Central America’s Coffee crisis triggers record exodus north

Migrants and asylum seekers from Central America and the Caribbean walk in a caravan heading to the US, on September 4, 2021 Jacob Garcia via Reuters

EL LAUREL, Honduras/LA LAGUNETA, Guatemala (Reuters) – The four sons of María Bonilla and Esteban Funes all embarked on the treacherous 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 mom, I would also go to the U.S. It’s better there. Here, no one is solvent,” said 40-year-old Bonilla, who’s still trying to beat the odds and turn a profit at her family farm in El Laurel, northeast Honduras.

Coffee doesn’t pay for many of the hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers who produce the delicate arabica beans for the world’s finest grounds. Increasingly, they are giving up, becoming part of a broader migrant flow to the U.S.-Mexico border that U.S. data shows has hit a record high this year.

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 this year for the United States. They included her 23-year-old son who was arrested in Mexico while trying to get to the U.S. border despite having paid $10,000 to a coyote, or people smuggler.

He eventually made it across the border in February this year, and now works in a restaurant in Ohio, sending about $300 a month back home.

Migrant surges have occurred periodically from parts of Central America as fortunes fluctuated in the coffee sector, which almost 5 million people in the region – roughly 10% – rely on to survive, according to the SICA inter-governmental group.

Yet this year has been particularly ruinous, according to interviews with about a dozen farmers across the region, the heads of one regional and three national coffee institutes plus an executive at a U.S.-based international coffee association.

Farmers who had been racking up losses and debts for several years from falling world prices and the loss of business to Brazil have now been swamped by a devastating resurgence of “Roya”, or coffee leaf rust disease.

The fungal pathogen has been revived by the intense humidity brought by the hurricanes Eta and Iota which ripped through Central America in late 2020, destroying crops and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

“When coffee is not doing well, that’s when you see big migrations from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, 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 hand-picking of coffee is a way of life for many, has dropped by 10% since late 2017 and is expected to fall further in the season ahead. This means the global coffee market will become more dependent on mass, mechanized producers like Brazil, and increasingly vulnerable to price spikes if extreme weather hits the country’s crops.

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

“They’re killing themselves. That’s the thing.”

HEADING NORTHWARDS

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) say they made 1.7 million apprehensions at the border with Mexico in the last fiscal year which ended on Sept. 30, the highest number ever recorded. That was double the level in 2019 and more than four times the number seen last year when COVID-19 lockdowns were in place.

The CBP does not break down migrants by job type, though the most recent migration data given exclusively to Reuters by the Honduran coffee institute (IHCAFE) gives some indication of the numbers involved.

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

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