The history of coffee in the Americas is one of colonization and the displacement of a once dominant culture, Mayan, with their European conquerors. In Guatemala, after a nearly 200 year struggle, the last rebellious Mayan enclave was defeated in 1697 and the Spanish divvyed up the land.
When the European demand for Guatemalan indigo and cochineal collapsed after the invention of chemical dyes in the early 1850’s, coffee was developed as a premier export crop with over half a million coffee trees planted by 1859. In 1871, dictator Justo Rufino Barrios declared that coffee would be the primary backbone of Guatemala’s economy, then proceeded to eliminate all communal ownership of land, appropriating land formerly held by the Catholic church and indigenous Mayan communities. Within a decade, coffee counted for 90% of Guatemala’s exports.
The Great Depression of 1929 and civil unrest in Central America brought about another dictator, Jorge Ubico, who began a program of brutal repression against trade unions and again the indigenous peoples. In 1950, populist Jacobo Arbenz was elected president and immediately began to implement land reform and private ownership, enraging the large coffee plantations, United Fruit Company and the United States, which overthrew Arbenez via the CIA in 1954. All land reform was reversed, agricultural cooperatives destroyed and many thousands were murdered.
In 1962, Guatemala declared Civil War. In 1996, after decades of brutality resulting in hundreds of thousands of fatalities, a Peace Accord was finally signed and Guatemala was finally able to rebuild it’s coffee industry and infrastructure. Today, coffee associations such as the ASOBAGRI thrive, focusing on Mayan communities, member education, Fair Trade pricing and a program led by women called “Café con Manos de Mujer” (“Coffee from Women’s Hands”), which helps women landowners generate independent income to supplement their husband’s, improving the lives of their communities and children.