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9725 - "The Small Germany"? Coffee Production, Ethnic Relations, and Labour in the Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, 1890-1960

Still in 2005, the Guatemalan newspaper “La Prensa Libre” entitled its dossier on the Alta Verapaz “The Small Germany” which shows the historical influence of the German community in the region. The German presence in Guatemala was closely related to coffee production and export. From the second half of the 19th century, coffee production expanded rapidly in Guatemala. In only eight years, the share of coffee in Guatemalan exports rose from 1% to 36% (1860-1868). Coffee linked several isolated regions as the Alta Verapaz to the world economy and was mainly produced on large plantations with an indigenous labour workforce.

German immigrants played a central role in the Guatemalan coffee business. Within a few years, they became the dominant economic group in the Alta Verapaz at the end of the 19th century. At that time, Germans owned more than 1,500 km² of territory and had a share of 60% in coffee production. In the paper, I will first analyze how the German presence changed ethnic and labour relations in the Alta Verapaz. Based on travel reports of German immigrants, I will then outline, how the German immigrants described social hierarchies in the region. They perceived the other ethnic groups with disdain and portrayed the indigenous people as an anonymous group without individual characteristics.

German dominance in the region persisted until the end of the 1930s. National Socialism as well as internment and expropriation of Germans during the Second World War put an end to the German control of the coffee sector. In the last part of my paper, I will analyze how the history of the coffee plantations and race relations in the Alta Verapaz changed after this break.

Keywords: coffee, Guatemala, German immigration, ethnic relations

Author: Berth, Christiane (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland / Schweiz)

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