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Lessons From 10 Years of Working With Coffee Farmers in the Americas

Guatemalan mother Irma Consuelo Cano considered migrating to the U.S. (Credit: Heifer International)

Photo: Guatemalan mother Irma Consuelo Cano considered migrating to the U.S. Credit: Heifer International.

Irma Consuelo Cano was tempted to leave her coffee-growing community in the highlands of western Guatemala to seek work in the U.S. to earn more money for her children. However, she developed second thoughts when she began considering what her children’s lives would be like if she left them behind. She finally decided not to leave her hometown of Aldea Rancho Viejo. What got her to stay? Honeybees.

She and other women in the village joined an economic development project that taught them how to raise the bees and sell honey. Each family got 15 beehives, which were managed by the women in the households. They were eventually able to produce enough honey to supply 25 percent of the family’s income.

“The project helped us a lot economically, but it also helped to value us as women,” Cano said.

Photo: A Guatemalan woman works with her beehives in the village of Tuiboch. Credit: Heifer International.

Developing beekeeping and other ways for people to diversify their incomes and become less reliant on volatile cash crops, such as coffee, will become increasingly important, says my colleague Dr. Oscar Castañeda, Vice President for the Americas at Heifer.

A stricter U.S. immigration policy will discourage more people from seeking work in the U.S. and will likely also result in an increased flow of people back to Latin America, Castañeda says in a recent guest commentary for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Food for Thought blog.

But if would-be and returning immigrants cannot afford to provide for their families at home, the security and stability in Latin American countries could become increasingly tenuous. Development organizations can play an important role by strengthening local economies and helping families earn living incomes and lead lives of dignity.

Heifer describes its strategy for helping coffee growers become more resilient and develop their small farms in a new report, Ten Years of Coffee in the Americas. The past decade was a tumultuous time for smallholder farmers. Many of them in Mexico and Central America lost their crops to the plant-choking coffee rust fungus, or "la roya."

A boy enjoys honey in Santa Avelina, Guatemala. (Credit: Heifer International)

Photo: A boy enjoys honey in Santa Avelina, Guatemala. Credit: Heifer International.

Amid such disasters, the key to helping people keep their farms is a two-pronged strategy, says Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick, a scholar-in-residence at Heifer and an associate professor of economics at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

In a recent opinion piece in Devex, Fitzpatrick states that the first prong helps farmers boost productivity and stimulates new economic opportunities. This is done by improving agroecological practices that minimize disease, improve yields, increase soil fertility and curtail erosion. Farmers also need to find ways to add value to their product by improving the process of washing, fermenting and drying coffee beans. Cooperatives can add value by providing marketing, financial and entrepreneurship development.

Photo: A mother and child inspect coffee in the village of Arenales in Honduras. Credit: Heifer International.

The second prong of the approach focuses on food security and diversifying income so farmers can endure periods of crisis and the lean months between harvests. Livestock — cows, goats, chickens and guinea pigs — were provided along with training in animal management. The animals helped improve nutrition, and the surplus meat and milk were sold for extra income. Home gardens were also expanded.

Beekeeping proved to be an excellent complement to coffee farming because the initial cost of bees is low, the market is underserved and bees enhance productivity in coffee fields.

Empowering women was key because they often cared for the livestock and tended the gardens. They also trained other women and set up local markets, serving as the entrepreneurs and provisioners of household food security.

I think the two-pronged strategy that addresses business development and food security serves as an important model for development organizations seeking to help Latin American communities adapt to changing U.S. policies on immigration.