Green jobs in agriculture in Guatemala: how close are they?

Green jobs in agriculture in Guatemala: how close are they?

Due to the dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, each year sees a period of ‘seasonal hunger’, which affected an estimated 4.3 million people in 2023 in the departments with the highest levels of poverty and chronic child malnutrition. In the photo, farmer Marta Velásquez picks maize on her plantation in Sacapulas, Guatemala, on 5 September 2023.

(Johan Ordóñez/AFP)

Guatemala is megadiverse and also, if you will allow me the expression, ‘mega-unequal’.

Its megadiversity is threatened by the effects of climate change, aggravated by predatory exploitation of the environment and the irrational use of natural resources. The result is an ever-growing loss of forest wealth, with one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America and almost two thirds of households using firewood for cooking.

Due to the dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, each year sees a period of ‘seasonal hunger’, which affected an estimated 4.3 million people in 2023 in the departments with the highest levels of poverty and chronic child malnutrition, which is particularly severe in the so-called ‘dry corridor’, the semi-arid strip of land that crosses the country from east to west, covering nine per cent of the national territory.

Meanwhile, its ‘mega-inequality’ is the main cause of poverty, which affects the majority of the population. The Equal Times article Guatemala, a workers’ paradise? gave a brief overview of the inequality in the country, which also acts as a brake on economic growth. In 2006, in the preface to the World Development Report, the World Bank noted the importance of equality as a development goal, adding that it is “also instrumental for economic growth”. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) also insists on “equalizing to grow and growing to equalize”.

Agriculture, productivity and disparity

Agriculture is Guatemala’s third most important economic activity in terms of its contribution to GDP (9.3 per cent in 2022). During that year, African palm (oils and fats), coffee, bananas, sugar, fruits, vegetables and rubber accounted for 32 per cent of exports. Clothing and yarns were the leading category, contributing 13 per cent. It should be noted that remittances from migrants residing in the United States of America amounted to US$18.04 billion in 2022, surpassing the US$15.654 billion generated by exports during the same year.

Agriculture, however, is the main source of employment in the country. According to the 2021 National Survey of Employment and Income, agriculture employed almost a third, or 2.3 million workers, of the total labour force of 7.5 million. Twelve per cent of these were private employees, 29 per cent were day labourers (casual labourers with little or no protection), 34 per cent were self-employed, 22 per cent were unpaid family workers and three per cent were employers.

The disparity between the number of people employed in agriculture and its contribution to GDP points to low productivity in the sector, but there is a marked difference between commercial agriculture, which is mainly for export, and family farming, which supplies the domestic market.

According to a 2021 report by the Spanish Economic and Commercial Office in Guatemala, for example, the country has the world’s highest level of productivity for African palm cultivation. Export crops occupy most of the higher quality soils and low irrigation areas (86 per cent in 2012).

Family farming, meanwhile, is characterised by high levels of precariousness, poor access to land and insufficient production support services. The Family Farming Programme to Strengthen the Peasant Economy (PAFFEC), headed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), reported that in 2011, out of 1.3 million farming households, 13 per cent were landless, 47 per cent were below subsistence or subsistence (at most, and were only producing food for their own consumption) and 31 per cent produced a surplus or were small commercial concerns and only nine per cent were large commercial concerns.

As highlighted in the classic study The Political Economy of Central America since 1920 by British economist Victor Bulmer-Thomas, there is a historical bias in favour of export agriculture, aided by the granting of land and transport infrastructure, tax exemptions, access to credit, and labour legislation that facilitated forced labour until 1944, to the detriment of what he calls ‘agriculture for domestic use’.

The promise of decent work and ‘green jobs’

Since 2014, Guatemala has been taking part in the Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) promoted by the United Nations System, which supports the transition towards more inclusive economies through the generation of growth policies that create green jobs, defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as decent jobs that contribute to preserving and restoring the environment, whether in traditional sectors, such as agriculture, or emerging ones, such as renewable energies.

Based on this definition, and to be able to move towards green jobs, agriculture must be identified as one of the priority sectors, given its contribution to production and employment, as well as its environmental impact.

The number one challenge in terms of agricultural production is to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adopt environmentally friendly farming practices. A study by the Institute of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources (IARNA) at the University of Rafael Landívar (URL) – Perfil ambiental de Guatemala (Environmental Profile of Guatemala) 2010-2012 – indicates that Guatemala is threatened in the near future by the increase in global temperatures, with more frequent El Niño weather events and the weakening of the intertropical convergence zone that generates rainfall in the regions close to the Equator. In other words, prolonged periods of drought will be followed by very wet seasons accompanied by extreme rainfall events.

In this context, several adaptation measures were recommended by a 2011 IARNA study on climate change and diversity (Cambio climático y diversidad) ranging from promoting the use of greenhouse systems, good soil management and recovery practices, modified sowing calendars, irrigation systems and water harvesting through reservoirs, to the use of drought-resistant varieties and crop diversification.

Other key measures to reduce poverty and food insecurity include support for family farming and agricultural micro-enterprises through training and technical assistance programmes, placing emphasis on good agricultural and environmental practices, through the Rural Extension System, which needs more resources and staff to accomplish its task. A study of this system by the ASIES think tank found that, in 2021, it only had 642 extension workers (or professionals to provide specialised assistance), a far cry from the initial goal of establishing 340 municipal agencies with three extension workers each. Furthermore, the budget allocated to supporting family farming fell from 601.7 million quetzales (US$75 million) in 2019 to 255 million quetzales (US$31.8 million) in 2021.

As for decent working conditions, considering that decent work is an essential feature of green jobs, and the initial question – how close are they? – the answer, going by the current situation, is that there is still a long way to go.

In 2021, the average income for persons employed in agriculture was 2,504 quetzales (US$313) and the minimum wage in agriculture was 2,992 quetzales (US$374). As for social protection, according to the affiliation report of the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) for 2021, 91,532 people employed in agriculture were registered as contributing workers, a figure that is small in comparison with the overall number of employees (279,023) and negligible relative to the number of people working in agriculture as a whole. The average monthly wage of agricultural workers affiliated to the IGSS was 2,904 quetzales (US$363) whilst the average pay for all workers affiliated to the IGSS was 5,030 quetzales (US$629).

In a study on work in the plantations, El trabajo en las plantaciones (2021), carried out by ASIES on the basis of focus groups and interviews, a satisfactory level of compliance was observed in large companies, especially in terms of the minimum wage and social security coverage, alongside practices, however, such as the setting of task targets that are too high to reach the minimum wage, leading employees to have to work more than the standard eight-hour working day, without overtime pay.

With regard to trade union organisation and collective bargaining, a first observation is that there are no trade unions in African palm cultivation and only one in the sugar sector. In banana production, there is unionisation in the department of Izabal (northern or Atlantic region) but not in the southern or Pacific region, which accounts for two thirds of the cultivated area.

And union representation does make “an enormous difference in workers’ living standards and the conditions of labor”, increasing wages, ensuring acceptable working hours, contributing to less verbal abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, and providing for safer workplaces, as demonstrated, among others, by the study What Difference Does a Union Make? Banana Plantations in the North and South of Guatemala, by Mark Anner of Pennsylvania State University in the United States.

In the agricultural sector, business practices regarding union organisation range from deciding whether workers have the right to join or not – as indicated in the Good Labour Practices Manual of the Chamber of Agriculture – to the exclusion of workers taking part in trade unions. The partial success of this anti-union policy is shown by the ASIES survey on plantation work (Encuesta sobre el trabajo en plantaciones 2021): 32 per cent of workers surveyed in the southern region said that participating in trade unions was not a workers’ right, while in the northern region, where banana workers’ unions have been continually present for 80 years, 75 per cent said it was a right.

Political uncertainty

The creation of green jobs in agriculture and other productive sectors requires state action to protect the environment and natural resources, encouraging sustainable practices to prevent soil, water and air pollution, while at the same time ensuring compliance with the labour legislation, particularly workers’ fundamental rights, broadening social security coverage, and guaranteeing occupational health and safety, promoting and ensuring meaningful tripartite social dialogue, making decent work a reality.

The election victory of Bernardo Arévalo, a moderate social democrat, in the second round of elections on 20 August 2023, gives a glimmer of hope that this could be achieved, if state institutions are freed from corruption and placed at the service of the common good, acting independently of economic powers.

As this article went to press, however, uncertainty was still being generated by the ‘pact of the corrupt’ (a nebulous but undeniable network of complicit government officials, judicial officers, parliamentarians, business interests, politicians and defenders of impunity), whose brazenness knows no bounds and that has no scruples about using the justice system (the Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court) to prevent Arévalo from assuming the presidency on 14 January 2024. It is a situation never before seen in the 40 years since Guatemala returned to democracy, and one that seeks to keep the state firmly under the control of the agents and beneficiaries of corruption and impunity.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

This article was made possible with funding from Union to Union, an initiative of the Swedish trade unions LO, TCO and Saco.