Technical cooperation stories
The calling of the land: How Eric López went from dreaming about migrating to becoming a successful Guatemalan coffee farmer
Guatemala City, 22 May 2020 (IICA). At the age of 18, after a failed attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps and migrate to the United States, Eric Lopez was detained for several days in Mexico. While in custody, he finally understood the meaning behind the words of his great-grandfather, who had founded the Buenavista Escobedo farm and, throughout his entire life, had thanked the land in San Antonio Huista, Guatemala, for its fertility.
“He used to say that everything they planted would grow. The farm grew bananas, oranges, sweet potato, cassava, sugarcane and limes”, recalled López during an interview with IICA.
“While I was in jail, I kept thinking about the fact that my homeland had fruits, jobs and food. I wondered why I had decided to suffer in a foreign land, and decided I should go back home—surely, I’d find a way to survive,” he added. “The experience encouraged me to return home and start working so that I would have something to grow. I had the basic necessities; all I had to do was wait for the rain to come, to start planting”.
Upon his return to Guatemala, López began working with a partner and, with his father’s help, was able to raise funds to revitalize the family farm, where his grandmother had stayed behind.
“The only job I liked was coffee farming, which I learned to do on the spot, because I did not receive any formal advice or training; I received no support whatsoever”, he remarked.
Today, with twice as many years of experience, López is one of the leading small-scale coffee farmers in San Antonio Huista, a beneficiary of the Central American Program for Integrated Coffee Rust Management (PROCAGICA), which IICA implements together with the European Union to improve the living conditions of rural dwellers in coffee-farming areas throughout Central America and the Dominican Republic.
López’s farm is located in the Recreo canton, 1,626 meters above sea level in the municipality of San Antonio de Huista, in the department of Huehuetanango, in northern Guatemala.
Little by little, Eric began realizing that he had to study to improve his farming knowledge. Today, he holds diplomas in various topics, including coffee farming and the use of pesticides and organic fertilizers, which has enabled him to grow coffee with minimal use of chemicals.
Six years ago, on becoming a member of the farming cooperative, Cooperativa Integral Agrícola (ASIAT), he began to receive extension support from the technical officers in the National Coffee Association (ANACAFE) and PROCAGICA, in the area of renovation of coffee plantations and crop diversification.
During one of the technical visits in 2016, López met some buyers from the international market and he now sells his coffee in Australia, the United States and Canada.
His success is in stark contrast to the fortunes of thousands of his countrymen. In 2019, Guatemala became the largest source of migrants attempting to enter the United States. According to official U.S. government statistics, more than 211,000 Guatemalans were detained at the South-East border, in the eight months between October and May.
The exodus was driven, to a great extent, by an approximately 60% decline in coffee prices: plummeting from USD 2.20 per pound in 2015 to a minimum of 86 cents in 2019.
In a recent interview with IICA, Bernardo Solano, President of the National Coffee Association (ANACAFÉ), explained that 204 of the 340 municipalities of Guatemala cultivate coffee, “and in many of them, coffee is the only income-generating crop for families. Ninety-seven percent of the coffee producing families in Guatemala cultivate on small plots”.
Coffee in the era of the pandemic
López opted to renovate his coffee trees and employ more advanced techniques, in order to develop his operations. The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed coffee exports, but fortunately it has not stopped them completely. At the start of May, he supervised a shipment to the United States.
He explained that, “By the grace of God, we have not had even one case of the virus in the San Antonio area. The authorities and the President restricted our movement from one district to another and we have been using masks. When we are working on the farm, we stand some distance away from other workers and we divide up our tasks”.
The PROCAGICA program offers ongoing technical assistance to López and other coffee farmers via WhatsApp, thanks to an online support strategy, providing information on preventive strategies to protect their health and technical recommendations to prevent the deterioration of production systems.
López explained that, “If we need assistance or guidance, for example, about a particular pest, they send us audio or text messages or photos”.
The program has also supplied him with improved and drought-resistant varieties of corn and bean seedlings, while providing him with technical advice on how to plant these crops, because, as he himself admits, “we can’t stick to the customs passed on from our parents”.
López himself has two children—14 and 10 years of age. He has already started to teach the older one about some aspects of agricultural work. “I tell him to learn about everything that is important in life, except stealing. You have to work, so that you can appreciate what it takes to earn what you have”.
Institutional Communication Division, IICA.