December 16, 2021 3:21 pm
The four children of María Bonilla and Esteban Funes all embarked on a difficult journey north, one of them just ten years old, preferring the life of an unauthorized migrant in the United States to that of a coffee farmer in Central America.
“If I didn’t have my mother, I would go to the United States too. It feels better there. Nobody here is able to pay their debts, ”says 40-year-old Bonilla, who is still trying to win his bet and get something out of his family farm in El Laurel, northeastern Honduras.
Coffee doesn’t pay for many of the hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers who produce the delicate Arabica beans that end up in the best blends in the world. Increasingly, these people are throwing in the towel and joining a larger flow of migrants headed for the US-Mexico border and which, according to US data, have reached a record high this year.
A ruinous year
Francisca Hernández, 48, said about one-tenth of the 1,000 coffee farmers in her village – La Laguneta, in southern Guatemala – left this year for the United States. Among them is his 23-year-old son who was arrested in Mexico while trying to reach the border with the United States despite paying ten thousand dollars to a coyote, or human trafficker.
He finally managed to cross the border in February of this year, and now works at a restaurant in Ohio, from where he sends home about three hundred dollars a month.
Periodically, along with the fluctuations in the coffee sector, there have been migratory waves from parts of Central America. Nearly five million people in the region – about 10 percent of the total – depend on coffee for their survival, according to the intergovernmental group Sica (Central American Integration System).
This year, however, was particularly disastrous, according to what emerges from the talks with a dozen farmers in the region, directors of a regional institute and three national coffee institutes, as well as with the manager of an international coffee association based in the States. United.
Farmers’ decision to migrate north is a last resort, after years of producing at a loss
Growers who had accumulated losses and debts for several years due to falling world prices and reduced turnover in Brazil have now been inundated with a devastating reappearance of the roya, or coffee leaf rust disease. This fungal pathogen was reinforced by the intense humidity brought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated Central America in late 2020, destroying crops and creating hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
“When coffee is not good, we see great migrations from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua”, explains René León-Gómez, executive secretary of Promecafe (Regional Cooperative Program for Technological Development and Modernization of Coffee Growing), a regional network of research formed by the National Coffee Institutes of Central America.
Production in the region, where labor-intensive coffee harvesting by hand is a way of life for many people, has dropped 10 percent since late 2017, and is expected to drop further next season. This means that the global coffee market will be more dependent on countries with mass and mechanized production, such as Brazil. It will also be increasingly vulnerable to price spikes if extreme weather conditions hit the country’s crops.
Farmers’ decision to migrate north is a last resort, according to León-Gómez, because they have been growing and producing at a loss for years and often work on larger farms to make ends meet, he adds. “They are killing themselves. This is the point ”.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) says it made 1.7 million arrests at the Mexican border in the last fiscal year, which ended September 30 – the highest number ever recorded. A double figure compared to 2019 and more than four times that of 2020, when lockdown measures were in place due to covid-19.
The CBP does not break down migrants by type of job, although the most recent migratory data provided exclusively to Reuters by the Honduran Coffee Institute (Ihcafe) give some indication of the actual numbers. The institute surveyed 990 Honduran coffee farmers and found that in 2019, in the three main migration months – May, June and July – 5.4 percent of respondents said at least one person in their family had left for the United States.
If this were to happen across the country’s entire coffee growing industry, the number of migrants would be nearly six thousand in those months alone – accounting for 6 percent of all irregular Hondurans trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in that period, according to data from the Cbp. This survey does not account for families who have emigrated in their entirety. The actual figure could be higher.
Honduran authorities have no migration data for 2021, although some eyewitness reports from farmers and coffee authorities across Central America suggest that a similar, if not greater, proportion of migrants this year are coffee growers.
According to Bonilla, nearly all of the 55 or so families of coffee farmers in El Laurel, Olancho state, have had someone migrate in the past four years, and about ten families have fled their farms en masse and headed north. The CBP arrest statistics do not include people who manage to cross the border illegally. This group includes Hernández’s son and Bonilla’s four children, all of whom emigrated north in search of a better life from 2018 onwards.
In Central America, making a living growing coffee will remain difficult
Harvesting coffee by hand has for centuries been a way of life in poor and mountainous areas of Central America, where areas that are too steep, with shallow soil or covered with forests do not allow much more to be grown. The region produces about 15 percent of the world‘s Arabica: those soft-tasting beans that many coffee connoisseurs prefer to the stronger-flavored Robusta.
The threat of rust
Yet production has plummeted 10 percent in the four years since October 2017, industry figures show, with farmers making losses due to falling world coffee prices. Production is expected to drop a further 3 percent in the current 2021/22 season, despite strong global demand and prices, again according to industry data. Prices rebounded in mid-2021 due to frost and drought in Brazil and logistical difficulties related to covid-19. Some farmers managed to break even for the 2020-21 season, which ended on September 30th.
Yet according to growers and officials surveyed, with production still declining in Central America due to the resurgence of roya, making a living growing coffee will remain difficult. Production is as important as price in determining profits, because it lowers costs by increasing economies of scale for goods used in production such as seedlings, fertilizers and pesticides.
The roya it first spread to the region in 2012. In 2014, more than half of coffee crops were affected before the disease returned under control. The humidity brought by the two 2020 hurricanes, which in turn caused $ 3.3 billion in damage to regional economies, has increased the spread of the disease. This went from less than 10 percent of coffee plants in the 2019-20 season to 15-25 percent in the next, according to industry data.
Eugenio Bonilla, El Laurel’s 56-year-old coffee farmer and Maria’s brother, says his production nearly halved in the 2020-21 season, mostly due to the roya. “There’s no point in coffee prices going up if the trees aren’t in good condition,” he explains. Some farmers in his village reported losses for eight consecutive years. Their margins are very thin, given that about half of the global price of coffee goes to intermediaries.
Bonilla explains, for example, that when world coffee prices averaged $ 1.41 per pound in 2019-20, he and his fellow farmers received only 15 lempiras ($ 0.6238) per pound of coffee, when their production cost was about twenty lempiras ($ 0.8317). Thus several coffee farmers in Central America have reported frightening spiraling debt. “They start selling their things,” says sixty-year-old José Magaña, a farmer in the state of Santa Ana in El Salvador. “If they have a pair of oxen, in the case of small coffee farmers, they sell them. Medium-sized coffee farmers sell a house or something else to be able to work in the fields ”.
Carlos Landaverde’s Santa Ana farm was seized by the bank earlier this year. Landaverde, 44, says he is not discouraged by the potential dangers of emigrating with his family. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It is the only way”.
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article was published by the British news agency Reuters.
Articolo di Maytaal Angel, Gustavo Palencia and Sofía Menchú.
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