‘No one is solvent’: Coffee crisis in Central America fuels record exodus north

Honduras/Guatemala — EL LAUREL/LA LAGUNETA — Mara Bonilla and Esteban Funes’ four sons all embarked on the perilous journey north, one of them at the age of ten, preferring the life of an unauthorised migrant in America to that of a coffee farmer in Central America.

“If it weren’t for my mother, I would also travel to the United States. It is superior there. Nobody is solvent here,” said Bonilla, 40, who is still battling the odds and turning a profit on her family farm in El Laurel, north-east Honduras.

Coffee does not support the livelihoods of many of the hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers who cultivate the delicate arabica beans used in the world’s finest coffee grounds. They are increasingly giving up, becoming part of a larger migrant flow to the US-Mexico border, which US data indicate has reached a record high this year.

The coffee crisis in Central America has sparked a mass exodus north.
Maria Bonilla, a coffee producer whose four sons made the perilous journey to the United States, stands in the kitchen of her house on a coffee farm in El Laurel, Olancho, Honduras, on Sept. 22, 2021. Reuters / Fredy Rodriguez
Francisca Hernández, 48, told Reuters that about a tenth of the 1,000 coffee farmers in her southern Guatemalan hamlet of La Laguneta had emigrated to the United States this year. Among them was her 23-year-old son, who was apprehended in Mexico while attempting to cross the border to the United States despite having paid $10,000 to a coyote, or people smuggler.

He eventually crossed the border in February and is now working in a restaurant in Ohio, sending approximately $300 per month home.

Migrant surges have occurred periodically from parts of Central America as fortunes in the coffee sector fluctuated. Nearly 5 million people in the region — roughly 10% — rely on the coffee sector for survival, according to the SICA intergovernmental group.

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

Farmers who have been accruing losses and debts for several years as a result of falling global prices and the loss of business to Brazil have now been overwhelmed by a devastating resurgence of “Roya,” or coffee leaf rust disease.

The coffee crisis in Central America has sparked a mass exodus north.
A house abandoned at a coffee farm in El Laurel, Olancho, Honduras, on Sept. 22, 2021, by its owners who emigrated to the United States. Reuters / Fredy Rodriguez
The fungal pathogen has been resurrected as a result of the intense humidity brought about by hurricanes Eta and Iota in late 2020, destroying crops and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

“When coffee is struggling, large migrations from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua occur,” said René León-Gómez, executive secretary of PROMECAFE, a regional research network comprised of Central America’s national coffee institutes.

Production in the region, where labor-intensive hand-picking of coffee is a way of life for many, has decreased by 10% since late 2017 and is expected to continue to decline in the coming season. This means that the global coffee market will become increasingly reliant on large, mechanised producers such as Brazil, and will become more susceptible to price spikes if the country’s crops are harmed by extreme weather.

Farmers migrate north as a last resort, León-Gómez explained. For years, they have been producing at a loss and frequently working on larger farms to supplement their income, he added.

“They’re committing suicide. That is the case.”

Read more • nbcnews.com

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