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History of Coffee in Latin America


Coffee is a national commodity that was discovered in Ethiopia. The drink spread across Europe and eventually made it to Latin America. Brazil was one of the major exporters of coffee and still is to this day. Guatemala and Brazil both have violent pasts surrounding coffee. Coffee caused political upset in multiple countries but there is one exception to this which is Costa Rica. Coffee and the pursuit of it in the economy caused multiple wars and rebellions to get to the trade system that is currently in place today.

Keywords: Coffee, Brazil, Guatemala, Government.

History of Coffee in Latin America

All across the world, people of many different cultures, religions, and races enjoy coffee. Coffee is one of the most common drinks in the world. Latin America houses the largest exporter in the world today – Brazil. Coffee is a commodity and it comes with various effects on the culture, people, economy, ideas and values in Latin America.

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Contrary, to common belief, coffee is not native to Latin America. Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia – no one knows by whom (Pendergrast, 2010, p.3). Of the various legends and tales, the most common story is that coffee was discovered by goats and a goatherd named Kaldi. Kaldi noticed that his goats were, “running about, butting one another, dancing on their hind legs, and bleating excitedly” (Pendergrast, 2010, p. 3) after consuming a strange berry. Kaldi tried it for himself and was so excited about it that more and more people tried it – including some monks that were kept awake and energized by the berry’s effect(Avey, 2013) – until the drink became a huge part of the Ethiopian culture. While this is where coffee got its start, the drink did not stay solely in Ethiopia. It spread to various other countries and eventually landed in Brazil.

The journey of a billion cups starts with a lone plant when, “The Dutch gave a healthy coffee plant to the French government,”(Pendergrast, 2010, p.15) and after a long voyage of nursing the plant and sharing a precious water supply with it, the plant grew extraordinarily in Martinique and it is said that, “From that single plant, much of the world’s current coffee supply probably derives”(Pendergrast, 2010, p.15). How coffee traveled from Brazil into other parts of South America involves a border dispute between the French and Dutch governors. A Portuguese Brazilian official was asked to mediate the dispute. He did that and more managing to bed the French governor’s wife. When he left, she presented him with a bouquet filled with ripe coffee beans that he had sought. The Brazilian official planted them in his home territory thus releasing coffee plants to naturally spread southward throughout South America. (Pendergrast, 2010)

The spreading of coffee and coffee plantations created an economy unto itself as it called for many, many people to take care of the plants, harvest the ripe berries and produce coffee beans. Ultimately, demand outgrew the available supply of workers, resulting in the use of slaves were originally brought over from Africa to harvest sugarcane. For example, when French Colonists started to grow coffee in what is now Haiti, it was natural that they would use slaves to work the plantations (Pendergrast, 2010, p. 17). By 1788, San Domingo (Haiti) supplied half of the world’s coffee, and was produced through the vilest form of labor. The slaves in San Domingo lived in awful conditions. They were, “housed in windowless huts, underfed, and overworked” (Pendergrast, 2010, p.17). In 1791 after, “the French Revolution, slave revolts broke out in Haiti, and the control structure of coffee production collapsed”(Tucker, 2000, p.181)  and their struggle for freedom lasted 12 years in which most plantations were burned to the ground and the owners killed. By the time Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture tried to save coffee exports in 1801, the harvest of coffee had declined about 45 percent. As a result of this, Louverture put a fermage system in place. This is essentially a fancy way of saying state regulated slavery. Slaves were forced to work on state-owned plantations where they worked long hours at low wages thought they were no longer tortured though and they received minimal medical care. Not long after this, Napoleon sent troops to take over Haiti and again coffee production was disregarded. Napoleon was defeated but the impact on Haitian coffee was too great. Haiti never regained it’s dominant standing in the coffee world. (Pendergrast, 2010:Clarence-Smith, Topik, 2003)

In 1823, when war between France and Spain was just over the horizon, coffee importers throughout Europe bought coffee in mass quantities because it was assumed a war would start and sea routes would be closed. There was a major Brazilian harvest and prices plummeted. It was this swing of price that had such an impact on the economies and politics of Latin America.

In the half century before the 1900, Latin America was conquered by nonnative coffee. Coffee being the international commodity that it is, would influence and shape the government, delay the abolition of slavery, emphasize social inequalities, affect the environment and promote growth, with emphasis on Brazil because it is one of the major coffee exporters to this day. Although Brazil is now a major exporter, coffee was not that important until the colonies broke away from Spanish and Portuguese rule. When Napoleon’s army captured Lisbon in 1807 they drove out the Royal family, who eventually found their way to Rio de Janeiro. King John VI declared Brazil to be a Kingdom and promoted the growth of agriculture with experimental varieties of coffee that were grown in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Rio and then distributed to farmers. Due to a revolution, King John was forced to return to Europe and left his son Dom Pedro in charge. Dom Pedro named himself Emperor Pedro I but it was under his son’s rule, Pedro II, that coffee would flourish.(Pendergrast, 2010:Tucker, 2000)

One of the major environmental and human costs of producing coffee were the Fazendas used in Brazil. Fazendas were plantations in Brazil owned by the elite and slaves worked in awful conditions and often died after seven years, on average because, “The owners found it cheaper to import new slaves than to maintain the health of existing laborers”(Pendergrast, 2010, p. 21). Slaves – human beings – were expendable to the elite owners – also human beings – in the pursuit of profit. As coffee surpassed sugarcane, things only got worse. Some owners treated slaves decently but others forced them to do some unspeakable acts such as sadistic orgies, beatings and murders weren’t in the public’s eye but definitely still occurred, and slave children separated from their parents(Pendergrast, 2010). Slaves were treated as less than human. Many people suffered as well as the environment in the name of coffee.

Although Brazil maintained slavery longer than any other country, Pedro II did much to free slaves. Thirty years before declaring the “law of the free womb”(Pendergrast, 2010) – which declared any babies born to a slave were free and basically guaranteed the end of slavery – in 1971, Pedro II freed his own slaves. Similar to the arguments regarding the pre-Civil War southern economy of the United States, many people opposed and fought against abolition because it was thought Brazil was defined by coffee and that slaves were a needed labor force to produce coffee and maintain a vibrant economy. This process of producing coffee on Fazendas made the gap between social classes more apparent as slaves who were low class were treated as less than human and the owners who were high class ruled all. Slaves were used to produce coffee and treated poorly for it. Although the way coffee was harvested was awful, “coffee introduced far-reaching political, economic, and social changes in Brazil, including the construction of rail lines from the fields to the port of Santos”(Meade, 2009, p. 236-237).

Not only was coffee production hard on the slaves, it was also hard on the land. The, “soil on the sloping hills was rapidly eroded by conventional techniques of planting and tilling”(Tucker, 2000, p. 183) and during winter months of May, June and July workers would chop through tree trunks just enough to leave the tree standing and then after a few weeks, they were set a fire. The air would be clouded yellow and the terrain would represent a desecrated battlefield. At the end,  temporary fertilizer of ash would give the soil a jump-start for the coffee seedlings that were planted, “between the large trunks that were left to provide good drainage in times of heavy rain”(Tucker, 2000, p. 183). They were in such a rush to make a profit that almost no one paid attention to the quality of tree stock and this produced wildly inconsistent harvests. It is a typical practice that after a heavy bearing season trees require a year of rest but Brazilians of the time often ignored that rule. They would work the soil until it became unusable and then would abandon it and clear more sections of the rainforests to accommodate production. This way of production was unsustainable because cleared sections of the rainforest would take centuries to recuperate. Brazil was losing, “forests and their biodiversity, [causing] soil erosion, and silting” (Solbrig, 2006, p.348) watercourses, and was destroying the environment at an unsustainable pace.  The convergence of diminishing resources and the need for greater production volumes created a spiral of degradation and abuse in the service of profits. (Pendergrast, 2010:Clarence-Smith, Topik, 2003)

The common theme to all of this is quantity over quality and is still largely true in today’s world. Coffee is best when grown in the red clay of Brazil. Once it is planted, the tree takes a few years to develop a crop. The tree will flower and then a berry will grow. This moment of flowering is the most delicate for the trees because the crop is vulnerable. Coffee does well at a certain altitude and a certain temp and because Brazil is under this altitude, Brazilian coffee’s lack acidity and body. Brazil also suffers from frosts and droughts due to the systematic destruction of the rainforest, and the droughts and frosts have gotten worse as the cycle repeats and grows. Because coffee is grown without shade in Brazil, it grows quickly, but the soil is depleted of all nutrients(Pendergrast, 2010). It is at this time that it is apparent that while some grow and roast coffee as an artisanal product, Brazil is largely in it for the profit and will produce any quality coffee as long as it is at the quantity Brazil needs.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Rio coffee lands were actively dying. Essentially, Brazil was so aggressive and careless in their coffee production they wore out the land and this caused the coffee industry to move southwest to the plateaus of São Paulo. Despite the movement of the coffee- planting industry, prices of coffee continued to rise through the 60s into the 70s, the first railway to transport coffee was completed, there were technological advances to promote the sale of coffee, including a submarine cable to communicate with Europe and Boats powered by steam instead of sail. Coffee was where the money was at and it became the basis of the Brazilian economy. Not only was coffee becoming a major drink of choice, but it was also improving the quality of life as technological advances made transporting and selling coffee easier but also improved the lives of those involved in the coffee industry. In 1850, after the ban on slave importation, coffee growers were forced to come up with different labor schemes. The planters gave European immigrants a house and assigned coffee trees to them that they would care for start to finish and also provided them with a piece of land to grow their own food. This sounds great but the immigrants were forced to pay back the debts incurred for the transportation, food and housing. They weren’t allowed to move until they paid off their debts and this just created debt peonage which is another form of slavery and eventually led to a revolt in 1856. While they were encased in another form of slavery, this was a drastic improvement from before slave importation was illegal. The immigrants were still less than free but treated far better.(Pendergrast, 2010:Meade, 2000:Solbrig, 2006)

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The Paulista farmers persuaded the Brazilian to pay for the transportation costs for immigrants so they would not have to pay back that debt. It was mostly poor Italians that came to the São Paulo plantations. Between 1884 and 1914, over a million immigrants came to work on coffee farms, each with varying degrees of success – some their own land and others made just enough to return home. While treatment of these workers was better working conditions were still poor and many plantations kept capangas, armed guards, on the plantation. A truly hated owner was hacked to pieces by his workers when he went through his field unprotected. (Pendergrast, 2010)

As soon as coffee farmers figured out that the immigrant system, colono system, was cheaper than slavery, Brazilian coffee farmers spearheaded the movement for abolition. Dom Pedro II’s daughter, Isabel signed the “ Golden Law” on May 13 1888 and freed the rest of the slaves. After this, Pedro was ousted and the republic was run by the coffee planters and a neighboring province. While the slaves were freed, their quality of life actually became worse because coffee planters preferred the European Immigrants. They were considered genetically superior than those of African descent and it made life for the African ex-slaves to find work. So despite being free, African slaves became even more marginalized. (Pendergrast, 2010)

Under the colono system, coffee production tripled from 5.5 million bags to 16.3 million from 1890 – 1901. Coffee planting doubled in the years after abolition and by the 20th century there was over 500 million coffee trees in São Paulo. While the coffee industry was thriving in Brazil, the people were suffering. There was such a concentration on coffee that Brazil was importing products that could easily be produced in Brazil. The focus on coffee meant lots of profit but there was severe neglect of what the people of Brazil needed. In Guatemala, they did almost the same thing that Brazil did. Their one difference is that when Guatemala realized that their economy was dominated by cochineal – a dye – they made efforts to diversify their economy by approving the growth of coffee but also promoted cotton and sugar as well. (Pendergrast, 2010)

In contrast to Brazil, Coffee in Central America is traditionally grown under the shade of trees, protecting the plant and soil from the sun. Also in contrast to Brazilian, coffee in Central America is typically harvested using the west method. Most coffee experts agree that this method produces a superior bean and superior taste. Women and children typically do the monotonous sorting in Guatemala and other places mostly because women get paid even less than their husbands. The men also did the physically demanding jobs instead. Similar to Brazil, the mistreatment of workers was also common in Guatemala. Men could take pay advances and basically sell away the work of their wives in an act of domestic slavery. Women were also exploited sexually by their overseers. In one instance the reporting of a women’s rapist backfired and it was added to the cost of her debt. Overall, in both Brazil and Guatemala the planters and owners of plantations were so focused on the production of coffee that they often forgot to take care of the people producing the coffee. Guatemala used anything and everything to keep their workers enslaved and Brazil imported things they could easily grow because all of their plantations were focused on coffee. (Pendergrast, 2010)

The same system used in guatemala was followed in other countries but it was on a much smaller scale. In Mexico the laborers were a small step above slaves. A enganchador, snarer, would supply laborers by unsavory means: lies, bribes and kidnapping. In El Salvador, the indians that lived there were violently kicked off of their land because the Mayans lived in areas most suitable for coffee growing. The land wars began in 1879 and, “Legislation in 1881 and 1882 eliminated the indigenous system of common lands and communities”(Pendergrast, 2010, p. 36). The indians revolted and set fire to the processing plants and coffee groves. The government created a mounted police force that would patrol and deal with any rebellions. A group of 14 families acquired most of the coffee plantations and maintained an unsteady peace with their trained militia. This unsteadiness is emphasized by the constant replacement of one authoritarian regime after the next. The revolts continued to happen later on into history with a revolt, “in collaboration with the communist party” that, “attempted to overthrow the government in 1932. The result was at least 17,000 peasants dead in the gruesome massacre known simply as La Matanza”(Chiriboga, Coady, Coe…,p. 651).

In Nicaragua, coffee producing began fairly early but it was not as dominant in the economy as it was in Guatemala and El Salvador. The resistance of the Indians wasn’t as easy to deal with either. Coffee production began in the 1860s in the southern uplands but the greatest land for growing coffee was in the north highlands – where the Indians owned most of the land. This began the disenfranchisement of the Indians. The Indians responded by attacking government headquarters in the north highlands in 1881 and demanded that forced labor be stopped. Eventually, the national army killed off over a thousand Indians which stopped the revolt but the resistance as a whole stayed strong. Even when the son of a coffee planter, General Jose Santos Zelaya, took over in 1893 and ruled until 1909. He promoted coffee and created an effective military despite the unhappiness and unrest.(Pendergrast, 2010)

So far all countries mentioned have had their share of chaos and political unrest in the pursuit for coffee. The exception to this rule is Costa Rica. Instead of using authoritarian methods, Costa Rica’s, “reliance on coffee resulted in democracy, egalitarian relations, smaller farms, and slow, steady growth”(Pendergrast, 2010, p.37). Some experts speculate that the reason behind the difference to other countries is that Costa Rica did not have a ready labor force. Their Indians had been killed off by spanish settlers or disease. This caused the farms to not be able to grow to large proportions – they mainly stayed as small family farms. This let the industry develop at a steady pace and did not require government intervention. Costa Rica also did not have to move their crops because they started in the highlands and then expanded. There was really no sense of competition so there were few fights over land, families helped each other out during the harvest, and the farmers did the hard physical work that in other countries did with slaves. There was a sense of pride in being close to one’s land. While there was early disputes between the farmers, there was disputes between the growers and the owners of the processing plants. The farms were small and couldn’t process their own coffee and the owners of the processing plants set ridiculously low prices and made large profits. This did cause tension but overall, Costa Rica stayed peaceful. Costa Rica’s disputes where nothing compared to the killing and rebellions in other countries. The British dominated foreign trade with Costa Rica to start but eventually Germany swooped in and by the 20th century owned many of the processing plants and the larger farms. Costa Rica offered many opportunities to hardworking natives while the other countries ignored and neglected their people.  (Prendergrast, 2010)

While many people say they don’t feel civil without their morning cup of coffee, in many countries throughout the world the pursuit of this civil drink led to many uncivilized practices. Brazil desecrated not only the environment but, also, its own people. The amount of unrest and rebellion throughout Latin America’s history due to coffee is enough to take a second look at the industry. Coffee is truly a global beverage and the average person would not have any idea that each perfectly roasted bean costs blood, sweat, and tears – some even lost their life.


  • Avey, T. (2013, April 08). The Caffeinated History of Coffee. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-coffee/
  • Clarence-Smith, W. G., and Steven Topik. The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500-1989. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Meade, T. A. (2016). History of modern Latin America: 1800 to the present. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • PENDERGRAST, M. (2019). UNCOMMON GROUNDS: The history of coffee and how it transformed our world. BASIC BOOKS.
  • Solbrig, O. (2006). Economic Growth and Environmental Change. In V. Bulmer-Thomas, J. Coatsworth, & R. Cortes-Conde (Eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (pp. 327-376). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521812900.011
  • Tucker, R. P. (2000). Insatiable appetite: The United States and the ecological degradation of the tropical world. University of California Press.

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