La Escuela de la Montaña

un proyecto de la asociación Pa Le Qanil

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Brief History of coffee in Guatemala

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The communities around the Escuela de la Montaña are located in a region that has been devoted to the cultivation of coffee for over 150 years. Coffee production in Guatemala started in the 1850s (coffee originally comes from Ethiopia), and it became Guatemala's main export crop by the end of the 19th century (80% of exports). Coffee production greatly expanded during the Liberal Reform, led by Justo Rufino Barrios (who became president) and other coffee growers. A series of laws were passed from 1871 onwards that took land away from the Catholic Church and indigenous peoples to make way for coffee plantations, and forced indigenous people to work on the plantations, in labour drafts and through debt slavery. This led to the creation of communities of permanent workers and their families on the coffee plantations (fincas), who lived and worked on site, supplemented by a larger migratory workforce brought down from the highlands of Guatemala during the harvest season. At first, permanent workers were not paid, but simply given land to grow food in return for working. The government of Juan José Arevalo (democratically elected in1944, marking the beginning of ten years of social change) brought in the Labour Code, which established the minimum wage and labour rights, including the right to form unions. However after the coup d'etat in 1954, union leaders were persecuted, and during the war (1960-1996) many union leaders were kidnapped and disappeared.

The coffee plantations maintained the large communities of permanent workers on the fincas during the war. Until relatively recently, it was common for generations of families to be born and raised -- living, working, and dying - on the finca.

However, with the dramatic fall of coffee prices (see "coffee crisis" below) on the international market in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many finca owners began abandoning all or part of coffee cultivation or turning to other, less labour-intensive alternatives such as avocados or macadamia nuts. Finca owners also began greatly reducing their permanent labour force during this time, and now they contract out to daily-wage workers, thus eliminating any responsibility for housing, education, health care and other benefits. Most of the residents of the rural communities surrounding the Escuela de la Montaña were displaced from their homes and lost their permanent jobs on the coffee fincas during this period.

Hiring workers temporarily means that plantation owners can get around minimum wage laws and pay workers much less. The legal minimum wage of Q71 per day (with benefits) is not enforced and no one complains for fear of losing the opportunity to work. (Finca owners, like most bosses, routinely share "black lists" of troublesome workers.) The wages on the coffee fincas are extremely low: averaging around Q25-40 per day - for men (about US $3.10-$5), and Q15-25 for women (about $1.90-$3.10). Often workers are hired to just do piece work. In coffee picking season (October through to January) people are paid just 30-40 centavos per pound of coffee they pick, which means that they have to pick 100lb of coffee to make Q30-40. However this can take a whole family a day to pick.

The Coffee Crisis

In the mid to late 1990s the price of coffee dropped on the world market and fell to record lows - below production costs between 1999-2003. This was for two reasons. Until 1989, there was an agreement between coffee growers and big companies that buy coffee, like Maxwell House and Nescafé, which helped keep the price stable (otherwise the price would drop when there was a good harvest and go up when there was a bad harvest). However, the US and the companies pulled away from the agreement - neoliberal economics says that the "market" should decide prices and not have these kinds of agreements because it's not "free trade". As a consequence, the coffee price began to fluctuate a lot more on the world market from 1990 onwards.

Also, in the early 1990s the World Bank encouraged some Asian countries to grow coffee (particularly Vietnam) and provided them with loans. Huge rainforest areas were cleared and planted with coffee. The coffee supply on the world market began increasing greatly in the mid 1990s and by the end of the 1990s the world market was flooded with coffee. Consequently the price crashed, conveniently for the big companies (Nescafe, Maxwell House) who made huge profits - despite buying coffee extremely cheaply they never reduced the cost to consumers, but instead slightly raised the price.

Many finca owners went bankrupt and were unable to pay their workers (in cash at least). Many workers (permanent and temporary workers) suffered hunger due to not having been paid for months, and cases of childhood malnutrition in Colomba and elsewhere soared. Some children died of malnutrition on some fincas. Families had to hunt for river crabs, gather herbs to eat and make tortillas with bananas to try to survive.

Coffee Rust

This year (2013) coffee rust, a fungus that kills coffee plants, has badly affected Guatemala's coffee plantations and caused losses of $270 million. It is estimated that over a hundred thousand jobs on the plantations have been lost, and thousands more temporary workers have been badly affected throughout Guatemala. Between 70%-90% of plants have been destroyed, which means that this year's harvest was lower than normal and next year is likely to be much worse. Picking coffee is a vitally important source of income for local families, and so the loss of work is devastating. Often teenagers and their families use the money earned from picking coffee to help them cover educational costs (because coffee picking season ends in January, when the school year starts).