Every morning, millions of Americans start their day with a steaming cup of coffee. They sip the stimulating brew, all the while unaware of the forces of climate change, immigration, and women’s issues that swirl together in their cup.
For our short documentary, Dry Roast, we went to the source of some of the best coffee in the world in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. There, we found women fighting to sustain their coffee farms in the face of crippling impacts from climate change. Left behind by their husbands and several of their children, many of whom migrated to the U.S., they are now on the front lines of the battle between climate change and their livelihood.
Flora and Carmelina Ramos Garcia are two of those women. These sisters, both in their late 50s, have been growing and harvesting coffee for more than 30 years in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. They’ve felt the temperature rise and watched precipitation patterns change, and witnessed the devastating effects those forces have had on the coffee plants they so carefully cultivate.
Coffee is a sensitive crop that requires specific temperatures and moisture levels to thrive, and is susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases. On top of that, Central America’s geographic location and weather dynamics make it especially vulnerable to climate change — it’s ranked among the top 10 most vulnerable regions in the world by the World Wildlife Fund. These factors have combined to decimate coffee production there in recent years.
Beginning in 2012, an epidemic of fungal coffee leaf rust, or roya, slammed the region, affecting up to 85 percent of some smallholder farmers’ coffee plants. By 2016, it contributed to the loss of more than 100,000 jobs in Guatemala, according to Anacafé, Guatemala’s national coffee association. Some researchers have linked the outbreak to rising temperatures that allow the fungus to flourish and spread to higher elevations. The height of the coffee leaf rust crisis was followed by the worst drought in a decade, wiping out even more coffee plants.
Smallholder farmers like Flora and Carmelina rely on coffee for their livelihoods — so when the crop fails or prices fall too low they have to find another way to survive. But in rural regions like the Western Highlands, there are few options for alternate income. This motivated seven of Carmelina’s 10 children to make the dangerous journey to the United States.
They are among thousands of Guatemalan immigrants to the U.S., who are usually between the ages of 18 and 64, and mostly male.
Older women like Flora and Carmelina are being left behind. They must not only endure the loss of their partners and children, but also bear the brunt of a changing environment. But despite these major setbacks, these women haven’t given up.
They find themselves taking on leadership roles previously barred to them in a traditionally machismo society. They are forming and leading cooperatives. They are learning and implementing new farming methods, such as the use of shade systems and organic, homemade fertilizers and pesticides. Some aid organizations say they find women are more receptive to these new practices than their male counterparts.
But their future remains uncertain. The fate of these women and their coffee farms will depend on their ability to weather the ever-increasing impacts of climate change and the global demand for a delicious — and cheap — cup of joe.
Watch our film above, and meet Flora and Carmelina — two inspiring women who, in the face of tremendous challenges, refuse to give up.