In the 1850s, aniline dyes (the first synthetic dye) were created and led to the end of the profitability of cochineal harvesting in Guatemala. Looking to the success of Costa Rica as a coffee producing country, Guatemala launched large scale coffee production in 1860.
Coffee growing was such a success that between 1867 and 1887, coffee exports increased 13 fold and Guatemala claimed stake to the 4th largest exporter of coffee by the turn of the century with large exporting farms accounting for the majority of this volume. Even in this early date, Guatemala coffee has such a reputation that farms were known by name in Europe.
However, the explosion of the coffee industry relied heavily on Guatemala’s highland Indigenous communities, and not because they wanted to.
To the planter class, Indigenous peoples were the most obvious source of this labour. However, with most export fincas being located on the coast most Indigenous had no interest in dealing with extreme heat and humidity and the increased instance of disease prevalent in these environments.
Beyond that, however, most communities had what was necessary to provide for their communities with subsistence agriculture and low scale commodity production and trade, so working in wage labour made little sense.
This, of course, was taken to mean by the landowning planter class that Indigenous people were too “passive or indolent” to engage in wage labour. Realizing also that if they engaged in a free labour market system for their services it was going to lead to a higher wage demand, they needed to find some way to compel these peoples to work on their farms for little money.
In 1873, Justo Rufino Barrios of the Liberal party would come to power through a large base of planter support. Driven to make coffee a major source of revenue, he enacted two large measures to ensure this — reordering or appropriation of indigenous lands and the mandamiento system.
Aware that peasant uprising had driven Rafael Carrera of the Conservative party to power only decades before, he handled land and resource manipulation carefully so as not to encourage a full on indigenous revolt. Instead, communities land rights were shrunk in order to reduce their ability to self sufficiency. Lowland areas were handed over to foreigners for export production and many indigenous lands were handed over to the ladino militias — the government’s armed violence vehicle in the rural areas of the country.
In 1876, Barrios enacted the day labourer or mandamiento regulation system which allowed planters to request labourers from the governors of their departments who would then chose an Indigenous community that would have to provide said labour.
Wages and travel costs were paid in advance to these labourers, but once accepted, these labourers were bound to work for the planter in question until their debts were paid in full. In essence, this was a system of debt peonage which gave the planter class — who were mostly German or ladino — complete control over the Indigenous labourers.
Their debts were tracked in a booklet, managed by the employer, and was often manipulated to show incorrect weights of coffee picked or simply to deny wages.
As a type of Catch 22, the only way indigenous people could be exempted from mandamientos was to prove they were already in debt peonage. If they had already been contracted to a specific farm and were home during the offseason but still owed money forcing them to return, they couldn’t be subject to an order from another farm.
As such, by the end of the 19th century year those officials sent to procure labourers found indigenous communities who had no labourers to give. In order to escape debt peonage, one had to succumb to it.
Resistance remained difficult. Technological advancement including telegraphs and repeating rifles were available to planters and their estates.
Sometimes communities could escape these mandamientos by pleading for the emergency need to tend their subsistence crops or by committing to public works contracts. Some sought exemptions due to age or illness or incapacity. When this failed whole families would flee into the most remote areas of the country. As authorities pushed further into the rural areas seeking their labour, many fled the country completely for Belize, Honduras or Mexico.
As the labour shortage continued on, those who couldn’t escape their draft were held in jails until time to leave for work and transported by armed guard to the fincas. They sought escape at the first opportunity.
Of prime concern to the indigenous of the highlands as disease. As these workers migrated back and forth between the coast and their villages, the heightened morbidity rates of the coast followed them.
Those who committed to ongoing debt peonage with a specific finca became the “lucky ones” as their continued health was important to the farmers. Those who were only on forced drafts and uncommitted to necessarily returning each year were treated horribly — poor living quarters, dirty water, and harshly punished for even the slightest transgression. Back in their communities, they struggled with disease so potent they couldn’t tend to their own land and fell into debt with other local landowners.
Over time this policy led to shifts within traditional indigenous culture. Members of the community that were in higher positions of authority found ways to exempt themselves their families and friends from the drafts. Most significantly, however, was the way this transfer of labour to the export economy affected the social and economic structures of highland communities.
For one, the cultivation of their own substance corn crops became increasingly impossible as the harvest of coffee took precedence and once they were in the coffee fields, they were often held back from returning despite fulfilling their required time.
As such, there was a direct parallel between the decline in highland agricultural output and the rise of coffee.
Where food shortages had been occasional in these communities before, they soon became widespread and severe. As these subsistence foods became more scarce, the prices rose and it became a necessity to seek money via labour contractors for the large fincas. The money they earned was then spent on their pressing daily needs, rather than in improving or maintaining subsistence framing.
All of this culminated in a trifecta of debt, poverty and malnutrition that came to not only effect these indigenous groups economically but also socially and culturally. Less time and money was available for reinvestment into their social structures.
As this productivity continued to decline, and local food prices continued to increase, cheap grain began to be imported from the United States therefore dismantling the ability for these communities to reap the benefit of high prices for corn and grain.
By the 1920s, the system became so entrenched that coffee growers saw the concept of free labour is a possibility. Wages had been driven down by debt peonage, and the highland communities were much more dependent on wage labour than previously.
In the 1930s, a population boom across Latin American began, one that is largely unexplained. Some suggest that it may have been due at least in part to plantation employment itself.
However, the effect of this sudden growth in population was that there remained even less resources available to these communities than previously. Those land restrictions imposed by the Barrios in the late 19th century meant the communities couldn’t expand sufficiently to meet their needs.
Over the course off 50 some years, due largely to expansion of coffee as an export product, the socio-economic formations of Highland indigenous communities were drastically changed.
European or ladino concepts of private land ownership, class differentiations within villages, appropriation of lands and resources, among other things meant that it was no longer necessary to enforce the mandamiento system.
Today, coffee continues to be Guatemala’s largest export. The mandamiento system and Barrio’s push to develop coffee as a vital part of the economy has had effects that still shape the country over a century later.
While these major export fincas dominated the industry for most of the twentieth century, there has been a huge growth in former coffee labourers beginning to grow and sell their own coffee. Numbers suggest at least 50,000 new growers have emerged in the last twenty years, doubling the total amount of producers in the country.
Many of these are, of course, indigenous. Like the Mataquescuintla group, these producers are typically very small producers using traditional family lands to grow coffee with the help of their families and day labourers. Despite this, the recent price crisis pushed many of these workers and farmers into migration.