Early Guatemalan history began as any other civilization, but was changed when the Spanish arrived and gave large parcels of land to the settlers. The indigenous people were forced to work on these lands. In 1823 after Central American independence, many were forced to leave or become permanent residents of the new government. The history of coffee in Guatemala is colorful to say the least. Up until the early 1800’s Guatemala’s chief exports were Cochineal and Indigo, but when chemical dyes were invented in Europe, the 1850’s saw a large shift toward coffee.
The climate in Guatemala is perfect for coffee crops, and it was a good replacement for the indigo and Cochineal. Initially, many farmers had to borrow from families or other lenders to get their estates up and running which led to several other coffees from around the world making their way to Guatemala. early on, labor was a rare commodity which also kept things on a small scale. However with help from the government giving tax & property breaks to farmers, by 1859 a half a million coffee plants were planted near Antigua, Coban, and san Marcos. This crop saw 4000 pounds exported to Europe. The next year production tripled solidifying the history of coffee in Guatemala.
Still hindered by the scarcity of labor, Guatemala proceeded to prosper. By 1887 coffee production reached 48,500,000 pounds and reached 52,000,000 by 1891. This was supplemented when Dictator Justo Rufino Barrios mad coffee the backbone of Guatemala’s exports. According to Equal Exchange ” Barrios expropriated land belonging to the Catholic hierarchy, as well as communal lands held by Mayans, and by 1877, Barrios had virtually eliminated communal ownership of land in Guatemala. By 1880, coffee accounted for 90% of Guatemala’s exports. While exports of sugar, bananas and other fruits and vegetables, as well as beef and clothing, have also grown, coffee remains Guatemala’s largest export“.
During the global recession in 1929, and in years to follow, Guatemala’s dictators changed through massacres, civil unrest, and unrest from large plantation owners as land reforms were implemented and reversed leading up to the US C.I.A. organized coup overthrowing populist Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, with a succession of governments followed which lead to a civil war in 1962. In 1960 a bright spot appeared as Anacafe was created to represent coffee producers in Guatemala. This established a Guatemalan Coffee Brand including the growing regions of Acatenango Valley, Antigua Coffee, Traditional Atitlan, Rainforest Coban, Fraijanes Plateau, Highland Huehue, New Oriente, and Volcanic San Marcos.
However labor was still an issue all throughout the history of coffee in Guatemala. It mostly relies on a large seasonal migration of workers to supplement their income on the small farms in the highlands. This helps the coffee farmers cost since they don’t have year round expenses for labor. However, there is unfortunately a lot of child labor on coffee farms in Guatemala; as late as 2013 there are still many farms relying on child labor as coffee is one of the 6 major commodities still reliant on child labor.
When the coffee prices dropped in the early 21st century many farmers sought work in the US or went south to seek employment. Held together by fair Trade organizations such as Manos Campesinas, none of their farmers lost their land. Recently Guatemala has made news being overtaken by coffee leaf rust in 2013-2014. A reported 80-90% of the crops were affected, creating a call to government to source a solution. Regardless, Guatemala id number two behind Colombia regarding the amount of high grade coffee it produces, and it has the highest percentage of its crop classified as high quality.