A fungus known as coffee rust is affecting coffee plants, causing them to lose their leaves and produce fewer beans. Coffee is Guatemala’s main export and growers are warning of hundreds of potential job losses and reduced livelihoods.
The BBC’s reporter in Guatemala explains that the outbreak of the fungus, which is also affecting other countries in the region, is believed to be caused by climate change. A two-degrees rise in temperature, along with higher rainfall and increased humidity, provide the kind of conditions in which the fungus can thrive. The state aid will allow farmers to purchase pesticides which fight the fungus. But this blow to one of the mainstays of Guatemala’s economy couldn’t come at a worse time.
Guatemala already suffers from high levels of poverty – half the nation’s children under five are malnourished – and social unrest is growing. On a recent trip to the country, The Guardian’s reporter read about indigenous groups blocking operations at a mine, a citizen’s petition calling for electricity services to be nationalised as poor families are cut off and failed industrial talks between unions and the private sector.
Another issue causing unrest is the continued inequality caused by land ownership. Four-fifths of Guatemala’s fertile land is owned by around 5% of the population. And rather than being used to produce food for the populace, much of this land is dedicated to cash crops for export. This leaves the country paying a higher price for importing food basics. And in recent years, the problem has been further exacerbated by palm oil growing.
Campaigners were hoping that food security might improve with the passing of a new rural development law. This has been drawn up to promote wider access to land and introduce other rights for small farmers. The bill also contains proposals which would further the development of women and indigenous rural communities.
However, the bill failed to win the necessary number of votes to be passed into legislation last year, even though the changes it would introduce are considered of “national urgency” by many. The president of Congress and heads of parliamentary groups had promised to approve the bill, but the vested interests of powerful land owners proved stronger. As the spokesperson for one non-governmental organisation told The Guardian “monoculture production and extractive industries [have] been promoted in the last 22 years and this has been disastrous for many rural families.” The rural development bill will be further debated by Congress, but no one in Guatemala has any illusions how difficult it will be to get it passed.