How the Coffee Market is Pushing Central Americans to Migrate to the U.S. Border

A photograph of the author, Jason Woods.

By Jason Woods

July 3, 2019

How the Coffee Market is Pushing Central Americans to Migrate to the U.S. Border

In This Article

  • Thousands of Central American migrants have traveled to the U.S./Mexico border this year.
  • Many of those migrants are coffee farmers.
  • A low market price for coffee makes it impossible for Central American farmers to earn a living wage.

A sustained drop in the coffee market is causing thousands of Central American farmers to leave their homes behind to make the dangerous journey to the United States.

Latin American migrants crossing the border between the United States and Mexico has become a perennial news item in our country. Traditionally, single men from Mexico seeking seasonal work were most likely to cross north. But in recent years, it’s been much more common that migrants are Central American families fleeing violence, the effects of climate change or a lack of economic opportunities. This is particularly true for coffee farmers, who are no longer able to make a living because of the staggeringly low market price for coffee, despite it ultimately being sold for high prices in the U.S. and abroad.

Illustration by Lauren Puchowski

Recently, news outlets have been focusing more on the debilitating effect low market prices have had on coffee producers. Our CEO, Pierre Ferrari, wrote about how coffee farmers can’t feed themselves in the current market and how, ethically, coffee companies should be paying a living wage to farmers.

Here’s more insight into the coffee crisis and its consequences:

A perfect storm is contributing to the uphill battle that coffee farmers in Guatemala face, and that’s a major contributing factor to the number of migrants traveling north to the U.S., writes Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post. The piece jumpstarted a conversation about the issue. Cheap, mechanized coffee in Brazil, climate change and a persistent plant fungus are all contributing factros. Sieff quotes Ric Rhinehart, the former executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America: “All of us are deeply concerned that we’ve reached the end of coffee producing as a sustainable livelihood for much of Mesoamerica.”

In parts of the Guatemalan highlands, locals say there are two options: “grow coffee or migrate.” Although coffee farmers face a multitude of challenges, low coffee prices are what finally drive them to choose the latter.

Central America is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change, and it is destroying coffee farms.

Coffee prices have dropped 60 percent in the last four years, and most Guatemalan coffee farmers have been operating at a loss since 2017.