Coffee crisis in Central America fuels record exodus to the north

  • Farmers Head To United States As Industry Declines Accelerates
  • Hurricanes Eta and Iota revive coffee leaf rust disease
  • Years of losses leave farmers in staggering debt

EL LAUREL, Honduras / LA LAGUNETA, Guatemala, December 8 (Reuters) – The four sons of María Bonilla and Esteban Funes have all embarked on the perilous journey north, one of them aged 10, preferring the life of an unauthorized migrant in America to a coffee farmer in Central America.

“If I didn’t have my mother I would also go to the United States. It’s better there. Nobody here is creditworthy,” said Bonilla, 40, who always tries to beat the odds. and profit from it. family farm in El Laurel, northeastern Honduras.

Coffee does not pay for most of the hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers who produce the delicate Arabica beans for the best soils in the world. Increasingly, they are giving up and are part of a larger flow of migrants to the US-Mexico border which, according to US data, has reached an all-time high this year.

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Francisca Hernández, 48, told Reuters that about a tenth of the 1,000 coffee farmers in her hamlet of La Laguneta in southern Guatemala had left for the United States this year. Among them, his 23-year-old son who was arrested in Mexico trying to reach the US border after paying $ 10,000 to a coyote or smuggler.

He finally crossed the border in February of this year and now works at a restaurant in Ohio, sending about $ 300 a month home.

Nearly 5 million people in the region – around 10% – depend on parts of Central America for their livelihood, according to the intergovernmental group SICA.

Yet this year has been particularly ruinous, according to interviews with a dozen farmers in the region, the heads of a regional institute and three national coffee institutes as well as an executive of an international coffee association based in the region. United States.

Farmers who accumulated losses and debts for several years due to falling world prices and loss of business in Brazil, are now overwhelmed by a devastating resurgence of “Roya”, or leaf rust disease. of the coffee tree.

The fungal pathogen was rekindled by the intense humidity brought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota that ravaged Central America in late 2020, destroying crops and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

“When coffee isn’t doing well, that’s when you see great migrations from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua,” said René León-Gómez, executive secretary of PROMECAFE, a regional research network formed by the national coffee institutes of Central America.

Production in the region, where labor-intensive manual coffee picking is a way of life for many, has fallen 10% since late 2017 and is expected to decline further in the coming season. This means that the global coffee market will become more dependent on mechanized mass producers like Brazil, and increasingly vulnerable to price spikes if extreme weather conditions hit the country’s crops.

The farmers’ decision to migrate north is a last resort, León-Gómez said. They have been producing at a loss for years and often working on larger farms to make ends meet, he added.

“They kill themselves. That’s the thing.”


United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it made 1.7 million arrests at the border with Mexico in the last fiscal year that ended September 30, the most never recorded high. This was double the level of 2019 and more than four times the number seen last year when COVID-19 lockdowns were in place.

CBP does not break down migrants by type of job, although the most recent migration data provided exclusively to Reuters by the Honduran Coffee Institute (IHCAFE) gives an indication of the number of people affected.

The institute surveyed 990 Honduran coffee farmers and found that during three months of popular migration in 2019 – May, June and July – 5.4% said at least one family member had left for United States.

If this were replicated across the country’s coffee-growing sector, the number of migrants would amount to nearly 6,000 in those months alone, equivalent to 6% of all unauthorized Hondurans seeking to cross the US-Mexico border during this period, according to US border data.

The survey did not capture entire families who migrated, so the actual figure may be higher.

Honduran authorities do not have migration figures for this year, although anecdotal reports from farmers and coffee authorities in Central America suggest that a similar, if not greater, proportion of this year’s migrants are coffee producers.

Bonilla said almost all of the 55 or so coffee growing families in El Laurel, Olancho state, have seen members migrate over the past four years, while around 10 entire families have abandoned their farms altogether. and headed north.

CBP apprehension data does not cover people who successfully cross the border illegally.

This group includes Hernández’s son and Bonilla’s four sons, who have all moved north since 2018 in search of a better life.


Picking coffee by hand has been a way of life for centuries in poor, mountainous parts of Central America, in areas that are too steep, thin soil, or wooded to grow much more. The region produces about 15% of the world’s Arabica, the mild flavored beans preferred by many coffee connoisseurs over the rougher Robusta.

Yet production has plunged 10% in the four years since October 2017, with industry data showing farmers racked up losses amid falling global coffee prices. Production is expected to fall a further 3% in the current 2021/22 season, despite robust global demand and prices, according to industry data.

Prices rebounded in the middle of this year due to frost and drought in Brazil and logistical grunts linked to COVID, and some farmers were able to break even for the 2020/21 season which ended on the 30th. September.

Still, farmers and officials interviewed said that with production in Central America declining due to the resurgence of Roya’s disease, making a living from growing coffee will remain a struggle.

Production is just as important as price in determining profit, as it reduces costs by increasing economies of scale for inputs like seedlings, fertilizers and pesticides.

La Roya first erupted in the region in 2012 and by 2014, more than half of the coffee crops had been affected, before they were largely brought under control.

The humidity brought on by the two hurricanes of 2020, which themselves caused $ 3.3 billion in damage to regional economies, pushed the prevalence of the disease from low percentages to low percentages of coffee plants over the course of the 2019/20 season at 15-25% in 2020/21, according to industry data.

Eugenio Bonilla, a 56-year-old coffee producer from El Laurel and brother of Maria, said his production almost halved in the 2020/21 season, mostly because of Roya.

“There is no point in coffee prices having improved if the trees are not in good condition,” he said.

Eugenio said some farmers in his hamlet suffered eight years of losses.

Their margins are very slim, with about half of the world price of coffee going to middlemen.

When global coffee prices averaged $ 1.41 a pound in 2019/20, for example, Bonilla said he and his fellow farmers received only 15 lempiras ($ 0.6238) per pound of coffee. , which cost them around 20 lempiras ($ 0.8317) to produce.


Several Central American coffee farmers have spoken of frightening debt spirals.

“They are starting to sell their stuff,” said José Magaña, 60, a farmer from Santa Ana state in El Salvador. “If they have a few oxen, in the case of small coffee farmers, they sell them. If someone is a medium-sized coffee farmer, he sells a house, sells other things so that he can work on the farms.

Carlos Landaverde’s farm in Santa Ana was seized by the bank earlier this year. The 44-year-old said he was not discouraged by the potential dangers of migrating with his family.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s the only way.”

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Reporting by Maytaal Angel in London, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Sofia Menchu ​​in Guatemala City. Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Mexico City and Nelson Rentería in San Salvador. Editing by Nigel Hunt and Pravin Char

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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