- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

CANDELARIA XOLHUITZ, Guatemala Oliverio Fajardo tramped through his steamy coffee farm, ducking under overhanging limbs and gently brushing aside branches that in a few months will be loaded with bright green coffee beans.

For two decades, those beans have earned him a very good living, but now when he surveys his crop his face is full of doubt and worry.

"Last year, we made no money at all," he said, examining a row of tiny buds that will soon turn into beans. "The price is the worst I've seen since we started farming, and I fear it's not going to get better soon. Some of the farmers here have already abandoned their fields."

Coffee prices are at a 100-year low, with little sign of climbing higher, a situation that has brought economic calamity to thousands of farmers across Central America and other parts of the world.

The culprit is a worldwide coffee glut, triggered by a boom in production, as governments with fertile land suitable for coffee have turned to the traditionally high-priced crop as their best hope for economic growth.

Large coffee plantation owners are hurting, too, but hit hardest are communities such as Candelaria Xolhuitz, where coffee has provided poor farmers with tiny plots of land the chance to earn a decent living. The farms also support thousands of landless peasants who work the fields.

"There are estimates that as many as 250,000 coffee workers have been put out of work in Guatemala alone," said Jeroen Bollen, 34, who works for Manos Campesinas (Farmer's Hands), a Guatemalan coffee cooperative that helps farmers pool their crops and sell for better prices. "It's hurting both large and small producers, but the small farmers are feeling it worse because they have no alternative."

Just a few years ago, Central American farmers received from $100 to $200 for a 100-pound bag of coffee, depending on the quality of their beans. This year, the price fell as low as $50 per bag, which most farmers say is below their cost of production.

Production has been rising by 3.5 percent a year, while worldwide coffee demand is growing about 1.5 percent. Brazil, already the world's largest coffee producer, has doubled its production in the past five years, while Vietnam tripled its output and rivals Colombia as the world's No. 2 producer.

The impact has been devastating in Latin America, where coffee has long been the top export and a steady source of income for economies dominated by farm products. As many as 150,000 farm workers have been laid off in Nicaragua, while Colombia's coffee industry has closed many of its international marketing offices to cut costs.

The impact of the crisis has been magnified by a terrible drought across much of Central America, which has wiped out the corn and bean crops, which many rural families depend on for food. Poor farmers have traditionally supplemented their income by working in the coffee fields, but that work is no longer available or pays as little as $1.50 per day, about half the wages of just a few years ago.

In Candelaria Xolhuitz, a village about 30 miles southeast of the Mexican border in the Guatemalan highlands, Carlos Lopez has watched as 55 of the 70 families in his neighborhood have packed up and moved away, searching for work in other parts of Guatemala or in nearby Mexico.

"Some of them are coming back every few months to tend to their coffee trees, but many of them have just abandoned their land," he said. "The ones who stayed can't afford books and clothes to send their children to school. I've been lucky enough to find enough work to get by, but now I buy food on a day-to-day basis. I can't afford anything more."

Jose Maria Funes, 40, another resident of the village, did well enough with his coffee farm to open a small bakery that employed two men and supplemented his coffee earnings.

"First, I had to let one baker go, and then the other quit because I was paying him by how much he baked and there wasn't enough demand for him to make a living," Mr. Funes said. "Nobody has enough money anymore even to buy bread."

The story is the same across much of Guatemala, where thousands of families depend on one- to two-acre plots of coffee as their main source of income. Thousands of others work the coffee fields, many hoping to buy enough land to raise their own trees.

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