EL QUICHE, Guatemala — Recent history for many Guatemalan coffee farmers has been devastating, with the outbreak of a deadly plant fungus that has destroyed crops and livelihoods. The Coffee Trust provides support and education for those living in the isolated Ixil region, where the coffee leaf fungus hit hard. This organization works with other local organizations to improve coffee farmers’ ability to weather future epidemics and diversify the local economy and crops.
The Ixil is a historically persecuted indigenous group that has survived genocide from both Spanish conquistadors and a repressive state in the 20th century. The Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996 after 36 years of guerrilla conflict. The war’s scorched-earth tactics claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, many of them from indigenous groups. Since Guatemala had the highest coffee production in Central America in early 2014, the coffee leaf rust outbreak crippled its economy. This cost upwards of 90,000 jobs. Today, 59 percent of the population lives in poverty, 23 percent lives in extreme poverty, and there are ongoing refugee and gang crises.
La Roya, or coffee leaf rust, kills coffee plants by coating the leaves in a rust-orange fungus. It spreads easily, and in order to stop it, the plants must be stumped for several years. Since it takes around four years for coffee plants to mature, this can be devastating for small-scale farmers. The Coffee Trust helps these farmers use and develop Effective Microorganisms (Ems) to help plants grow and resist the fungus. It also teaches pruning and shade management techniques to the farmers.
The Coffee Trust works together with the Asociacion Chajulense cooperative to help the Ixil people become empowered through independence. The organization works in San Gaspar Chajul in Guatemala, a region largely composed of the indigenous Ixil, where the population has a primary school completion rate of 11 percent.
The La Roya Recovery Project is how the Coffee Trust works to create a sustainable recovery from the destruction of more than 75 percent of the sector.
The Coffee Trust also teaches people to attain food security through the Food Sovereignty Project. This project reintroduces ancient Guatemalan agricultural techniques to the community. These techniques were lost over time when Guatemalan farmers switched to growing coffee in order to pursue the wealth of the cash crop trade. Nevertheless, this was a dream that, for many Guatemalans, did not pan out. By reintroducing the techniques, however, the people can share success with one another and have a better chance of maintaining a food surplus. The Food Sovereignty Project also promotes female ownership of the means of food production, helping to reduce gender inequality.
The Women’s Savings and Microcredit Project aims to reduce the singular importance of coffee in the local economy to allow communities to avert complete disaster in the event of another coffee leaf rust outbreak. Due to rising global temperatures and the altitudes at which coffee leaf rust thrives, the fungus will likely be a problem for producers for decades. This makes the mission of the Coffee Trust even more important for coffee producers everywhere, not only in Guatemala.
The organization’s model of community involvement and cooperation, in addition to their strategies for diversification, can help communities become more self-sufficient. Thus, when La Roya strikes, communities are less likely to face complete economic devastation and will be able to continue growing their own food. This economic independence returns hope and opportunity to these farming communities and allows them to break the cycle of poverty.
– Lucas Woodling