Guatemala is one of the world’s leading coffee producers. According to the National Coffee Association (ANACAFE), 55% of Guatemalan coffee is sold to the U.S. market; 33% to Europe, and 12% to other regions (ANACAFE, 1995). Guatemalan coffee is renowned for its high quality.
Coffee production requires large tracts of land. Of the 197,080 hectares of arable land in Guatemala, 15,000 are planted in coffee (ANACAFE, 1995).
Coffee accounts for 12% of Guatemala’s GNP and generates 30-35% of foreign exchange (ANACAFE, 1995).
The coffee production cycle requires a large labor force, employing 12% of Guatemala’s economically active population (ANACAFE, 1995). The industry also employs 90-95% of the child labor contracted in coffee-producing regions (PAMI, 1997). Only 20% of the coffee workforce depends primarily on the coffee industry for their livelihood. Most of the rest are migrant workers who come down from the Central Highlands to work 2-4 months during the coffee harvest (ANACAFE, 1995).
Export agriculture in Guatemala tends to concentrate the most productive land in the country into a very few hands. The agricultural census of 1964 demonstrated that 62% of Guatemala’s arable land made up only 2.1% of the farms. These figures had not changed significantly by the agricultural census of 1979 (INE).
Coffee is a case in point. Most coffee in Guatemala is grown by a landed elite that owns many medium to large farms. ANACAFE recognizes that about 250 families dominate the production of Guatemalan coffee. ANACAFE also speaks of 59,000 smallholders who produce about 50 hundredweight each per year. In contrast, says ANACAFE, the major coffee families produce at least 2500 hundredweight each per year.
Hard numbers on the distribution of coffee production in Guatemala are difficult to come by. The 1998 U.N. Development Program report on Guatemala suggests that some 50,000 smallholders produce only about 18% of the total coffee crop (p. 146). This would suggest that the landed elite produces more than 80'% of Guatemala’s coffee.
The large farms also tend to be the ones with coffee processing facilities, buying and processing beans produced by small and medium producers for resale to intermediaries.
Labor relations in the coffee industry have changed little in the last century. The coffee harvest continues to depend on a massive influx of migrant workers who sell their labor to supplement the meager income generated by their small plots of land in the central highlands.
Most medium to large farms have a small permanent labor force called colonos, many of whom have lived and worked on the farms for generations. Most colonos have houses on the farm as well as access to plots of land where they can plant crops and raise livestock.
Historically, colonos have complained of endentured servitude as some farms promote indebtedness through credit offered at the company store, loans for emergency healthcare, or rental fees charged for access to land for planting.
During the 70s and 80s, coffee farms, especially in the Pacific piedmont region, were rife with tension. Guerrilla forces would sometimes charge farm owners protection money, kidnap owners for ransom or rob payrolls to finance their struggle.
In recent decades, many farms have begun to displace the colonos, forcing them to relocate to adjacent communities. Many ex-colonos claim that they have been ousted from their ancestral homes without being paid their legally-mandated severance benefits. Others have negotiated titles to plots of land with the farm owner as a condition for leaving the farm. This has added to already existing tensions in some coffee-producing regions. As a result, a number of large and medium coffee producers have invested heavily in private security forces.
Coffee production has always experienced a complex, interdependent relationship with the Guatemalan state.
Although coffee was produced on a small scale throughout most of the 19th Century, Liberal dictator Justo Rufino Barrios made the export of coffee the pillar of his economic program in the 1870s. The move to the mass production of coffee for export led Barrios to expropriate land belonging to his political rival, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, as well as communal lands belonging to Mayan communities.
By 1877, Barrios had virtually eliminated the communal ownership of land in Guatemala. By 1880, coffee accounted for 90% of Guatemala’s exports.
The social unrest produced by these policies was one of the factors that led Barrios to create the Guatemalan army in 1871.
In recent decades, coffee producers have had an ongoing rivalry with sugar producers for access to government credits and have often supported competing political parties. To deal with security issues, large farm owners have also hired retired high ranking army officers to set up private security forces. Such arrangements have sometimes spilled over into involvement in the murky world of plotting coups and counter-coups.
Land ownership was one of the items on the agenda negotiated by the Guatemalan government and the armed opposition in the 90s. The Socio-Economic Accord identified the relationship of access to land with poverty and also underscored the historic inability of state institutions to change existing skewed ownership patterns. This Accord called for creating mechanisms that would permit more people to own the land they work. This and other Peace Accords are now moot, since they have not been ratified by the Guatemalan Congress nor by popular referendum.
The study began with a survey of the literature followed by a familiarization tour of Guatemala’s coffee-producing regions. As we visited different regions, we talked with local representatives of the coffee-producers association (ANACAFE), and with a variety of local officials and non-governmental organizations.
This information permitted us to select the municipalities to be studied and to proceed with the design process. (Please note that a Guatemalan municipality is roughly equivalent to a county in much of the U.S. or to a Louisiana parish. The municipality extends beyond the incorporated urban area).
To facilitate access we decided to carry out the studies in the departments of Sacatepéquez, Sololá and Santa Rosa. All three produce high quality coffee for export and have small, medium and large farms. The selected municipalities were:
- In Sacatepéquez: Antigua, Ciudad Vieja and San Miguel Dueñas
- In Sololá: San Lucas Tolimán, Santiago Atitlán, and San Antonio Palopó
- In Santa Rosa: Barberena, Cuilapa and Santa Cruz Naranjo
In December, 1998 we formally contacted ANACAFE to request information about coffee farms in the three departments selected. Specifically, we asked for:
A list of the registered coffee farms in each department, according to size (small, medium, large, cooperative).
Name of the owner
Type of coffee produced (first, second or third class)
Approximate number of workers
Despite our guarantee of complete confidentiality, in a fax dated January 4, 1999, ANACAFE General Manager Rodrigo Chacón denied our request, noting that such information could only be released with the express authorization of each owner or by court order.
We chose to build our sample on 10% of the economically active population in each of the municipalities studied. This led to the following distribution by department: