the economic principles of supply and demand, the sudden and significant increase in coffee commodity supply once Vietnam entered the market caused prices to plummet.
In addition to market destabilization, discrimination against rural workers, many of whom are of Mayan ancestry and are non-Spanish speakers, as well as the lack of workers’ rights have been identified as causative factors in the economic hardship experienced by most coffee industry laborers in Guatemala.
Many plantation owners hire temporary workers as a means of keeping wages low, avoiding paying any types of benefits and preventing worker organization. Coffee industry laborers don’t complain as they may lose the opportunity for any work at all.
Numerous international organizations have recognized the need for change in the Guatemalan coffee industry. The following are five development projects in Guatemala that have been implemented with intent to support and advocate for the rights and livelihoods of coffee industry laborers.
- Manos Campesinas – The Association of Small Coffee Producers, “Farmers’ Hands” is an organization of small-scale coffee producers in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala that has created a supportive community for over 1,073 members. Unlike the temporary laborers who work on large plantations, these producers own their own smaller plots of land and have control over the entire production process. The Manos Campesinos initiative was formed to help these small-scale producers compete with larger plantations by providing them with technical and marketing support.
- Café Teresa – The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) funds several small coffee producers’ associations in the Guatemalan department of Huehuetenango, where poverty is especially dire. Café Teresa, which also receives funds from the Italian government, is one of the supported development projects in Guatemala. This producers’ organization helps its members achieve certifications relating to sustainability and organic practices, which can sometimes be costly to obtain but have significant positive impact on the price that farmers can ask for their products. Café Teresa is exclusively organized by women, and is dedicated to helping Guatemalan women be successful in the coffee industry.
- Pueblo a Pueblo – This nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the “health, education and food security of families in rural coffee-growing communities in Latin America through integrated community and school-based programs”. The foundation was established in 2001 in Guatemala, and its successes in ameliorating the widespread poverty, illiteracy and poor health afflicting the communities surrounding Santiago Atitlan have spurred it to expand across other Latin American nations. Its initiatives of this development project in Guatemala include providing funding for consistent access to healthcare for children, establishing libraries at schools and providing schools with additional learning resources.
- The Coffee Trust – This organization works with coffee producers and laborers in the Ixil region of Guatemala, where it provides trainers for those struggling to make a living in the coffee industry. These trainers are established members of the Guatemalan coffee industry that help their peers by sharing the agricultural practices that has made them successful. The Coffee Trust has found that their Farmer-to-Farmer techniques is an especially effective means of empowering individuals and creating a cohesive community.
- De la gente – This organization has partner communities in Guatemala in which is strives to create economic sustainability, empowerment in the coffee industry, healthy and thriving livelihoods, as well as resilience to shocks in the coffee industry and emergencies. It does this through programs which focus on capacity building through farmer-to-farmer training, leadership and business development, and funding access to industry conferences, knowledge sharing platforms and networking opportunities. De la gente also has programs which foster access to credit and economic diversification.
These development projects in Guatemala are each doing a small part to address the serious issues facing the coffee industry and ensure future prosperity for the nation and its producers.
– Savannah Bequeaith