The working poor of Guatemala face a triple bind. Because of extreme poverty in the country — where seven of every ten farming families live in poverty and almost half of children under five have chronic malnutrition — subsistence farmers are expected to take the brunt of climate change in Central America. As precipitation decreases and rain patterns shift, the government will not be able to provide enough irrigation systems to handle the changes.
Then there’s the violence: Though Guatemala’s murder rate has fallen in recent years, it’s still within the top 20 in the world, and its extortion rate is even higher. The problems caused by violent crime are made worse by endemic corruption in the political system. The government of President Jimmy Morales — who campaigned in 2015 on the slogan “not corrupt, nor a thief” — withdrew from a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission in January.
Though it’s less attention-grabbing than the prior two concerns, macroeconomic problems are pressuring the farmers of Guatemala — a force just as detached and unyielding for the global poor as something like climate change. According to a new report from the Washington Post, a major fall in the price of coffee has cut out a huge income source for Guatemalan farmers, helping to fuel the spike in migration to the United States. Coffee prices have dropped about 60 percent since 2015, from $2.20 per pound in 2015 to a low this year of 86 cents. Despite selling to brand-name vendors in the United States, most farmers have been operating at a loss since 2017. The Post also notes that, although fair-trade coffee has had a minimum price of $1.60 per pound since 2011, that money is paid “to the exporting company, not the farmer. Many farmers in Guatemala received about $1.20 per pound this year.”
With the arabica bean no longer providing an escape from poverty, farmers are looking north. “A huge part of the migration America is seeing at its southern border is because of the falling price of coffee,” Ric Rhinehart, former executive at the Specialty Coffee Association of America, told the Post. “All of us are deeply concerned that we’ve reached the end of coffee producing as a sustainable livelihood for much of Mesoamerica.” Guatemala is now the single largest source of migrants crossing from Mexico into the U.S., with over 211,000 apprehensions of Guatemalans along the border from October 2018 to May 2019.
U.S. consumers have not noticed the price drop because, as the Post states, “the price has been pushed down by the increase in cheap, mechanized coffee production in Brazil — the Saudi Arabia of coffee — the strength of the U.S. dollar and increased production in Vietnam, Honduras and Colombia. It’s a perfect storm that has eaten away at the value of the beans even as the price of lattes and Americanos in U.S. shops has risen.”
Along with the price slash, production costs for the country’s 120,000 small-scale coffee farmers have increased, due to the new cost of chemicals to stave off the fungus coffee rust, which threatens around 60 percent of wild coffee species and appears to be caused by climate change. “What we’ve seen is that the migration problem is a coffee problem,” Genier Hernández, head of a Guatemalan coffee cooperative, told the Post. In the past two years, half of the 100-person co-op have sent children, or embarked themselves, on the minimum 2,000 mile journey to the U.S. border.