Producer Profile: Guatemala

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jun 1, 2003 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |

From fishing and farming villages as early as 2000 BC on Guatemala’s Pacific coast sprang one of the world’s most advanced civilizations — the Mayans. Across Central America, Mayan cities with their remarkable pyramids, temples, observatories and libraries, flourished for centuries. Mayan scholars produced prolific works of literature, philosophy, art and architecture. Mayan scientists developed a more precise calendar than the one used today by NASA.

But the magnificent culture created by the Maya, like that of many other indigenous societies in the Western hemisphere, was a magnet for foreign invaders. In 1521, warring Mayan tribes were easily conquered for Spain by Pedro de Alvarado. The remaining kingdoms of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were carved into large estates and a feudal system established. Within a few years, the Mayans had become slaves in their own homeland, their cities were burned and looted and their culture was banned. Religious imperialism brought on by the arrival of Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars erased valuable traces of Mayan culture.

When independence from Spain came in 1821, it was good news for those of Spanish blood, but bad news for those of Mayan descent. Huge tracts of Mayan land were taken for the cultivation of tobacco, sugar cane and coffee cultivation. In 1860, there were hardly any coffee exports. But only 13 years later, the coffee bourgeoisie was exporting 15 million pounds a year. In 1877, the regime of Juan Rufino Barrios abolished communal ownership of the land, making it even easier for Mayan land to be appropriated by the ruling class. Barrios also subdivided the Maya into three groups, one to work the plantations (the ‘colonos’), one as indentured servants (‘jornaledos habiltados’) and one who promised to work without any advance (‘jornaledos no habiltados’).

In 1884, this system gave way to a state-sponsored form of debt-bondage, which lasted for 50 years. In 1934, a set of Vagrancy Laws took its place, which compelled Mayans to work 150 days a year if they cultivated less than 1 5/16 “manzanas’ of land (2.45 acres), 100 days if they cultivated more. Anthropologist Ruth Bunzel reported that during this time, Mayans were jailed for petty offenses and fines were imposed that they could only work off by picking coffee on the plantation. This was the beginning of the finca (plantation) system.

In the 1940s, urban professionals and merchants began a working class movement to modernize Guatemala and break the dependency on coffee exports. The period from 1944-1954 is now known as the “Ten Years of Spring.” The second of the two popularly elected Presidents during that time was Jacobo Arbenz, who came to power in 1951. A former military officer, Arbenz permitted free expression, legalized unions and allowed diverse political parties. But his primary goal was radical land reform, which put him on a collision course with the United Fruit Company and, ultimately, the United States government. At that time, United Fruit was one of the largest landowners in Guatemala, owner of millions of acres of untilled land held in reserve for future banana planting. The owners of the company, including the then U.S. Secretary of State, were not at all pleased when their fallow lands were forcibly brought back by the government. The campesinos, denied the right to ownership of their own homeland for so long, hoped that they would receive titles to the land, which would allow them to grow and market crops. In 1954, however, in the midst of the “red” fever of the McCarthy era, United Fruit’s owners ran to Washington crying “communism.” That’s all that the U.S. government had to hear. Without any further investigation of these claims, the CIA promptly organized, trained, armed and funded a group of Guatemalan military dissidents and helped them plan and carry out a violent coup d’etat against the popularly elected Arbenz.

In the aftermath, Arbenz was driven out of Guatemala and it’s said he died heartbroken in exile. The ensuing civil war lasted 36 years and created more than 100,000 casualties and 1,000,000 refugees. Peasant cooperatives were destroyed, unions and political parties disbanded and dissidents hunted down and jailed or killed. During this time, Guatemala suffered through countless dictators. The CIA-installed leader, Castillo Armas, was assassinated in 1957 after three years of rule in which he reversed many of Arbenz’ progressive reforms. Successive regimes were just as oppressive, and led to the rise of groups such as the Castro-backed Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). Right-wing terror groups were formed to wage war against the FAR guerillas.

In 1985, for the first time in 15 years, the military allowed civilian leadership of the country. However, even this wasn’t enough to end the civil war. The human rights abuses continued, causing the US to cut off most of its military aid to Guatemala. Covertly, however, the U.S. continued to train known human rights violators at the School of the Americas and other military centers and closely collaborated with military intelligence units which carried out death squad activities.

In 1995, after another failed dictatorship, the Guatemalan government and the rebel forces signed a peace treaty, finally putting an end to the brutal civil war.

Miraculously, even through hundreds of years of foreign rule and oppression, the Mayans of Guatemala have survived. Today, this indigenous Guatemalan culture can be experienced in many parts of the country, including the ancient ruins of Tikal and the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango. But the civil war has taken its toll. The once thriving textile arts industry is vanishing in part due to the pressure by the Western culture for the Maya to lose the indigenous identifying features of their hand-made, brightly-colored clothing.

Today, the Maya still constitute over half of the population, yet theirs is essentially a silent majority. The villagers suffer an 80% malnutrition level, 80% functional illiteracy level, and the highest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere, second only to people of Haiti. But the Mayan culture lives on. Some 23 Mayan languages are still spoken in Guatemala.

Ironically, however, the ravages of war have helped to preserve Guatemala as a premier coffee origin, since those years of disorder discouraged the technification of Guatemalan coffee. Much of Guatemalan coffee is shade-grown arabica and many of Guatemala’s coffee farmers are direct descendents of the Maya employing farming techniques that can be traced back as far as 3,000 years. Guatemalan coffee is an artisan coffee, regarded by many as the finest in the world.

Café Campesino’s Guatemalan coffee is grown on the slopes of the 13,816 foot high Tajumulco Volcano in southwestern Guatemala, often referred to as “the heart of the Mayan empire.” There, the town of Pueblo Nuevo is the headquarters of APECAFORMM, a group of 17 producer communities that achieved economic stability when they came together to form a cooperative in 1992. Before forming the co-op, the campesinos were often at the mercy of coyotes, the unscrupulous middlemen who vastly underpaid them for their coffee harvest. Many farmers migrated to Mexico to labor on big banana or coffee plantations at the expense of their own farms. But the co-op has changed that. In 1996, APECAFORMM joined forces with export coordinator Manos Campesinas and adopted the fair trade model. Cooperative members earn 2-3 time more for their green coffee, and a portion of the sale is set aside for APECAFORMM’s communal fund to improve their infrastructure and social programs. Manos Campesinas also helps the producers by pre-financing their harvest and assists them in maintaining their fair trade and organic certification.

Like many Central American countries, Guatemala is a beautiful land with a troubled past and a challenging future. Whether it will remain at peace over the long term is hard to predict. But the efforts of international conservation organizations are helping to preserve its spectacular cultural and ecological attractions. And economic reforms, among them the development of fair trade, have brought a measure of economic hope and the dream of a brighter tomorrow.

Some relevant links:


Guatemala — A Brief History

The history of Guatemala from the World History Archives,

PBS Frontline World Story on the Coffee Crisis (particularly note the Your Coffee Dollar feature)

Truth Commission, Guatemala

Resources from LANIC (the Latin American Network Information Center)

Travel and Ecotravel Ecotravels in Guatemala

Lonely Planet Guide: Destination Guatemala

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