Strategies for International Development’s (SID’s) projects are located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. SID works in Northern Chimaltenango, the first of the Highland departments to the west of Guatemala City, the capital. We also work in Alta Verapaz, the Highland department to the north of the capital.
The two project areas are similar. The farmers have small plots of land; they grow corn and beans for home consumption; and coffee is the ideal cash crop. Both areas are 1,300 to 1,700 meters (a mile) above sea level, and farmers in both areas grow coffee for their income. Also, the coffee produced at these high altitudes is classified as “strictly hard” coffee, and exporters pay approximately 50% more for this type of coffee than they pay for the softer coffees produced at lower altitudes.
However, the farmers earn only a small portion of what they could earn from their coffee. They have low productivity, and they need to improve the shading, pruning, and fertilizing of their trees in order to increase their production and income. Also, they don’t husk their coffee. They sell it to local buyers called “coyotes” rather than husk it and sell it directly to exporters for a higher price.
Coffee plots at high altitudes are usually free of the plant diseases that infect coffee trees at lower altitudes. But in 2012 a major outbreak of coffee leaf rust swept through Central America, infecting coffee trees in Northern Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz as well as those at lower altitudes. The leaf rust is a fungus that attaches itself to the underside of the leaves of the coffee trees and reduces photosynthesis, the growth of the leaves, and the coffee fruit. As a result, farmers need to spray their trees with copper sulfate and lime to protect them against leaf rust.
The farmers live and farm on mountainsides, and they need to terrace their land to protect it from erosion. They use firewood for cooking, and they need to re-plant trees they cut to prevent mudslides during years of heavy rain.
The farmers in Northern Chimaltenango belong to the Kaq’chiquel community of Mayans, and the farmers in Alta Verapaz belong to the Q’eqchi and Poqomchi communities of Mayans.
Strategies for International Development (SID) began its first project in Guatemala in Northern Chimaltenango, the first of the Western Highland departments. We helped 600 farm families in the municipalities of Comalapa and San Martin find new buyers for their cash crops, make business plans, reclaim their hillside land, and increase their productivity and income. In 2005, SID expanded the program to another 600 families in 25 communities in the nearby municipality of Poaquil.
Farmers found new buyers for cash crops such as eggs, amaranth, coffee, artisanal weaving, and lemons. They made business plans, and they reclaimed and conserved their land by planting trees in the upper reaches of their watersheds and constructing slow-formation terraces on their farmland. They increased their productivity in corn by 22% and their productivity in beans by 16% percent. Coffee farmers increased their productivity by 62%, from 4.78 to 7.69 quintals per 1/4 acre (a quintal is equal to 100 pounds). All together, the farmers increased their sale of cash crops and their average annual income increased 116 percent, from $321 to $692.
A Focus on Coffee: 2007 to 2011
In 2007, SID changed the program to focus exclusively on coffee because coffee is the major cash crop in the region, and it offers the best opportunity for helping farmers make the full transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Most of the farmland is on mountainsides, and coffee is the ideal cash crop because the trees help hold the soil.
SID began the program with 1,044 coffee-farming families in 35 communities in the municipalities of Poaquil, Comalapa, and Jilotepeque. At the outset of the program, the farmers averaged 5 quintals of coffee (500 pounds) per 1/4 acre. They did not husk their coffee, and their average annual income from coffee was $131.
Every year we helped them meet and negotiate with exporters, assess their alternatives, make business plans, and improve their business decisions. During the remainder of the dry season and rainy season from April to November, we helped them increase their productivity by shading and pruning their trees and fertilizing them at least three times during the rainy season. We also helped them terrace their land and soil erosion on their hillside land. During the harvest season from December to March, we helped them husk and dry their coffee and sell it directly to exporters to gain a much higher price.
Every year, new farmers joined the program, and every year the old and new farmers increased their average productivity, husking and sales to exporters, and income. In the 2011/12 coffee year from April 2011 to March 2012, the 2,100 farm families in the program increased their productivity from 15.63 quintals per 1/4 acre to 17.66 quintals, husked and sold 50% of their coffee directly to exporters, and increased their average income from coffee to $1,058 a year.
Combating Coffee Leaf Rust: 2012 to 2014
In latter 2012, a severe attack of leaf rust swept through Central America. The leaf rust is an airborne, rust-colored fungus that attaches itself to the underside of the leaves of coffee trees and reduces photosynthesis and the growth of the leaves, coffee blossoms, and fruit. In the 2012/13 coffee year (April 2012 to March 2013), productivity fell by 13%. Most of the coffee was too small to husk, and husking fell to 7%. Average income fell by half, from $1,058 to $520.
In response, SID nearly doubled the number of families in the project and focused on helping them combat the leaf rust. We helped 4,402 farm families spray their coffee trees with copper sulfate and lime to kill the leaf rust. They also sprayed their trees with an anti-fungal, and they replaced severely infected trees with new coffee seedlings. In addition, they pruned their shade and coffee trees more aggressively to reduce the humidity in their coffee plots.
The famers gradually controlled the leaf rust, and in the 2013/14 coffee year they returned their productivity to 15 quintals per 1/4 acre, increased their husking and sales directly to exporters to 30% of their harvest, and they regained most of the income they had lost to the leaf rust by achieving an average income of $793.
Graduation in Chimaltenango, New Region in Alta Verapaz: 2015
In March 2016, SID graduated a third of the farmers from the project in Northern Chimaltenango and began a new project with coffee farmers in the Department of Alta Verapaz. For more information on this project, please go to Current Program.
Strategies for International Development (SID) carries out two projects in Guatemala: one in Northern Chimaltenango and the other in Alta Verapaz.
SID has been helping 4,400 coffee-growing families in 69 communities in Northern Chimaltenango to increase their income and make the full transition to successful commercial farming.
In April 2015, we graduated 1,450 families in 26 communities from the project because they had mastered basic business practices and the farming practices for reclaiming land, controlling coffee leaf rust, increasing productivity, and husking coffee. Also, they had successfully controlled the deadly attack of coffee leaf rust that caused a dramatic drop in their productivity, coffee husking, and income. In the harvest ending in March 2015, they returned their productivity from a low of 10.57 quintals per 1/4 acre to 15 quintals, their husking to 30% of the harvest, and their annual income to nearly a $1,000 a year from coffee.
In April 2016, SID graduated another 1,480 families and 22 communities from the project because they too had mastered the business practices and the farming practices that reclaim and increase productivity, husking, price, and income. Also, they had increased their productivity to more than 15 quintals per 1/4 hectare, their husking to more than 35%, and their income to more than $1,000 a year from coffee. SID is currently helping the remaining 1,270 farm families and 21 communities to (1) master their adoption of business practices, (2) fully adopt practices that prevent leaf rust, (3) adopt practices that increase productivity, and (4) increase husking of their coffee. They will graduate from the project in April 2017.
Alta Verapaz, Coffee Farmers in the Poorest Region of Guatemala
Alta Verapaz is the poorest region in Guatemala; 93% of the population is Mayan; and all the small coffee farmers are Mayan. Alta Verapaz also has more coffee farmers and more farmers who don’t husk their coffee than any other department in Guatemala. The 2008 census counted 75,575 coffee-producing families in Alta Verapaz or 24.6% of the national total of 307,626. Anacafé, Guatemala’s National Association of Coffee Producers, estimates that only 90,000 of the 307,626 coffee farmers husk their coffee, and SID estimates that at least 57,000 of the 75,575 coffee farmers in Alta Verapaz do not husk their coffee.
In September, SID began working in 22 communities of the Municipality of Tamahú, one of the poorest in Alta Verapaz, with over 800 coffee-farming families. The municipality consists of two large, long mountainsides that face each other, separated by a narrow river and a road that runs between them.
The situation in Tamahu was worse than we originally thought. When the coffee leaf rust struck, farmers in Tamahu did not receive any assistance and many farmers abandoned their coffee plots and went to work in Honduras. The great majority have returned to the area, but their coffee plantations were completely destroyed and had to start from zero. This has been a great challenge. However, Tamahu represents an even greater opportunity for helping poor farmers graduate from poverty than many other areas of Alta Verapaz, and it is an excellent place to commence our work.
SID began helping the coffee farmers to adopt basic business practices, control leaf rust, renovate their coffee plots, and increase productivity and husking. The increase in productivity and income was small but significant. Farmers in Tamahu have an average of 12 cuerdas of 21 meters by 21 meters (.53 hectares) for coffee. Because of the leaf rust, they had a baseline of 3 cuerdas in production and 3 quintals per cuerda. They were able to add another cuerda in production, increase productivity from 3 to 5 quintals per cuerda, and more than double their income. Husking was so small that it was difficult to measure. Farmers were able to increase their income from an average of $166 to $368 a year from coffee.
Alta Verapaz, Coffee Farmers in the Poorest Region of Guatemala
In September, SID began a new project with 800 coffee farmers in the 22 communities of the Municipality of Tamahu in the Department of Alta Verapaz. In the first year of the project, they were able to add another cuerda in production, increase productivity from 3 to 5 quintals per cuerda, and more increase their income from an average of $166 to $368 a year from coffee.
The 800 coffee-farming families of Tamahú began terracing their coffee plots, leaving strips of grass between the rows, growing shade trees in family nurseries, and planting shade trees on new coffee plots in order to control erosion from water flowing down the mountainsides during the rainy season. The farmers have an average of 0.53 hectares of coffee, and together they are putting 424 hectares of mountainside land under reliable land reclamation and conservation practices.
Northern Chimaltenango, Combating Coffee Leaf Rust: 2012 to 2016
The results for the project to help farmers combat coffee leaf rust are summarized in the table which follows. The coffee year begins in April and ends with the completion of the harvest in March. 2012/13 is the year from April 2012 to March 2013, and the April to March coffee year continues for the years thereafter. Approximately a third of the farmers and communities were able to return their productivity, husking, and income to pre-leaf rust levels by the end of the 2014/15 year, and they graduated from the program at that time.
The priority of the project was to help farmers successfully combat the coffee leaf rust. As such, there was no emphasis on the practices for reclaiming and conserving their mountainside land. However, more than half the farmers had adopted these practices during the previous project, as described below, and they had become part of their standard agricultural practice.
Northern Chimaltenango, A Focus on Coffee: 2007 to 2011
The Northern Chimaltenango coffee-farming families put all of their land under good land reclamation practices over the course of the project. They used continuous terracing of their coffee plots to control erosion of steeper mountainsides. They created slow-formation terraces by planting strips of reeds or assembling rows of wood and stone across the contours of less steep land. They dug water absorption wells and ditches to slow the downward rush of rainwater on extremely steep slopes. In the last year or two of the project, they had terraced all their land, and the practices switched to maintaining the terraces, wells, and ditches. The farmers have an average of 2 1/4 acres of farmland. As such, they put nearly 5,000 acres or 2,000 hectares of farmland under good erosion-control, land-conservation practices.
The coffee project also helped farmers increase productivity and husk their coffee and gain a higher price by selling directly to exporters. The increases in income were significant, and every year more farmers joined the project.