Planting roots at home: Creating new opportunities for youth in agriculture

22-year-old Julio had to leave Guatemala once to try to make ends meet, and after returning home always worried he might have to leave again. But Mercy Corps’ AgriJoven program has empowered him with the resources he needs to secure his family’s farm and feel certain he can build a good life at home. Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
11 July 2019

In the rural Western Highlands of Guatemala, quality of life depends on a good harvest.

Julio, 22, has been living at the mercy of the coffee industry his whole life — carrying the weight of his family’s well-being on his shoulders.

He was only 10 when he had to drop out of school to help on the family’s coffee farm after his father passed away. He was 16 when he became head of his household and has been dedicated to caring for his mother ever since.

The effect of climate change on Guatemalan migration

Climate change and land issues have exacerbated poverty in rural areas like Guatemala’s Western Highlands, which already suffer from underdevelopment and malnutrition. Limited access to land suitable for growing crops compounds the crippling effects of climate change, and land distribution is amongst the most unequal in the Central American region.

Faced with poverty, limited opportunities and the perception that agriculture — the primary livelihood — can no longer provide a promising or sustainable future, youth are leaving the area at alarming rates. Julio says a lot of the people in his community use what little money they make to migrate. For him, leaving home has always been a last resort.

For most of his life, Julio has been haunted by a choice many of us can’t imagine ever having to make. That is, to stay in his home country — in his home community, where he’s lived all of his life — and fight for a better future, or to leave the life he’s known and risk the dangerous journey across the border in search of new work.

Landscape with hills surrounding a small town in guatemala
Much of Guatemala’s migration occurs out of the Western Highlands, an agricultural region characterized by underdevelopment, malnutrition, poverty and a lack of opportunity. Faced with such challenges, many of the area’s young people have to move to Guatemala City or migrate to the United States to find work and build a better life. Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Supporting his family with what he earns from the coffee farm has always been difficult, and without an education, he hasn’t had the knowledge or the resources to make improvements. For as long as he can remember, he’s worked six — sometimes seven — days a week just to make ends meet. And when it wasn’t enough, he had to leave home to find work in Mexico: a short-lived construction job.

“Coffee was not giving me enough to survive. I had to go in search of my future. But it did not go well, because instead of finding my life, I lost my way.”

Since returning home from Mexico, he has always worried he’d have to leave again.

Until now.

Forging roots for young people by improving agriculture

Through our AgriJoven program, Julio has learned new agricultural techniques and joined a savings group that’s helped him improve his farm enough that he no longer has to think of leaving.

Over the past two years, AgriJoven has connected 1,000 youth like Julio, living in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, with the resources, support and tools they need to believe in and build a brighter future in agriculture.

Youth in mercy corps' agrijoven program in guatemala
Savings groups are one of the most powerful elements of Mercy Corps’ Agrijoven program, empowering youth to save and build financial stability, and creating access to small amounts of capital to invest in new tools, seeds and fertilizer, or other ventures, like education. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Through his savings group, Julio has learned how to save for the first time, and how to be smart about spending and investing his money. His group has already begun to see the benefits, as their savings gain interest and they have access to financing to invest in their farms.

Before, when a coffee harvest was poor, he’d have to look to the bank for a loan. But now, if he needs to make a purchase or if someone gets sick at home, he can get a loan from his group, making life “much easier.”

Mercy Corps has also created demo plots to encourage the adoption of new agricultural practices. Julio farms (and thinks) very differently now. He plants, prunes and fertilizes using new techniques. He’s also gone organic.

“We have never been able to save. We have never known how to plant or fertilize. They even taught us how to store coffee to make it better.”

Thanks to savings groups and agricultural training, young farmers are finding newfound confidence in their abilities and hope for their futures, with tangible opportunities to pursue. By applying what he’s learned and participating in the savings group, Julio has strengthened his crops and become more successful than any of his older siblings have been.

“I am now fully convinced of making my life here,” he shares. “I have new ideas. I am now trained.”

Building a future at home

A young man uses a tool to work the soil in guatemala
In Guatemala’s Western Highlands, Mercy Corps has created demo plots to help youth learn and adopt new agricultural techniques, such as efficient irrigation and soil preparation. We’ve also trained youth on how to create informational videos to share these agricultural best practices more broadly. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Now a husband and father of a 1-year-old daughter, having a livelihood he can count on is more important than ever. And he does. He’s confident in his crop, and secure thanks to the savings group, even if a harvest fails. He’s no longer living just to survive — he sees a future in coffee and dreams of an education for his daughter.

“I now dream about the future of my daughter. I want her to grow up with a good education, something I did not have. I am going to send her to school, I have dreamed about it… I want to make sure my family is okay. I may not always be here, but I want her to have a good job so she does not suffer the way I had to.”

As for his own future? He has the motivation and the resources he needs to step up as a leader in his community. He dreams of producing the best coffee in the country and wants to transform his savings group into a microfinance institution to boost his community’s development. He’s even thinking about buying another plot of land.

“I’d like to do everything in my power, along with my group, to feel proud of where I live and to grow our coffee.”

He sees the opportunity, he believes in his success, and he wants others in his community to feel the same. And they do: after participating in AgriJoven, 30 percent of youth were no longer thinking frequently about migrating – they had reasons to stay. Seventy-six percent of participants we spoke to were confident that their lives in Guatemala would improve in the future, newly optimistic about opportunity in agriculture.

Our land is full of wealth, but we do not see it. Thanks to the support of Mercy Corps, I have been able to change the way I live,” he says, through tears of gratitude. “My life has changed.”

Youth in guatemala creating a test parcel to practice new agricultural techniques
Youth participants clean a test parcel field after harvest. Test parcels offer youth a chance to learn and practice new agricultural practices designed to increase the quality and yield of their crops and grow their livelihoods. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Economic hardship, climate change and violence have pushed many young people like Julio to leave familiar lands behind in the desperate search for a better future. Since October 2018, as many as 508,000 people from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) have made the dangerous journey to the U.S. southern border.

People continue to migrate to the U.S. in high numbers, in search of safety and greater opportunity, and recent aid cuts to critical work being done in the region to address triggers of migration give an increasing reason for concern. There is evidence that aid work in Central America has improved living conditions for people living at risk of migration. Our research on the links between development programs and migration shows us that without this support, people are more likely to be pushed to leave.

We have worked in Guatemala since 2001 to improve security, alleviate poverty and improve health and economic opportunities for vulnerable urban and rural communities.

We believe in building programs that give youth reasons to stay — programs that promote democracy, prosperity and security in Guatemala and across the region, so people can build a brighter future at home and no longer feel forced to flee.

Help us provide more support to youth and families who need us around the world.
Turn your knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page.