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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).

Annual production
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:

Sacatepéquez: 236 persons
Sololá:  168 persons
Santa Rosa: 224 persons
Total sample: 628 persons

Our conversations with ANACAFE officials made it clear that we would not be granted access to the fincas to carry out our study.  Thus, we had to develop and train a team of local information gatherers who had regular contact with workers on the farms in each municipality.

With our initial visits to San Antonio Palopó we discovered that this community had fewer coffee farms than expected.  We decided to eliminate San Antonio from the study and, to fill the sample quota, we increased the number of persons interviewed in San Lucas Tolimán.

The funding for the study did not become available until March, 1999, so we were not able to cover the full coffee production cycle.  We missed the key harvest months from November to February, an especially important phase when large numbers of migrant workers are present on most medium and large farms.

Surveys were the main information gathering tool.  The survey was designed to accurately portray both working and living conditions experienced by a representative sample of Guatemalan coffee workers.  In each municipality we carried out the same survey in four phases between May and October, 1999.  Each time we surveyed different coffee workers from different regions of each municipality to assure both geographical diversity and coverage of different phases of the coffee cycle.

Since we were denied access to official data, we compiled a list of all the farms mentioned by the interviewees.  Annex A contains a list of these farms.  The size classification is somewhat arbitrary, reflecting the personal criteria of the workers interviewed.

We also set up focus groups in each municipality to identify issues related to living conditions in coffee-producing areas.  Members of focus groups included educators, healthcare providers and local community leaders.

Survey results are presented in a series of tables and graphs in Annex B.  Results are divided into three general areas: 

1. Basic demographic data:
Age   Graph 1
Gender Graph 2
Ethnicity Graph 3
2. Data on working conditions (with emphasis on compliance with Guatemalan law):
Job Status   Graph 4
Child Labor Graph 1.1
Income Graphs 5, 5.1 and 5.2
Employee Benefits and Overtime Graphs 6, 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3
Hours worked    Graph 7
Harassment and Abuse Graphs 8, 8.1 and 8.2
Social Security   Graph 11
  3. Data on living conditions
Education and Literacy   Graphs 9 and 10
Access to Healthcare   Graphs 11 and 12
Housing    Graphs 13, 13.1 and 13.2
Water   Graphs 14 and 14.1
Electricity  Graph 15
Additional Employment   Graph A
Access to Land   Graphs B, B.1 and B.2
Indebtedness  Graph C
Salary Discounts    Graph D
Sanitation  Graph E
Garbage Disposal  Graph F
The numbered graphs present the results of the primary variables identified in our original research design.  The lettered graphs identify secondary variables that we incorporated into the survey as a result of our preliminary findings, focus group studies and familiarization visits.

Survey results were compared, when possible, with data available from Guatemala’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 


•  We were surprised at how little research and serious analysis we were able to find on the role of coffee in Guatemalan society. This multi-million dollar industry has been a cornerstone of Guatemala's economy for more than a century, yet our study is one of the first that systematically documents the working and living conditions of coffee workers.

•  In recent decades, coffee has been a very conflictive industry in Guatemala. Farm owners, administrators and workers have all been on the front lines of a culture of conflict and violence that has led to much suffering and deep-seated mistrust on all sides. Developing relationships of trust with reliable, first-hand sources took a great deal of time and energy at the beginning of this investigation.

•  Our research proceeded despite two important limitations:

•  ANACAFE refused to provide us with information that would have assisted in designing our investigation and selecting a representative sample of specific coffee farms. Undoubtedly, the prevailing atmosphere described in Finding #2 is one of the reasons for ANACAFE's decision. We think the methodology we designed is the most accurate and thorough that was possible under the circumstances.

•  Since funding for the investigation only became available in March, we were not able to monitor working and living conditions through a full production cycle. Most importantly, this partial study does not document conditions on farms during the harvest season, from November to February. This means our study does not reflect conditions experienced by the large numbers of migrant workers who participate in the coffee harvest. Considering the paucity of available data, our study becomes an important (although partial) benchmark for future study.

•  The coffee industry in the communities studied demonstrates a lack of commitment to the rule of law in Guatemala. Large majorities in all the communities studied report lack of payment of overtime and legally-mandated employee benefits. Almost half report lack of compliance with the legally-mandated minimum wage. Anecdotal evidence from our focus groups demonstrates similar problems with child labor, discrimination against women, legally-mandated health and safety programs, educational services and hygienic living conditions.

•  The same evidence suggests that an important minority of farm owners are complying with or exceeding the law and providing a safe, humane environment for their workers.

•  We encourage ANACAFE and the major international coffee buyers to publically adopt a Code of Conduct. This would provide an objective benchmark for evaluating working and living conditions in future studies.

•  The evidence suggests the urgent need for a far more detailed study of a representative sample of specific fincas through the full coffee production cycle. Such a study would identify in far more detail problems that need to be addressed by the industry, as well as highlight production and management models that successfully resolve complex labor relations issues.

•  Another urgent area for future study is the changing nature of the labor force. Anecdotal evidence suggests that large and medium farms are reducing the number of colonos , forcing them to move to adjacent communities and to compete for contract labor. If true, this may create conditions in the labor market that would tend to decrease wages and access to legally-mandated benefits.

•  Our focus groups noted that ANACAFE is supporting small producers some of whom appear to be organizing themselves into cooperatives. This appears to be an innovative program promoting participative development and economic growth. Any future study should include cooperatives as one of the categories within the sample.

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