In a few hours I will be boarding a flight for the United States and leaving Guatemala for good after living and working here for nearly four years. Two nights ago I had dinner and a great discussion with the owner of a coffee estate — a parting conversation that served to remind me of both Guatemala’s extraordinary coffee tradition, and the ways that violence in the coffeelands is changing that tradition.
Since I arrived in Guatemala with my family in 2007, coffee prices have risen steadily. Unfortunately, so has the level of violence.
At some point over the past four years, the number of murders each year in Guatemala eclipsed the average annual loss of life during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war. According to official data, more than 6,000 people died violently in Guatemala in 2010. While most of the violence is concentrated in the capital, tension has risen in the coffeelands, which have been deeply penetrated by Mexican drug cartels and units of los Zetas, the Mexico-based international crime syndicate linked to the drug trade. Estimates of the percentage of the country’s territory is under the control of local and Mexican drug cartels are as high as 60 percent. The influential Spanish Daily El País recentlysuggested that Guatemala may be the world’s first narcostate. Things got so bad in one coffee-producing region during the 2010/11 harvest that the government declared a state of emergency and the area was occupied by the Guatemalan Army for 60 days.
The estate owner I met is a professional who lives and works in the capital. He is also a fourth-generation coffee farmer who spent all his vacations growing up on the farm, where his father tried to instill in him a sense of the redeeming value of physical labor by putting him to work in the coffee fields. But the farm has lost some of the glow it had in the halcyon days of his youth. He told me that he had to start investing in security in 2007, and now has more than a dozen armed guards on the farm. Even so, he lost thousands of sacks of coffee to theft last year. His twice-monthly trips to the farm are less carefree than they used to be, with the threat of violence heavy in the air. The dinners he eats with family in open-air restaurants in the town center no longer last into the night with drink and conversation flowing — they are hurried affairs now, everyone anxious to get safely into their homes before nightfall.
When I asked him the obvious question — why don’t you sell the farm? — his response was immediate, unambiguous and defiant. “Why should I leave? They are the ones who need to leave,” he said in reference to the drug cartles. “If I leave, I am only giving them more room to operate.”
There are other, more encouraging storylines for the years in Guatemalan coffee from 2007 to 2011. The vision of smallholder farmers who see coffee as a vehicle for community development. The innovations to improve coffee quality and reduce its environmental footprint. The new trading relationships based on shared vision and long-term commitments. The hard work to make coffee farms more productive, coffee cooperatives more profitable and coffee communities more resilient. But as I prepare to take leave of this beautiful and complicated country where I have had the privilege to live and work with smallholder coffee farmers over the past few years, the conversation with the courageous estate owner is weighing heavily on my mind.
Adios, Guatemala. Hasta pronto.