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Weaknesses in the rule of law, and a climate of criminality and violence are major drivers pushing Hondurans to join the migrant caravan now headed towards the United States, but they mask an even bigger problem – massive economic inequality.
One in five Hondurans in rural areas lives in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.90 per day. Throughout the country, unemployment is rife – with the root of this problem lying in the decline of coffee farming.
Coffee accounts for 10 percent of Honduras’ GDP, but with prices in freefall and crops decimated by rusts linked to warmer temperatures brought on by climate change, Hondurans are seeing their livelihoods wiped out.
With an estimated 400 million cups of coffee drunk in the U.S. alone every day, coffee companies are seeing their businesses boom. But despite marketing campaigns focusing on the importance of the people that grow their product, farmers are not getting their share of the profits in the form of fair prices.
Since the start of the decade, global coffee prices have fallen 40 percent. In an attempt to protect their profits, the big coffee roasters and sellers are passing the burden of falling prices onto farmers, leaving them caught in a debt spiral and having to borrow money to make it through to harvest. A lack of access to banking services forces farmers to borrow from local money lenders at extortionate rates, pushing them further into debt.
Faced with mounting costs they can’t cover, some farmers are leaving their crops to rot in their fields, as the cost of harvesting is too high. Those that decide to harvest have to cut costs, and they do this by reducing the salaries of the seasonal workers that keep their farms going for three to four months of the year.
According to the Honduras Coffee Institute (HCAF), 1.5 million jobs are created during coffee season. When coffee prices were good, a coffee picker would expect to make $10 a day. But at the moment, workers are being paid only half that – far below the $8.50 a day minimum wage, which is set by the Honduran government’s Labor Ministry.
Faced with such a big drop in their income, many coffee pickers are forced to look for work elsewhere. But with high crime and high unemployment in Honduras’ towns and cities limiting access to paid work, many see leaving as their only option.
“During coffee cutting season, I hire 6 coffee pickers for my 4.9-acre farm. As this is a seasonal job, these coffee pickers also help other producers or harvest their own coffee,” said Omar Argueta, a coffee producer from Santiago de Puringla in Honduras’ La Paz Department.
“In my community alone, 10 producers and coffee pickers have left to other countries in search of opportunities in the past year.”
But with the right support, rural communities in Honduras can provide secure incomes and help families stay at home. Argueta and other farmers have diversified their farms to grow food crops, raise chickens and produce honey with support from Heifer International, so they become less reliant on income from coffee.
“Besides producing coffee, I have started keeping bees. Diversifying has helped me when there’s a tough coffee production year, as honey sales compensate, and I try to reinvest in it. This has allowed me and my family to survive,” said Argueta.
With support to set up and expand small and medium enterprises so they can market their vegetables, honey and other products, people living in coffee-producing areas become less reliant on seasonal jobs. The programs target young men and women, in particular, who are usually among the first to migrate.
But while diversifying incomes reduces farmers’ exposure to risks from coffee prices and climate change, the coffee system also needs to change.
Farmers must be able to make a living income from their coffee. If big coffee companies pay farmers a fair price, they can support large numbers of families with decent access to nutritious food, education, public safety and housing in Honduras, and help them to stay in their communities.
Oscar Castañeda is senior vice president for the Americas at Heifer International.