Workers in a field in Chiapas
Workers in a field in Chiapas
Frédéric Saliba

TAPACHULA - “I've come here to earn money, and then I'll go back home...” Josefina Perez talks as she cuts coffee trees with a machete on the 617-acre Irlanda farm perched on the Tacana volcano in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Like this 40-year-old seasonal worker, more than 100,000 Guatemalans cross the border each year to work in the fields of this rugged stretch of southern Mexico, the 12th coffee producer in the world. Hailed back home as an eldorado for these poor peasants? Not so sure once they get here.

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On the slopes of the Tacana volcano - Photo: Eduardo Robles Pacheco

At meeting points, in the seven bordering Guatemalan departments, Mexican recruiters take some 300 workers a day on average. The numbers rise for the harvest season between October and February, then decreases for the cutting of coffee trees. With the promises of temporary jobs, seasonal workers seek a frontier worker visa. But many others arrive in Mexico illegally, braving risks of theft and abduction.

With so many natives of Chiapas emigrating to the United States, planters turn towards this cheap work force available in Guatemala. The laborers, most of them Maya Indians, are paid around 80 pesos (5 euros) per day -- far more than the meager earnings from corn in their tiny plots back home.

Employers provide food and shelter in the farms, often in run-down dormitories. Beyond exhausting workdays in the muggy Chiapas heat, there are also abuses of some producers: underfeeding, deplorable hygienic conditions, non-payment of wages. “Nearly feudal” conditions were denounced in October by the National Union of Peasant Organizations.

There are also child laborers, accompanying their parents along this miserable journey, who eventually are put to work.

Cartels and fungus

In order to right the wrong, the Mexican Ministry of Social Development launched a program designed to improve the social conditions of seasonal workers. In 2012, 22 dormitories, 10 toilets, and 10 cafeterias have thus been built on some 15 different farms. Still, the region includes 800 big coffee plantations, and 170,000 small producers.

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Chiapas coffee beans - Photo: inkdmn

But there is a new threat to both boss and worker alike. Since October, coffee rust, a fungus from Central America, has been spreading its orange dust on to the leaves of Chiapas arabica coffee bushes. The next harvest is sure to suffer.

“It's insufficient in the face of the social crisis awaiting seasonal workers and small producers, already poor enough,” worries Senor Trampe, president of Tacana's Union of Coffee Producers.

And the worst fear of all is of a new surge of the violence hitting the region, which is home to drug cartels. On February 16, in Tapachula, a Guatemalan seasonal worker was shot dead on the farm where he worked. Since December, 54 crimes were have been tallied in this formerly peaceful frontier town.

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