Migration is normal. People have moved from place to place in search of better opportunities for themselves and their children since the dawn of humanity. But what happens when life in one place becomes untenable for so many people, that that land and community become a shadow of their former selves due to migration? The number of migrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries have skyrocketed over the past half decade, leading to a decrease in available labor for coffee production in Guatemala, affecting cherry quality and production.


Drying Patio at Las Crucitas, a farm in Guatemala

Drivers of Migration

The primary reasons that many leave Guatemala are structural inequality and the lack of opportunity. As Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a social anthropologist from Quetzaltenango, was quoted in a New Yorker article “When there’s this level of poverty and inequality in Guatemala, people will always go.”

Further, the threat of violence is fueling many migrants. Guatemala has some of the highest rates of homicide and violence in the world. Repeated rights violations, especially for indigenous peoples (many of whom farm coffee), are also driving forces for migration.

We are witnessing a change in how people migrate. Whereas before 2014 or so, migrants were mostly men who left their families behind with plans to either return home or bring their families to them later, now people are migrating as families. This is due to a number of factors including increasing violence, climate change affecting farming and more, but it means that many people are abandoning their lives and their lands in Guatemala forever, choosing to try their luck at life in another place.


Drying patios at El Morito farm in Guatemala

Migration Affects Coffee Quality

In regards to poverty, collapse of coffee prices has undoubtedly contributed to increasing poverty and lack of viable self sufficiency among coffee farmers, increasing migration. But, migration has also affected coffee quality and production. The Huehuetenango region, where much of Guatemala’s specialty coffee is produced, is the region with the most number of migrants heading north in all of Guatemala. Farmers who have stayed in the region are experiencing difficulty finding enough laborers to help pick coffee cherries, which can lead to not only lower production but lower quality as laborers visit each tree only once to pick all cherries, ripe and unripe, rather than visiting each tree two or three times to pick only ripe cherry.

Harvest at El Morito – Guatemala

What Can Be Done? 

Migration will not slow overnight, nor will issues causing migration be fixed quickly, but they can, and perhaps must, be fixed if we want to continue enjoying the fruits of specialty coffee farming in Guatemala. There are a few things roasters and importers can do to help secure farmers against poverty and to help coffee farmers stay in their homes and on their land.

The first major thing we as importers and roasters can do is to make sure we are paying fair prices to farmers. This can happen in a number of way including direct farmer-roaster relationships.  However, we need to be careful to remember that higher FOB or higher prices paid to exporters, does not always mean higher prices for farmers. For this reason, pursuing the shortest commodity chain can be helpful.

Another thing we can do as importers and roasters is to help mitigate climate change through our own actions in our stores and businesses and through extension outreach to farmers to help them deal with climate changes that are affecting their crops. An important caveat to this work is to make sure we are not prescribing solutions but listening to what farmers need and helping them achieve these goals.

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