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Guatemala: Coffee farmers still jittery despite treaty
The Miami Herald / April 23, 1997

By Larry Luxner

GUATEMALA CITY -- When German-born coffee exporter Klaus Monkemuller landed in Guatemala City on Nov. 30, 1960, he couldn't have possibly known that on the same day, leftist guerrillas would launch their armed struggle against Guatemala's CIA-backed military government, setting off Latin America's longest-running civil war.

Now, after 36 years of bloodshed, peace has finally broken out in this troubled nation -- leaving Monkemuller and millions of others to wonder what will happen next.

The turning point came on Dec. 29, 1996, when the Guatemalan government and leaders of the country's biggest rebel group formally ended a war that had claimed between 100,000 and 140,000 lives since 1960.

Yet many of Guatemala's 10.3 million people worry that the imminent peace will also put thousands of soldiers out of work, which is exactly what happened in neighboring El Salvador after that country's civil war came to an end in 1992.

"Most people are afraid that even though hostilities may stop, robberies and assaults by uncontrolled groups will go on," said Monkemuller, general manager of Unicom S.A. a Guatemala City-based coffee exporting firm. "Coffee growers have faced extortion by the guerrillas and by uncontrolled bandit groups which sometimes involve military and police. The coffee sector has been hit hard by attacks and occupations. Even now, with refugees coming back from Mexico, there have been invasions of well-managed farms."

Adds Manfredo Topke, whose 300-hectare finca exports coffee mainly to Germany and the United States: "The number of coffee farms that weren't affected by the war can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

One coffee importer who isn't very optimistic about the peace treaty is Chuck Jones of Dona Mireya Inc. in Pasadena, Calif. His company employs 1,200 workers in the production of over a million pounds of gourmet coffee annually at Finca Dos Marias in San Marcos, a six-hour drive west of Guatemala City near the border with Mexico.

"It seems like things are going to get worse before they get better, in terms of integrating the guerrillas back into society without becoming outcasts," said Jones, whose great-great-grandmother started the family business back in 1870. "It's happened before, where the rebels lose their cause and they need to find a place for themselves."

There's no doubt the fighting has taken a huge toll on the Guatemalan economy and its 44,000 or so coffee producers. Nearly 450 villages were destroyed in the army's campaign to wipe out communities sympathetic to the guerrillas. The country is now seeking billions in aid from such institutions as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"Once they sign the peace treaty, we'll see lots of economic help, but it won't last long -- maybe one or two years," said Ricardo Santacruz. "What the country has to do is make intelligent investments so later on, it can live off its own resources. We've learned that value-added agricultural activities can offer benefits that coffee can't. Our goal is to diversify agricultural production."

Santacruz is director of the agribusiness subcommittee at Gexpront, Guatemala's association of non-traditional exporters. That organization -- which receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- aims to steer Guatemala away from its traditional dependence on coffee, bananas and cattle, and towards high-value exports such as pineapples, melons, baby vegetables and raspberries.

"We want to improve productivity and yields in areas we're already cultivating," he said. "Guatemala has relatively small areas where various crops can be cultivated. We want to provide small markets with specialty, value-added crops such as baby vegetables that command high prices."

Yet even if non-traditional exports continue their rapid growth, coffee will still be the mainstay of Guatemala's economy for a long time to come. In 1995, the country exported $539.2 million worth of coffee -- more than sugar, bananas and all other farm exports combined. Last season, 41% of those coffee beans went to the United States, with the remainder shipped to Western Europe and Japan.

Currently, all but two of Guatemala's 23 departments produce coffee; in those areas grow some 748 million coffee trees. Workers -- mostly very poor Guatemalans who speak a variety of indigenous languages -- earn an average 20 quetzales (about $3.50) for every 100 pounds (quintales) of beans picked. Since the average worker picks around one quintal per day, that's more or less their daily wage.

Good news came in late February, when Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Co. announced it would begin a new operation in Guatemala, in alliance with Appropriate Technology International. The program will intially finance wet-coffee processing facilities with producers' cooperatives, help broker agreements among cooperatives to facilitate dry processing, and provide technical assistance in management and marketing as well as treatment and recycling.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to effectively implement Starbucks' Coffee Mission in Guatemala," said Dave Olsen, a senior vice-president at Starbucks."Although small-scale producers represent the majority of coffee farmers in Guatemala, they seldom receive the full value of their products in the coffee market."

Separately, in an effort to increase recognition of Guatemalan coffee in its most important markets, Guatemala's National Coffee Association (Anacafe) has been spending $500,000 of its annual $4 million budget on promoting its five regional gourmet coffee brands: Antigua, Huehuetenango, Fraijanes, Coban and Atitlan. All are classified as Strictly Hard Bean, with requires coffee to be grown at altitudes of between 4,500 and 5,500 feet.

With the arrival of peace, Jose Angel Lopez, a director of Anacafe and one of 20 coffee growers on the organization's executive board, is hopeful.

"During the years of conflict, coffee activities were affected not only from the point of view of damages to the coffee infrastructure, but also the loss of human life," he said. "We're talking about big farms and small farms, workers and exporters. I think this peace treaty is an opportunity to improve our levels of productivity. We can't do that in an atmosphere of violence and fear."

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