Guatemala as a country
Guatemala is one of the major countries in Central America. The capital Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America and has the second largest population after Mexico. The Mayan civilization flourished in Guatemala in ancient times. More than 40% of the population is indigenous and more than twenty Mayan languages are spoken today. The country is home to many volcanoes and a natural environment that includes volcanic ash soil which produces excellent coffee. Many tourists visit Antigua, Guatemala, every year, attracted by the ruins of the Mayan civilization and the colorful streets of the city. However, Antigua lost many tourists after Covid-19 and the economic impact is immeasurable.
Guatemala was invaded by Spain around 1500 and became independent as the Republic of Guatemala around 1800. Foreign capital flowed into the country in the late 1800s and German economic power increased coffee production. There are still many farms and coffee companies run by German immigrants, but as German power waned, American companies monopolized authority over fruits and the large influence of the US was evident.
Coffee production in Guatemala
It is said that coffee was first brought to Guatemala in the 1700s. Jesuit missionaries brought in coffee trees for ornamental purposes. Guatemala’s main industries at the time were indigo and cochineal dyes made from cochineal dyes but the invention of synthetic dyes drastically reduced the demand for these products. The coffee industry then rose to become the largest industry in Guatemala. 90% of the exports in the 1880s from Guatemala were said to be coffee.
Japan is currently the second-largest importer of Guatemalan coffee in the world after the United States, accounting for 20% of total exports. Guatemalan coffee has such a special familiarity in Japan that Japan is an important exporting destination for Guatemala.
Poverty in Guatemala
Coffee production in Guatemala is as developed as in Costa Rica and Panama, and the owners of large estates that have been running for generations are often wealthy. They know the world’s specialty coffee markets inside and out. Some farms hold private auctions for their products. On the other hand, the poverty rate in Guatemala exceeds 50%; some sources put the rate even higher, over 70% in rural areas. For these seasonal workers who are included in these poverty statistics, working as a specialty coffee picker is a very lucrative job but there are many problems in the working environment.
When I visited a large producer in Antigua, Guatemala, I saw an unforgettable scene. We were invited to a guesthouse owned by a producer and were treated to lunch. The house was furnished with colonial-style furniture and the lunch was served by several servants. After lunch we were taken to a coffee farm in a four-wheel-drive luxury car. There I saw many seasonal laborers working in the dust.
They were seasonal workers called pickers. They pick coffee cherries one by one by hand, sort, and pack only the ripe cherries into bags, and are paid according to the weight of the ripe cherries they pick. Since coffee is harvested only once a year, they leave the area after the coffee season is over and head to other locations to harvest other crops such as sugar cane. After I had been there for a while, I noticed there were children in the area. They were watching adults working nearby and running around the area. The area was located on a steep slope of a coffee farm and it was not safe for children to be around while large trucks were coming and going and dust was flying around. The children were laughing and smiling despite being covered in dust.
The producer sighed looking at the scene and said, “To improve the working environment, we first asked the pickers to leave their children with someone and come to work, but they didn’t agree with us by saying, ‘Are you going to separate our children from us?’ We then asked them to leave the children at a nursery and school that we set them up for them during working hours. They didn’t agree with this either saying that they were worried about leaving their children with strangers. Although we are all Guatemalans, we speak different languages and have different cultures, so it’s very difficult to communicate with them.”
Should seasonal workers be forced to agree to an environment that ensures the safety and education of their children? It is obvious that the education of children is key to escaping from poverty. However, it’s not desirable to ignore their culture which values families staying together. Building a school or making donations doesn’t necessarily improve the lives of the people working in coffee-producing areas. I had to face such a reality in Guatemala. The land, which is said to be popular coffee origins, has positives and negatives. By communicating directly with producers through direct trade, we can get closer to the truth about coffee origins. Only then will we have a chance to understand the root cause of social problems well and contribute to the solutions. These issues indeed are directly linked to the sustainability of coffee.