Coffee production has been intertwined with Guatemala’s socio-political fabric since around 1845, when the Commission for Coffee Cultivation and Promotion was established, though there are reports of coffee being cultivated in the country as early as the mid-eighteenth century, having been introduced by Jesuit priests. Alike El Salvador, during the 1850’s, coffee came to supplement the reduced demand for indigo as chemical dyes became introduced to the market. When Justo Ruffino Barrios came to power in 1971, he concentrated much of his economic regeneration plans on coffee production, and large swathes of land – up to 400,000 hectares – became coffee plantations. Production soared and by 1880, coffee contributed roughly ninety-per-cent of the country’s exports.
However, the negative impact of this surge in production was the displacement of indigenous people, as Barrios appropriated “public” land to make way for the plantations. Many of the those displaced were put to work as seasonal labourers on the new plantations, often working in return for food and shelter, and with few rights. In the two hundred years that have followed, the situation with the employment of indigenous people on coffee estates has improved, but in many areas where large numbers of seasonal and sometimes daily contractors work during harvest season, wages below the $2.48 national minimum rural wage are commonplace. It is estimated that in a harvest season, the money earned could only contribute to as little as one third of a family’s corn and bean calorie requirements. Poverty and malnutrition are big problems in Guatemala, with sources such as USAID estimating that upwards of 50% of the population live in poverty, and 20% in extreme poverty.
Organisations like Fair Trade are having a positive impact in helping to keep producers on small to mid-size farms on their land and the in-built premiums that are offered often help send children to school, pay for medical bills and provide food for families. However, FT coffees make up only a small percentage of farmer’s total production and often get sold for less than the minimum FT certification price due to lack of demand.
Conversely, in terms of non-certified coffees, Guatemala produces the highest percentage of classified, high quality coffee by volume in the world. The coffee association of Guatemala, Anacafe, has been instrumental in the improvement of picking, processing and quality standards, with excellent information and resources available for farmers and a traceability database for buyers to connect with producers. Guatemala has been leading the way in Central America, with an emphasis on producing high quality washed coffee, experimenting with fermentation and highlighting the terroir. Using a similar ‘altitude grading’ system employed in other Central American countries, coffee is classified as Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) – grown upwards of 1300 masl – Hard Bean (HB) and Semi Hard Bean coffees, all of which represent good quality, comparative to other nations. As a country, Guatemala has been relatively successful in marketing its coffees to the rest of the world, clearly defining regions and emphasizing distinct characteristics between growing areas and farms. Most of Guatemala’s coffee farms can be found on the coastal slopes in the central and southern regions of the country, where altitudes range from 750 – 1800 masl. Coffee is harvested between November and February, depending on the elevation. Over half of Guatemala’s 3.4 million bag yearly coffee production is then sold to the US market, generating approximately one third of its foreign exchange.