For decades, the Mexican government supported its coffee farmers. It provided them subsidized seed and fertilizer, and purchased crops from farmers at guaranteed prices. Guaranteed prices are essential because they allow people to plan for the future and secure loans to purchase inputs.
All of this changed when, in 1989, the Mexican government began a four-year dismantlement of its coffee program. Coffee farmers were suddenly left without government support at the same moment that international coffee prices were plummeting. By October 1989, coffee farmers throughout the world were making only about half of what they were making in January 1989. Imagine seeing your income reduced by 50% in nine months!
In some Mexican coffee growing villages I’ve visited, this sudden drop in incomes is what caused a mass exodus to the United States. Men in the communities began leaving to work in the United States and sending money home so their families could survive. A new generation of boys and girls thus grew up watching their fathers go the U.S. rather going out to the fields to cultivate coffee. These kids in turn started going to the U.S. to work once they reached adulthood because it was no longer worth it to work in the fields.
It’s too simple to say that people migrate because they are impoverished. The reasons are generally more complex; the outcome of various political, economic, and social forces. The story of Mexican coffee farmers provides just one example of how income volatility can begin a cycle of migration that continues generations into the future. In the film, you can learn more about how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created similar instabilities and emigration among Mexican pork and corn farmers.