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published on July 15, 2000

Brazil Coffee Kingdom: Part I

by Mark Pendergrast


Portinari Project
Coffee Farm Worker by Candido Portinari
You believe perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugarcane nor coffee trees there. - Karl Marx, 1848

By the time Marx uttered these words, coffee cultivation in the West Indies was already declining. However, over the next half century -- before 1900 -- non-native coffee would conquer Brazil, Venezuela, and most of Central America (as well as a good portion of India, Ceylon, Java, and Colombia). In the process, the bean would help shape laws and governments, delay the abolition of slavery, exacerbate social inequities, affect the natural environment, and provide the engine for growth, especially in Brazil, which became the dominant force in the coffee world during this period. "Brazil did not simply respond to world demand," observes coffee history Steven Topik, "but helped create it by producing enough coffee cheaply enough to make it affordable for members of North America's and Europe's working classes."

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Yet coffee did not make much of an impression in Brazil or Central America until the colonies broke away from Spanish and Portuguese rule, in 1821 and 1822. In November 1807, when Napoleon's forces captured Lisbon, they literally drove the Portuguese royal family into the sea. On British ships, the royal family found its way to Rio de Janeiro, where King John VI took up residence. He declared Brazil to be a kingdom and promoted agriculture with new varieties of coffee, grown experimentally at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Rio and distributed as seedlings to planters. When a revolution in Portugal forced John VI to return to Europe in 1820, he left behind his son, Dom Pedro, as regent.

Most Latin American countries, sick of the colonial yoke, soon broke away, led by Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico, followed by Central America, and finally, in 1822, by Dom Pedro in Brazil, who had himself crowned Emperor Pedro I. In 1831, under pressure from populists, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his son Pedro, who was only five. Nine years later, after a period of rebellion, chaos, and control by regents, Pedro II took over by popular demand at the age of fourteen. Under his long rule, coffee would become king in Brazil.[1]

Brazil's Fazendas

Brazil has become so closely identified with coffee that many people believe the plant originated there. What happened in Brazil exemplifies the benefits and hazards of relying heavily on one product. Coffee made modern Brazil, but at an enormous human and environmental cost.

At over three million square miles, Brazil is the world's fifth largest country. Beginning just south of the equator, it occupies almost half of South America, knocking against 4,600 miles of the Atlantic on the east and the upthrusting Andes to the west, stretching north to the Guiana Highland and the Plata Basin in the south. The Portuguese, who discovered, exploited, and subjugated Brazil, were initially enchanted with the country. In 1560, a Jesuit priest wrote, "If there is paradise here on earth, I would say it is in Brazil."

Unfortunately, the Portuguese proceeded to destroy much of that paradise. The sugar plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries had established the pattern of huge fazendas (plantations) owned by the elite, where slaves worked in unimaginably awful conditions. It was cheaper to import new slaves than to maintain the health of existing laborers, and as a result, slaves died after an average of seven years. Growing cane eventually turned much of the Northeast into an arid savanna.

As sugar prices weakened in the 1820s, capital and labor migrated to the southeast in response to the coffee expansion in the region's Paraiba Valley. While Francisco de Melo Palheta had brought seeds to Para in the northern tropics, coffee grew much better in the more moderate weather of the mountains near Rio de Janeiro, where it had been introduced by a Belgian monk in 1774. The virgin soil, the famed terra roxa (red clay), had not been farmed because of a gold and diamond mining boom of the 18th century. Now that the precious minerals were depleted, the mules that had once carted gold could transport beans down already-developed tracks to the sea, while the surviving mining slaves could switch to coffee harvesting. As coffee cultivation grew, so did slave imports to Rio, rising from 26,254 in 1825 to 43,555 in 1828. By this time, well over a million slaves labored in Brazil, comprising nearly a third of the country's population.

In order to placate the British, who by then had outlawed the slave trade, the Brazilians made the importation of slaves illegal in 1831 but failed to enforce the law. Slavery's days were clearly numbered, however, and so the slavers, attempting to take advantage of the time left to them, increased the number of slaves imported annually from 20,000 in 1845 to 50,000 the following year, and 60,000 by 1848.

When British warships began to capture slave boats, the Brazilian legislature was forced to pass the Queiroz Law of 1850, truly banning slave importation. Still, some two million already in the country remained in bondage. A system of huge plantations, known as latifundia, promoted a way of life reminiscent of the slave plantations of the Old South in the United States, and coffee growers became some of the wealthiest men in Brazil.

In 1857, American clergyman J. C. Fletcher wrote of his visit to the 64 square mile coffee fazenda of Commendador Silva Pinto in Minas Gerais. "He lives in true baronial style," Fletcher commented appreciatively. In the huge dining room, three servants came, bearing "a massive silver bowl a foot and a half in diameter." Later, he listened to fifteen slave musicians playing an overture to an opera, after which the black choir sang a Latin mass.

A few years later, a traveler in the Paraiba Valley described a typical slave schedule. Though not the same plantation visited by Fletcher, the conditions under which the slaves labored were probably similar:

“The negroes are kept under a rigid surveillance, and the work is regulated as by machinery. At four o'clock in the morning all hands are called out to sing prayers, after which they file off to their work.... At seven [p.m.] files move wearily back to the house.... After that all are dispersed to household and mill-work until nine o'clock; then the men and women are locked up in separate quarters, and left to sleep seven hours, to prepare for the seventeen hours of almost uninterrupted labor on the succeeding day.”

Although some plantation owners treated their slaves decently, others forced them into private sadistic orgies. Beatings and murders were not subject to public scrutiny, and slaves were buried on plantations without death certificates. Slave children were frequently sold away from their parents. Constantly on guard against slave retalation -- a scorpion in the boot or ground glass in the corn meal -- owners always went armed. "On this plantation," one owner proclaimed, "I am the pope." Slaves were regarded as subhuman, "forming a link in the chain of animated beings between ourselves and the various species of brute animals," as one slaveholder explained to his son. Brazil maintained slavery longer than any other country in the Western hemisphere. In 1871, Pedro II, who had freed his own slaves over thirty years before, declared the "law of the free womb," specifying that all new-born offspring of slaves from then on would be free. He thus guaranteed a gradual extinction of slavery. Even so, growers and politicians fought against abolition. "Brazil is coffee," one Brazilian member of parliament declared in 1880, "and coffee is the negro."[2]

War Against the Land

In his book, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, ecological historian Warren Dean documented the devastating effect that coffee had upon Brazil's environment. During the winter months of May, June, and July, gangs of workers would begin at the base of a hill, chopping through the tree trunks just enough to leave them standing. "Then it was the foreman's task to decide which was the master tree, the giant that would be cut all the way through, bringing down all the others with it," Dean wrote. "If he succeeded, the entire hillside collapsed with a tremendous explosion, raising a cloud of debris, swarms of parrots, toucans, [and] songbirds." After drying for a few weeks, the felled giants were set afire. As a result, a permanent yellow pall hung in the air at the end of the dry season, obscuring the sun. "The terrain," Dean observed, "resembled some modern battlefield, blackened, smoldering, and desolate."

At the end of this conflagration, a temporary fertilizer of ash on top of the virgin soil gave a jump-start for year-old coffee seedlings, grown in shaded nurseries from hand-pulped seeds before being transplanted. The coffee, grown in full sun rather than shade, sucked nutrition out of the depleting humus layer relatively quickly. Cultivation practices -- rows planted up and down hills that encouraged erosion, with little fertilizer input -- guaranteed wildly fluctuating harvests. Coffee trees always need a "rest" the year after a heavy bearing season, but Brazilian conditions exacerbated the phenomenon. When the land was "tired," as the Brazilian farmer put it, it was simply abandoned and new swaths of forest were then cleared. Unlike the northern arboreal forests, these tropical rain forests, once destroyed, would take centuries to regenerate.[3]

How to Grow and Harvest Brazilian Coffee

The Brazilians quickly learned the rudiments of coffee-growing and harvesting, much of it universal to the plant wherever it grows. Their agricultural methods required the least possible effort and generally emphasized quantity over quality. The general way Brazilians grow coffee remains largely unchanged over a hundred years later.[*a] Coffee thrives best in disintegrated volcanic rock mixed with decayed vegetation, which describes the red clay, the terra roxa, of Brazil. Once planted, it takes three or four years for a tree to bear a decent crop. In Brazil, each tree produces delicate white flowers three and sometimes four times a year (in other areas of the world, there can be only one or two flowerings). It is common in many parts of the world to see blossoms, green berries, and ripe cherries all on the same tree. The white explosion, which takes place just after a heavy rain, is breath-taking, aromatic, and brief. Most coffee trees are self-pollinating, allowing the monoculture to thrive without other nearby plants to attract honeybees.

The moment of flowering, followed by the first growth of the tiny berry, is crucial for coffee-growers. A heavy wind or hail can destroy an entire crop. Arabica coffee (the only type known until the end of the 19th century) grows best between 3,000 and 6,000 feet in areas with a mean annual temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, never straying below freezing, never going much above 80 degrees. The high-grown coffee bean, developing slowly, is generally more dense and flavorful than lower growths.

Unfortunately for Brazil's coffee, 95 percent of the country rests below 3,000 feet, so that Brazilian beans have always tended to lack acidity and body. Worse, Brazil suffers from periodic frosts and droughts, which have increased in intensity and frequency as the protective forest cover has been destroyed. Coffee cannot stand a hard frost, and it needs plenty of rain (70 inches a year) as well. The Brazilian harvest begins soon after the end of the rains, usually in May, and continues for six months. Because Brazilian coffee is cultivated without shade, it grows even more quickly, depleting the soil unless artificially fertilized.

Coffee trees are usually pruned on a regular basis. Still, most trees in the early Brazilian fazendas required ladders for the harvest. Trees will produce well for fifteen years or so, though some have been known to bear productively for as long as 20 or even 30 years. When trees no longer bear well, they can be "stumped" near the ground, then pruned so that only the strongest shoots survive. On average -- depending on the tree variety and growing conditions -- one tree will yield five pounds of fruit, translating eventually to one pound of dried beans.

Coffee is ripe when the green berry turns a rich wine red (or, in odd varieties, yellow). It looks a bit like a cranberry or cherry (which is why it is in fact called a "coffee cherry") though it is more oval-shaped. Growers test a cherry by squeezing it between thumb and forefinger. If the seed squirts out easily, it is ripe. What is left in the hand -- the red skin, along with a bit of flesh -- is called the "pulp." What squishes out is a gummy mucilage sticking to the parchment. Inside are the two seeds, covered by the diaphonous silverskin.

The traditional method of removing the bean from nature's multiple wrappings, known as the "dry method," is still the favored method of processing most Brazilian coffee. The ripe (and unripe) cherries, along with buds and leaves, are stripped from the branches onto big tarps spread under the trees. They are then spread to dry on huge patios. They must be turned several times a day, then gathered up and covered against the dew at night, then spread to dry again. If the berries are not spread thinly enough, they may ferment inside the skin, developing unpleasant or "off" tastes. When the skins are shriveled, hard, and nearly black, the husks are removed by pounding on them. In the early days, the coffee was often left in its parchment covering for export, though by the late 19th century, machines took off the husks and parchment, sized the beans, and even polished them.

The dry method often yielded poor results, particularly in the Rio area. Since ripe and unripe cherries were stripped together, the coffee's taste was compromised from the outset. The beans might also lay on the ground for so long that they would develop mold or absorb other unpleasant earthy tastes that came to be known as a "Rioy" flavor (strong, iodine-like, malodorous, rank).[*b] Some Rio coffee, however, was hand-picked, carefully segregated, and gently depulped. Called "Golden Rio," it was much in demand.[4]

From Slaves to Colonos

By the late 19th century, the Rio coffee lands were dying. The Rio region was "quickly ruined by a plant whose destructive form of cultivation left forests razed, natural reserves exhausted, and general decadence in its wake," wrote Eduardo Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America. "Previously virgin lands were pitilessly eroded as the plunder-march of coffee advanced." As a result, the main coffee planting region moved south and west to the plateaus of São Paulo, which would become the productive engine for Brazilian coffee and industry.

With prices continually rising throughout the 1860s and 1870s, coffee monoculture seemed a sure way to riches.[*c] The new coffee men, the Paulistas of São Paulo, considered themselves progressive, modern businessmen compared to the old-fashioned baronial lords of Rio coffee. In 1867, the first Santos railway to a coffee-growing region was completed. In the 1870s, the Paulistas pushed for more technological change and innovation -- primarily to advance the sale of coffee. In 1874, Pedro II dictated the first message to Europe on a new submarine cable, facilitating communication with a major market. By the following year, 29 percent of the boats entering Brazilian harbors were powered by steam rather than sail.

Railroads quickly replaced the mule as the preferred method of transporting beans from the interior to the sea. In 1874, there were only 800 miles of track; by 1889, there were 6,000 miles. The lines typically ran directly from coffee growing regions to the ports of Santos or Rio. They did not serve to bind regions of the country together. Rather, they deepened dependency on foreign trade.

After 1850, with the banning of slave importation, coffee growers experimented with alternative labor schemes. At first, the planters paid for the transportation of European immigrants, giving them a house and assigning a specific number of coffee trees to tend, harvest, and process, along with a piece of land so that they could grow their own food. The catch was that the sharecroppers had to pay off the debt they incurred for the transportation costs, along with other advances. Since it was illegal for the immigrants to move off the plantation until all debts were repaid -- which typically took years -- this amounted to debt peonage, another form of slavery. Thus it was no surprise when Swiss and German workers revolted in 1856.

The Paulista farmers finally gained enough political clout, in 1884, to persuade the Brazilian government to pay for immigrants' transportation costs, so that the new laborers did not arrive with a pre-existing debt burden. These colonos, mostly poor Italians, flooded São Paulo plantations. Between 1884 and 1914, more than a million immigrants arrived to work on the coffee farms. Some eventually managed to secure their own land.[*d] Others earned just enough to return to their homelands, embittered and discouraged. Because of the poor working and living conditions, most plantations maintained a band of capangas, armed guards who carried out the planter's will. One much-hated owner, Francisco Augusto Almeida Prado, was hacked to pieces by his colonos when he strolled through his fields unprotected.[5]

The Brazilian Coffee Legacy

The Brazilian coffee farmers did not think of themselves as oppressors, however; on the contrary, they considered themselves enlightened and progressive, wishing to enter the modern world and to industrialize with the profits from coffee. After concluding that the colono system produced coffee much more cheaply than slavery, the Brazilian coffee farmers led the charge for abolition, which occurred when the aging Dom Pedro II was out of the country. His daughter, Princess-Regent Isabel, signed the "Golden Law" on May 13, 1888, liberating the remaining three-quarters of a million slaves. A year later, the planters helped oust Pedro in favor of a republic that would, for years, be run by the coffee planters of São Paulo and the neighboring province of Minas Gerais.

Unfortunately, the liberation of the slaves did nothing to improve the lot of black workers. "Everything in this world changes," a popular verse went, "Only the life of the Negro remains the same: / He works to die of hunger, / The 13th of May fooled him!" The planters favored European immigrants because they considered them genetically superior to those of African descent, who increasingly found themselves even more marginalized.

In the coming years, under the colono system, coffee production would explode, from 5.5 million bags in the 1890 to 16.3 million in 1901. Coffee planting doubled in the decade following abolition, and by the turn of the century, over 500 million coffee trees grew in the state of São Paulo. Brazil flooded the world with coffee. This over-reliance on one crop had a direct effect on the well-being of most Brazilians. A contemporary writer observed that "many articles of ordinary food required for the consumption of the [Brazilian] people, and which could easily be grown on the spot, continue to be largely imported, notably flour.... Brazil is suffering severely for having overdone Coffee cultivation and neglected the raising of food products needed by her people."[6]

Guatemala and Neighbors: Forced Labor, Bloody Coffee

At the same time that Brazil led the coffee boom, Central America came to rely on the same imported plant, with similar results. Except for Costa Rica, where coffee paired with a more egalitarian ethos, the new crop spelled disaster for the indigenous people while it enriched the rising coffee oligarchy. The history of Guatemala exemplifies that of the entire region. In contrast with land-rich Brazil, Guatemala is slightly smaller than Tennessee, tucked between Mexico and Belize to the north and Honduras and El Salvador to the south. Known as "the Land of the Eternal Spring," Guatemala is one of the most exquisite places on earth, as one visitor wrote in 1841:

The situation was ravishingly beautiful, at the base and under the shade of the Volcano de Agua, and the view was bounded on all sides by mountains of perpetual green; the morning air was soft and balmy, but pure and refreshing.... I never saw a more beautiful spot on which man could desire to pass his allotted time on earth.

Beautiful, but troubled. Below all of Central America, tectonic plates grind against one another, occasionally spewing lava into the air through one of the innumerable volcanoes in the region, or shaking the earth to remind humans that the world -- at least this part of the world -- is not a stable place. A great deal of the man-made problems, however, stemmed from the way the region's coffee economy developed in the late nineteenth century.

After declaring independence from Spain in 1821, the Central American states united in an uneasy alliance until 1838, when a revolt led by Rafael Carrera in Guatemala led to its demise, and the countries of Central America permanently split.

Carrera, part Indian himself, was the charismatic peasant leader of the indigenous Mayan Indians,[*e] who had been harshly treated by the "Liberal" Mariano Gálvez government. In Central America, the Conservatives generally supported the Catholic church and the old guard Spanish descendants, while protecting Indians in a paternalistic manner. Liberals, on the other hand, favored the rising middle class, challenged the church's power, and sought to "civilize" the Indians.

Under Gálvez, lands which had been held in common by indigenous villages were increasingly confiscated, forcing Indians to become sharecroppers or debt peons. Many Indian children were taken from their parents and assigned to "Protectors," who often treated them as indentured servants. As a result of these policies, the Mayans retreated higher into the mountains and the altiplano, the high plateau, where the land was not so desirable.

Carrera, who aligned himself with the Conservatives, effectively ruled from 1839 until his death in 1865. Although a dictator who amassed a personal fortune, he was extremely popular with the indigenous peoples. He respected native cultures, protected Indians as well as he could, and tried to incorporate them into his government.

In the 1840s, Guatemala's export economy was based on cochineal -- a dye produced by a small insect which fed on a cactus. The dried insects yielded a brilliant red that was much in demand in Europe. Carrera encouraged agricultural diversification, however, away from the monoculture of cochineal. He was more concerned about the internal self-sufficiency of Guatemala than with an excessive reliance on foreign markets. When Europeans invented synthetic analine dyes in 1856, and it became clear that cochineal's days were numbered, Carrera approved of the growth of coffee instead. Three years before, coffee beans had appeared among the country's official exports for the first time. But the president also encouraged cotton and sugar.[*f]

By the time of Carrera's death, and for the few years following, during the rule of Vicente Cerna (1865-1871), the profits from coffee continued to grow. The sides of Guatemala's volcanoes -- particularly on the Pacific side -- proved to be perfectly suited for growing the coffee. There was just one hitch. In many cases, the steeply sloped hillsides where coffee grew best, previously considered worthless, were occupied by Indians. The ladino[*g] coffee growers needed a government that would allow them to take this land and would guarantee them a cheap, reliable supply of labor.

In 1871, the Liberals overthrew Cerna, and two years later, General Justo Rufino Barrios, a prosperous coffee grower from western Guatemala, assumed power. Under Barrios, a series of "liberal reforms" were instituted, making it easier to grow and export coffee. The amount of coffee exported from Guatemala grew steadily, from 149,000 quintales (1 quintal = 100 kilograms) in 1873 to 691,000 by 1895, and over a million in 1909. Unfortunately, these "reforms" came at the expense of the Indians and their land.

Throughout Central America and Mexico at this time, the "Liberals" took power, all with essentially the same agenda -- to promote "progress" in emulation of the United States and Europe, always at the expense of the indigenous populations. In Nostromo, his 1904 novel about Latin America, Joseph Conrad exclaimed, "Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government -- all of them have a flavour of folly and murder."[7]

Guatemala -- a Penal Colony?

The Mayans had little sense of private property, preferring instead to share their agricultural space with one another, but they resented being displaced from their traditional lands. Through a series of laws and outright force, the Barrios government began to take prime coffee lands away from the Indians. Often, they tried to placate the Mayans by giving them other marginal land.

The Liberal government encouraged agricultural development by defining all lands not planted in coffee, sugar, cacao, or pasture as "idle" (tierras baldías), then claiming them as national property. In 1873, nearly 200,000 acres in the western piedmont regions of Guatemala were divided into lots up to 550 acres and sold cheaply. Any required payment automatically excluded peasants from ownership.

Like the Brazilians, the Guatemalans tried to attract immigrant labor, but these attempts largely failed.[*h] They had to rely on the Indian, who had little incentive to work. As much as the Liberals may have wished to apply the "North American solution" -- simply eliminating the "inferior" race -- they could not afford to do so. They needed their indigenous population as virtual slave labor. Living in self-sufficient villages, however, most Mayans were loath to work other than briefly for a little money.

The Liberal government solved the problem through forced labor (mandamiento) and debt peonage. For an Indian, the only alternative to being dragged off to work on a farm (or to the army or gang labor on a road) or to go into debt to a coffee farmer was flight.

Many Indians did, in fact, flee. Some sneaked across the border to Mexico. Others took to the mountains. To maintain order, the Liberals instituted a large standing army and militia. As Jeffrey Paige observed in his book, Coffee and Power, "Guatemala had so many soldiers that it resembled a penal colony because it was a penal colony based on forced labor." Thus, coffee money funded a repressive regime that fostered smoldering resentment among the Indians. Sometimes they rebelled actively, but such attempts only resulted in Indian massacres. Instead, they learned to subvert the system by working as little as possible, by taking wage advances from several farmers simultaneously, and by running away.

The Indians sometimes petitioned the jefe políticos (governors) for help. Their plaintive appeals are heart-rending, even at the remove of a hundred years. One laborer alleged that "Don Manuel, the brother of my actual employer, beat me without motive...as well as my wife and our baby, with the result that they both died." A man over eighty wrote that through "all the flower of my youth the patron exploited my labor," but now, sick and crippled, he was to be released to "die slowly in the fields as do the animals when they become old and useless."

The forced Indian migration down from the altiplano to the coffee harvest also resulted in Mayans contracting diseases such as influenza or cholera, then bringing them back to their home communities, where death swept entire villages in epidemic proportions.

From the grower's perspective, securing a reliable labor supply really was difficult. Indians ran off. Other planters stole their workers. Competition was so fierce that some growers bid on someone described as "a bum, who once was imprisoned for a wounding, always has been lazy and is full of tricks." Another farmer wrote hopelessly to the contratista to whom he had given money to secure workers: "You have forgotten your promises and obligations.... The coffee is falling off the trees, workers are required, and all I have is your telegram."

Thus, the coffee economy of Guatemala, as well as that of nearby El Salvador, Mexico, and Nicaragua, frustrated everyone in one way or another. Above all, however, it relied on the forced labor and misery of the indigenous population. With this unhappy foundation, a future of inequity and violence was all but assured.[8]

The German Invasion

Into this mix came a new kind of immigrant, full of energy, self-assurance, and a willingness to work hard. Mostly, they were young Germans seeking their fortune in this exotic clime. In 1877, in order to attract such entrepreneurial outsiders, the Liberals passed a law to help foreigners obtain lands, granting a ten year tax exemption and a six year holiday from import duties on tools and machines. The Barrios government signed contracts with foreign firms for major construction and colonization projects. During the last two decades of the 1800s, enterprising Germans, many fleeing Bismarck's militarism, flocked to Guatemala -- and to the rest of Central America. By the late 1890s, they owned over forty Guatemalan coffee fincas and worked on many others. Soon, German coffee growers in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala got together to solicit private capital from Germany to build a railroad line to the sea. This was the beginning of a trend in which the Germans brought capital and modernization to the Guatemalan coffee industry.

By 1890, two decades after the Liberals took over, the largest Guatemalan fincas -- over 100 of them -- represented only 3.5 percent of the country's coffee farms but accounted for over half of the total output. While foreigners ran many large plantations, others were still owned by the Spanish descendants of the original conquistadors. In 1890, for instance, the largest coffee grower in Guatemala was General Manuel Lisandro Barillas, the president of the country and owner of five coffee fincas, along with a 70,000 acre plot in the highlands where his Indian laborers lived.

These large-scale operations usually had their own processing machinery and were diversified enough to grow their own food. Small, marginal coffee farms of only a few acres, usually owned by poor, illiterate peasants, had to rely on the larger farms for processing. They and their children were sometimes subjected to forced labor on the bigger farms. In some cases, the dominant farms deliberately sabotaged their smaller neighbors, as finca agents burned their milpas (small subsistence plots, usually of corn) and destroyed their coffee bushes.

Securing credit was always a major problem for the coffee farmer, whether large or small. Typically, European or North American banks would loan to coffee import houses at six percent. Then the import houses would loan to export houses at 8 percent, who in turn loaned to large growers or beneficios (coffee processing plants) at 12 percent. Finally, the small farmer would have to pay the beneficio 14 to 25 percent, depending on the perceived risk. Most entrepreneurs starting a plantation found themselves deep in debt before their first crop matured four years later. The Germans had an advantage, since they frequently arrived with capital and maintained on-going relations with German brokerage firms that gave them lower interest rates. They also had recourse to diplomatic intervention and maintained close ties to foreign-controlled export and import houses. Nonetheless, the coffee industry of Latin America has never resolved the credit problem satisfactorily.

Many of the Germans who came to make their coffee fortunes in Guatemala weren't wealthy men when they first reached the country. Bernhard Hannstein, born in Prussia in 1869, left Germany "to get away from the military habits of Germany, to flee the tyranny of [my] eccentric father and to be a free man." In 1892, Hannstein found work at La Libertad, one of the huge coffee plantations owned by ex-president Lisandro Barillas, where he received $100 a month plus free room and board -- many times more than the Indians.

It apparently did not trouble the German -- used to harsh Prussian work conditions -- that Indians were virtual slaves. "Indians," he wrote in a letter, "are small, dumpy figures who occupy the lowest rung on the plantation, the so-called mozo, or worker, and eke out an existence on one mark a day." He described the debt peonage system without any judgmental emotion. "The only way to make an Indian work is to advance him money, then he can be forced to work. Very often they run off but they are caught and punished very severely." The very next sentence, Hannstein commented, without apparent irony, "The owners of the land have a very different viewpoint; if they don't earn 120 percent on something they don't consider it worth the trouble to plant it or build it."

A few years later, Bernhard Hannstein fathered a child by a Mexican woman with whom he lived and was appalled by the child's dark color and resemblance to him. Quickly, he bought a piece of land for the woman, installed her there, and went back to Germany to find Ida Hoepfner, a proper wife. He eventually worked his way up the hierarchy and came to own Mundo Nuevo and other plantations.

Meanwhile, to the north in Alta Verapaz, young Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, another German, slowly assembled the largest privately owned coffee plantations in the area. At first, he lived among the Indians, ate their food, and learned their language and culture. Eventually, Dieseldorff became an expert on Mayan archeology, folklore, and herbal medicine. As long as the Indian laborers obeyed him, Dieseldorff treated them with paternal kindness. Yet, he, too, paid the Indians a pittance and kept them bound to him in a feudal system of debt peonage. He summed up his and other German's philosophy when he observed, "The Indians of the Alta Verapaz are best handled as if they were children."[9]

How To Grow and Harvest Coffee in Guatemala

Although it took some trial-and-error to establish the custom, coffee in Central America has traditionally been grown under shade trees of various types to protect the coffee from sun, promote automatic mulching, and to prevent the coffee trees from over-producing and exhausting themselves and the soil. These shade trees are usually pruned yearly to allow the proper amount of sunlight to pass through; the wood can then be used for fuel.

Unlike the Brazilian bean, the coffees of Central America were harvested by the "wet" method -- so named because it requires a huge amount of water -- invented in the West Indies and popularized in Ceylon and Costa Rica. According to most coffee experts, this system yields a superior bean with fewer defects, producing a drink with bright acidity and full, clean flavor. It is also far more labor-intensive, requires more sophisticated machinery and infrastructure, and needs an abundant supply of fresh running water at each beneficio, or processing facility. The mountainsides of Guatemala provide plenty of water, and the German farmers brought much technical know-how.

As the coffee industry developed during the late 19th century, importers began to refer to two types of coffee: "Brazils" and "milds." The Brazilian coffee gained a reputation for lower quality -- often, but not always, deserved. Most other, more carefully processed arabica coffees were known as "milds" because they were not as harsh in the cup as the Brazils.

While the Brazilian laborers can simply strip the branches, the Guatemalan harvesters must pick only the ripe berries, which are depulped by machine, then left in water-filled fermentation tanks for up to 48 hours. As the mucilage decomposes, it loosens from its sticky binding on the parchment and, in the process, lends a subtle seasoned flavor to the inner bean. From the fermentation tank, the beans bump along a long channel, where the loosened mucilage washes off with the waste water. Still covered in parchment, the beans are then spread out to dry in the sun or are dried artificially in huge rotating cylinders heated by dried parchment from previous batches, along with coal, gas, or wood pruned from shade trees. Women and children hand sort the dried coffee, removing broken, blackened, moldy, or over-fermented beans.

Since the actual coffee bean constitutes only 20 percent of the weight of the cherry, this whole process produces an enormous amount of waste product. The mounds of wet pulp are often recycled as smelly fertilizer, if the beneficio is located on the farm. Allowed to float downstream, the mucilage causes massive pollution problems.[10]

Women and Children As Laborers

Women (and children in the old days) always did the tedious sorting in Guatemala and elsewhere, primarily because they have traditionally been paid even less than their husbands. While the men have performed most of the physically demanding jobs such as clearing, planting, pruning and digging irrigation ditches, women and children have done much of the harvesting as well.

On a good farm, harvest time is a relaxed, joyous occasion. The pay may not be great, but it is higher than any other time of the year, and no one forces children to work any set schedule. In the late 19th century, however, women and children were often forced to work long hours in the fields along with everyone else. One observer in 1899 described the "ragged, tattered pickers, large and small, father and mother and a brood of partially clothed children" on their way to pick coffee.

The father and mother salute you with the deference born of generations of training. Later, from the depths of every thicket comes the chant of singing voices, and the chorus is feminine, the woman of poverty, somehow, knowing how to be happier than the man. The little children gather all the low berries which may be reached by their tiny hands. [At dusk,] the sleepy, tired tots stumble along, with all the brightness of life gone out, for that day, from their worn-out little souls. It is no uncommon sight to see a mother carrying a sleeping child, besides all her other load.

Occasionally, however, Guatemalan women forgot how "happy" they were in their poverty, and they somehow overcame the "deference born of generations of training." Men sometimes took wage advances to be worked off by their wives or children, virtually selling their labor. Juana Domingo wrote from jail to the jefe político of Huehuetenango in 1909, for instance, because she refused to work after she was "sold by my own father, which is the custom among our race." Women were routinely subjected to sexual exploitation by overseers. Sometimes complaining backfired, as when the finca administrator for one woman added the cost of capturing her rapist to her debt.[*i]

Thus, coffee in Guatemala brought a reliance on a fickle foreign market, the rise of a coercive police state, gross social and economic inequality, and the virtual enslavement of the indigenous peoples. The pattern was set. Large fincas, owned by ladinos, Germans, and other foreigners who earned huge profits in good years, were worked by migrant labor forces forced down from the adjacent highlands. In years to come, this coffee legacy would lead to repeated uprisings, discontent, and bloodshed in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. "The strategies of government in Guatemala," writes one Latin American historian, "can be briefly summarized as: censorship of the press, exile and prison for the opposition, extensive police control, a reduced and servile state bureaucracy, matters of finance and the treasury in the hands of interrelated members of the large coffee-growing families, and benevolent treatment of foreign companies.”[11]

Stealing the Land in Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua

The pattern set in Guatemala was echoed in neighboring countries, except that the size of the typical coffee finca was smaller. To the north, in Mexico, Porfirio Díaz attracted American capital to his "liberal" regime (1877-1880, 1884-1911), where the laborers on the sugar, rubber, henequen (a plant used to make rope), tobacco, and coffee plantations were little more than slaves. A labor agent, known as an enganchador (snarer), would supply unwary laborers through lies, bribes, or outright kidnapping. The mortality rate for the workers on the henequin farms of the Yucatan or the tobacco plantations of the infamous Valle Nacional was horrendous. Conditions were somewhat better on the coffee fincas in southern Mexico in the mountains of Chiapas, since migrant labor had to find it sufficiently attractive to return every year.

In El Salvador, the small but densely populated Pacific Coast country to the south of Guatemala, the disenfranchisement of the Indians was even more violent. While in Guatemala, the Mayans lived primarily above the coffee regions, in El Salvador the majority lived in areas suitable for coffee growing. Land expropriation began in 1879, and legislation in 1881 and 1882 eliminated the indigenous system of common lands and communities. The Indians revolted throughout the 1880s, setting fire to coffee groves and processing plants. The government responded by creating a mounted police force to patrol coffee sectors and squelch rebellions. A famous group of fourteen families -- with surnames such as Menéndez, Regalado, de Sola and Hill -- came to own most of the coffee plantations of El Salvador and, through a well-trained militia, they maintained an uneasy peace, punctuated by coups that replaced one authoritarian military regime with another.

In Nicaragua, to the south of El Salvador and Honduras, coffee cultivation began early, but it did not dominate the economy as in Guatemala and El Salvador, and the Indian resistance in Nicaragua was not so easily broken. Coffee cultivation began in the Southern Uplands in earnest during the 1860s, where the transition from other commercial agriculture took place relatively smoothly. But the prime coffee-growing lands turned out to be in the north central highlands, where Indians owned most of the land, and the familiar process of disenfranchisement took place. In 1881, several thousand Indians attacked government headquarters in Matagalpa, in the heart of prime coffee-growing regions, to demand an end to forced labor. The national army finally put down the revolt, killing over a thousand Indians. Nonetheless, peasant resistance remained strong, even after Liberal General José Santos Zelaya, the son of a coffee planter, took over in 1893. He ruled Nicaragua until 1909, creating an effective military and successfully promoting coffee, despite continued agitation, including the assassination of the largest coffee grower in the country.[12]

Coffee in Costa Rica: A Democratic Influence?

Coffee-rich Latin American countries have been routinely racked by revolution, oppression, and bloodshed. The singular hopeful exception to this rule, on the whole, has been Costa Rica. In his thought-provoking 1994 book, States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America, Robert Williams argues that the way coffee land and labor evolved in the late 19th century helped determine the shape of Central American governments, setting patterns that continue to this day:

Along with the expansion of coffee came changes in trading networks, international financial connections, patterns of immigration and investment, and international political relations, but coffee also reached back into the structures of everyday life of ports, capital cities, inland commercial centers, and the countryside, altering the activities of merchants, moneylenders, landowners, shopkeepers, professionals, bureaucrats, the urban poor, and the peasantry.... A careful look at this single commodity affords a lens through which to view the construction of Central American states.

In Guatemala and El Salvador, as we have seen, coffee cultivation led to explosive growth, social inequality, huge plantations owned by a wealthy elite, and mistreatment of the indigenous population. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, reliance on coffee resulted in democracy, egalitarian relations, smaller farms, and slow, steady growth. Why did cultivation of the same tree lead to such different results? The primary reason appears to be the lack of a ready labor force. Most of Costa Rica's Indians, never very numerous, had been killed off by early Spanish settlers or by disease. Consequently, by the time the Costa Ricans began serious cultivation of coffee in the 1830s, they could not establish the huge latifundia that later developed in Brazil or Guatemala. Small family farms were the norm.[*j] As a result, Costa Rica's coffee industry developed gradually, without the need for repressive government intervention.

In addition, Costa Rican coffee production commenced in the rich highlands of the Central Valley, near San José, and spread outward from there. For years to come, an ever-expanding frontier would allow new coffee entrepreneurs to establish farms in virgin lands. Because of this opportunity, fewer fights developed over land. During harvest season, families helped one another, in the same spirit as barn-raisings in the United States. The farmers themselves performed the hard physical labor and felt close to the land. Thus, a relatively egalitarian national ethos developed.

The conflict within Costa Rica developed between small growers and owners of the beneficios, which processed the coffee. Because the farms were generally so small, they could not afford their own wet processing mills. As we have seen, the coffee cherry must be processed very soon after harvest, or it will ferment. Thus, the beneficio owners had a great deal of clout and could set artificially low prices, thus reaping most of the profits. While this inequity did cause tension, the Costa Rican state managed it peacefully, on the whole. This small Central American country has had its share of revolution and bloodshed over the years, but nothing to compare to its neighbors. The reason can probably be traced directly to how the coffee industry developed there.

The British initially dominated foreign trade with Costa Rica, but Germans quickly moved in as well, so that by the early 20th century, they owned many of the beneficios and larger coffee farms in the country. Still, unlike Guatemala, Costa Rica offered opportunities for the hard-working native poor to join the coffee social elite. For example, Julio Sanches Lepiz began with a small farm and, through accrued investments in coffee farms, he became the largest coffee exporter in the country. Though his success was extraordinary, other relatively poor Costa Rican farmers also built impressive holdings.[13]

Indonesians, Coolies and Other Coffee Laborers

Java and Sumatra, like many other coffee-growing regions, possess astonishing natural beauty. This scenery, however, directly contrasted with the "contempt and want of consideration with which the natives are treated," as Francis Thurber observed in his 1881 work, Coffee: Plantation to Cup. Each family of natives had to raise and care for 650 coffee trees and to harvest and process them for the Dutch government. "The price received by the natives from the government is placed at a figure low enough to leave an enormous margin of profit to the government," Thurber noted. Thus, the Dutch "have maintained a most grinding despotism over their miserable subjects, levying forced loans and otherwise despoiling those who...have accumulated anything beyond their daily subsistence."

The situation in India was no better. In 1886, Edwin Lester Arnold, an Englishman who owned coffee plantations there, described how to secure laborers in his book, Coffee: Its Cultivation and Profit. A planter would journey to the country's lowlands and hire maistries, or head men, who in turn would bribe coolies (peasant laborers) with advances. The head men would then arrive in the jungle, "each at the head of his gang of coolies, all heavily loaded with earthen `chatties' or cooking pans, native shawls, supplies of dried fish, curry stuffs, etc.; and `salaaming' to the European." They would build huts and begin to work off their advances. It was best not to treat them too harshly, Thurber observed, "for in that case they would bolt."

The work day for the coolies described by Thurber began at 5 a.m., with men sent with axes and crowbars to cut and move logs for a new road, while women and children were dispatched to weed the coffee. "No sooner are they clear of the settlement, and winding along the narrow jungle paths, than they make all sorts of attempts to escape." Men were paid five annas a day -- a pathetic amount -- while women received only three. "Even the little children came up, ducked their small shaven heads in comical homage to the great white sahib, and held out very small brown hands for the price those hands were supposed to have earned at the rate of a penny a-day."

At the same time, Arnold observed with satisfaction, "the profits derived from healthy Coffee are so large, that were it not for many enemies which hamper the planter's struggles and stultify his best efforts, his occupation would be one of the most profitable in the world." The author then listed various coffee pests, ranging from elephants, hill buffaloes, cattle, and deer, to jackals, moneys, and the coffee rat. (Fortunately, the coolies enjoyed coffee rat fried in coconut oil, considered a delicacy.) There were also grubs, mealy bugs, scaley bugs, borers and weevils to contend with.

"All these drags on the planter's prosperity, however, sink into insignificance by the side of a minute and consequently intangible fungus." Arnold was referring to hemileia vastatrix, the dreaded coffee leaf rust, that first appeared in Ceylon in 1869 and virtually wiped out the coffee industry of the East Indies within a few years -- ironically, just as Latin America was flooding the market with beans.[14]

Continued in Part II

Image courtesy of the Portinari Project

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