The price of coffee


31 October 2011

A blue painted building with banana trees in the background

A church in Nueve San José, Guatemala

It’s a little disconcerting to walk down the road to Nueve San José and see men and even boys as young as 10 carrying large machetes in the opposite direction. But its coffee picking season here in south-west Guatemala and with school just finished for the year, everyone‘s taking the opportunity to earn what they can.

At 7.30am the sun is glaring down already. Chickens scratch around in the dirt and wild-eyed dogs trot around, some of their fierceness from the evening before now dissipated. Its early for me, but most of the coffee pickers have long gone to fincas (plantations) miles away. They often get up at 5am, while their wives get up at least an hour earlier to make their food for the day.

Nueve San José has existed for only 18 years. The majority of its families are originally the permanent employees of a finca in the same region called San José Altamira. In 1992 the finca owner stopped paying them. They weren’t told why, nor were they laid off. This had happened once before, but after 3 months they had been paid, so at first they weren’t worried. But this time they weren’t paid. Eventually they were reduced to living on bananas and herbs which could be collected wild. Several young children died of malnutrition. 

In the meantime the community had been trying to get the pay they were owed. The local labour disputes office were worse than useless and easily bought off by the finca owner. Eventually they were able to contact an organisation which helped campesinos and plantation workers to claim their rights. After some training in basic labour law they started a campaign to get paid, even demonstrating outside the finca owners’ house in Guatemala City. The finca owner tried every trick in the book to avoid paying them from pretending to be insulted, to buying off the leaders, to trying to make a poor deal with the less militant section of workers. It was only when the by-now  starving workers held the finca administrator hostage that they were eventually paid, over a year after their pay stopped. The finca was then sold and its workers had to leave.

This is by no means an unusual story in Guatemala. It got worse after the global price of coffee crashed in the late 1990s. The World Bank had encouraged countries which weren’t traditionally coffee producers to start producing it for export. This resulted in a glut and the price dropped. Finca owners, who tended to treat their workers more like serfs, didn’t hesitate to pass as much of their loss onto their workers as possible.

What’s unusual about San José Altamira is that the workers both fought and eventually won. In 1992 the civil war was still going on and anyone trying to claim their rights was liable to be accused of being a communist guerrilla and tortured or killed by the dictatorship. Thousands of people were massacred during the 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the countryside. 

Nowadays finca owners employ very few workers all year round. Most are hired day by day during the harvest. The informal nature of this arrangement allows them to pay workers around 35 Quetzals (just under £3) a day, well short of the official minimum wage of 63.70 Quetzals per day.

The Spanish school I’m studying at here (an offshoot of the progressive non-profit school in Quetzaltenango, PLQ) helps the community in various ways. It provides some jobs, and pays local women to provide meals for students in their houses. The money generated helps pay local children’s school fees and they’re currently building a library and IT centre for local communities.

But the people here remain very poor. Surrounded by fertile abundance, they often can’t afford to buy simple luxuries like fruit. It’s a situation the current presidential runoff between two neoliberals from the ruling elite will do nothing to remedy.

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