GUATEMALAN UPDATE: WITHOUT FAIR TRADE, COFFEE FARMERS ARE STRUGGLING TO BREAK EVEN
Driving across the mountainous landscape of western Guatemala in February this year, the group of coffee roasters I was leading was making the six-hour ‘backroad’ trip along bumpy dirt roads that link the Guaya’b and the ASOBAGRI co-operatives. The sinuous road rose to over 3000m in places, causing us to reach for extra clothes at times as protection against the cold. In making this journey we spanned much of the width of the department of Huehuetenango, which is one of the most populous but poorest regions in Guatemala.
Dotted incongruously within the landscape was a large number of surprisingly large and modern concrete houses, many of which were decorated with a symbol which explained how they had come to be built: the flag of the United States of America. These houses have been built by Guatemalans who have successfully joined the numbers of undocumented workers who have migrated to the US and earned enough cash there to pay for their construction. The painted flags are an expression of gratitude to the country which has made the existence of these houses possible.
The department of Huehuetenango maintains another distinction; it is also a renowned coffee-growing region, where some of Guatemala’s finest coffees are produced. Visiting this region during a period when coffee prices have been plumbing historic lows in recent years, my group was already expecting that many of our conversations might focus on the impact of these low prices on coffee farmers. Meeting with the farmers themselves, we gained first-hand insights into what I had already been hearing were clear linkages between local coffee prices and migration rates in Central America. (See also this article).
Visiting Juan Anibal Herrera, a member of the Guaya’b co-operative, we learned that those of his neighbours who are selling their coffee to conventional traders at the current market price are not able to sustain a living from producing it.
‘They’re just holding on, while their farms are running down’, Juan Anibal explains. ‘They might migrate; about 10% of the population in this area has migrated over the past 20 years, but in the last three years migration rates have been more rapid. Basically there are only women left behind to pick coffee in many places here’.
There is now a shortage of hired labourers who can be found to pick coffee in this region, as many of these people have also migrated. Farmers like Juan Anibal are looking further and further afield to find labourers they can hire, and this labour shortage is leading to a greater likelihood of coffee cherries over-ripening on his trees. The cost of this hired help is also increasing; currently the pay rate for labourers in the Jacaltenango region, where Guaya’b is based, is roughly 40% of the current street price for coffee, and even at this pay rate Juan Anibal says it is hard for these labourers to earn a living from picking coffee.
The challenging economic situation we were hearing about from Juan Anibal and other members of the Guaya’b co-operative closely mirrors the numbers that are turning up online through more detailed research. For the many small-scale farmers who sell to the conventional market – coffee that routinely ends up getting exported to the specialty industry through the major coffee-exporting companies – coffee is a loss-making proposition these days.
For Juan Anibal and the other members of Guaya’b who have found a fair trade market and are selling their coffee to Trade Aid, the situation is very different. As well as getting paid a price for their coffee which is currently more than 50% higher than the street price, they also receive further benefits through their co-op such as access to loans, free organic fertiliser, and financial help for family-related health expenses.
‘The price we get from Guaya’b is a great help’, he says. ‘Without the extra income we get from Guaya’b my children couldn’t study. One is in college studying nursing, the other is in high school’.
With the help of fair trade, we can all make a difference; at the moment with prices as low as they are, this would be the difference between farmers making or losing money from coffee production in much of Central America.
By looking out for our own – the people who grow the coffee we roast and brew – we have the opportunity to provide more small-scale farmers like Juan Anibal with the dignity of a living wage simply by choosing to support fair trade, now more so than at any time in recent history.