Getting to Know Guatemala

September 15, 2011

Coffee has been so intertwined with American culture and routine for so long that it cannot help be taken for granted by most of those who rely on it for their daily dose of energy or pleasure, or their chance to relax. For many of us, it is easily accessible and not usually worth more mental, physical, or emotional consideration than making sure that it is the right temperature or strength to do the trick.

One of the most important changes that the specialty coffee movement has brought into our modern culture is the consciousness that coffee is more than a commodity — it is a nuanced product of specific lands and specific people, with varying degrees of quality, different processing techniques, and ecological considerations. And those who choose to look closely learn the stories of small-scale coffee farmers, both individual and collective, usually fraught with poverty, land ownership struggles, and disenfranchisement by the political and economic systems in which they are compelled to participate.

Fair Traders like Peace Coffee have sought to give coffee growers a more honored and valued place in the chain that brings coffee from their land to your cup, by working with cooperatives that give individual farmers the collective power to compete against the large plantations and by paying prices that reflect the tremendous amount of work and struggle that goes into producing organic coffee. We strive to form long-term relationships with farmers based on transparency, mutual trust, and shared goals. Within this model, the importance of face-to-face meetings with our coffee producing partners cannot be understated. It is our chance to establish and maintain strong relationships with coffee cooperatives, exchange information face-to-face, and experience their daily context first-hand. 

Recently, I was fortunate enough to go on my first such trip for Peace Coffee. Along with our Queen Bean Lee Wallace, and Sara Elhardt, a lovely local lady who actually won the chance to visit a coffee producer country in a drawing that we did at the State Fair a few years ago, I joined a delegation of coffee folks put together by our importing co-op, Cooperative Coffees, to visit Guatemala, the source of two of Peace Coffee’s most popular brews and the home of two of our longest standing trade partners.

After meeting up with the group in Antigua, the first major stop on the trip was the offices of Manos Campesinas, in Xela. Their name translates as “Farmers’ Hands” and they are an umbrella cooperative, representing eight smaller farmer co-ops who, in turn, represent over 1200 organic coffee growers. Manos, led by general manager Carlos Reynoso, plays an essential role in helping small-scale farmers find markets for their coffee by providing technical assistance to increase yields, feedback on quality, and small loans for things like new coffee trees and important equipment. By forming successful long-term relationships with co-ops like ours (we’ve been buying from them since 2000), Manos has been able to grow its membership and increase its exports. It exported its first full shipping container (aprox. 250 bags, or 37,500 pounds) of organic, Fair Trade green coffee in 1997. Last year, by comparison, it exported 21 such containers.

With Carlos and Miguel Mateo from Manos joining us, we headed to our next destination, APECAFORM cooperative, whose offices are just outside the village of Pueblo Nuevo, nestled high up on Volcano Tajumulco overlooking Eastern Chiapas, Mexico. The co-op represents 473 coffee producers spread across 17 communities, which are an average of two and a half hours away by foot. It was humbling to see how many members had made the journey to meet with us. After introductions, an opening prayer, and briefings about the history and structure of the co-op, we entered into a dialogue about how things were going. 

The difficult news is that yields across western Guatemala were reduced drastically by rain this year. The co-op’s farmers produced about half of what they expected to, meaning any potential positive results of the higher prices their coffee is currently commanding were severely mitigated. But, as we learned, it’s not just this year that the weather has been working against the farmers. Since 1998, Guatemala has experienced three hurricanes and many more tropical storms that had been the norm. This year they received a whopping 24 feet of rain. For the farmers of Guatemala, climate change isn’t just an abstract theory; rather, it’s a difficult and frightening reality. And, unfortunately, it’s not just Guatemala that’s experiencing these drastic changes. For more information on how climate change is affecting coffee growing countries, check out this New York Times Article.

But, on the brighter side, we were able to hear about strength, resilience, and effectiveness of the co-ops, especially during what has proven to be an exceptionally challenging year. Despite skyrocketing prices on the world coffee market, the prices that the farmers are getting from their co-ops are still higher than what they can get from the coyotes (local middlemen who work outside the Fair Trade system and often can often provide quick cash), while the co-ops still are able to deliver services like technical support, low-interest loans for equipment, free transportation for coffee, and access to programs that assist small-scale farmers in areas like food security. (For a great examination of how the co-ops are adapting to the volatility of the market, please read my colleague Tripp’s wonderful article.

After the meeting, we toured a small but bustling coffee processing and roasting facility, attached to the offices, which the co-op’s women’s group operates. It is a chance for the women to have  productive employment and also for the co-op to diversify income by making use of the coffee that is non-export quality, by packaging it for sale to restaurants, cafés and markets in San Marcos.

The next day, after being awoken first by a small earthquake, and then by the incessant local roosters, we were treated to an amazing breakfast of Tepejilote (locally grown, bitter vegetable) soup cooked over a wood-fire stove at the home of farmer Juan de Dios Perez in Pueblo Nuevo, after which we hiked out in a muggy heat over a long and winding road to visit few nearby farms owned by co-op members. Standing on slopes on which it was difficult to keep balance, we learned of the intensity of the labor involved in maintaining an organic coffee farm — the endless cycles of planting, picking, and pruning. After drinking coffee for 16 years, the last three of which I worked behind a desk at a coffee company, it was my first chance to touch the waxy leaves of the plant that supports my job, as well as my mental and emotional health, and keeps our customers in caffeinated bliss.  It was truly a moment to savor.

After APECAFORM, and a night in Xela that featured an unfortunate over-abundance of pizza and margaritas for yours truly, we drove another three hours to Panajachel, which sits on stunningly beautiful Lake Atitlan. From here, the group divided into two; half stayed to meet with a new trading partner, CCDA, while the other half, including me, went on a voyage across the lake to the city of San Pedro La Laguna to meet with a co-op called FEDEPMA, who was looking for a buyer for its Fair Trade, organic coffee. We were entreated to listen to a presentation about their history, operational model, and goals, and, lucky for us, we got to taste their coffee. They proceeded to show us around their processing facility, which included an impressive composting project, and we discussed the possibility of us buying their coffee in the future. As the co-op’s current membership was not producing enough coffee to make a full shipping container at this point, a requirement for Cooperative Coffees to be able to trade with them, we advised them to work with Manos Campesinas to explore other markets in the meantime.  Hopefully, one day we will be able to feature their delicious coffee in our lineup. 

The final major stop on our journey was with our longtime trading partner, Asociacion Chajulense, located in the El Quiche department north of Guatemala City.  Driving into Chajul is like entering another time and place entirely. Very little Spanish is spoken here (the people speak the Mayan dialect Ixil), all the houses are made of adobe, and the women wear traditional dress. After a tour and meeting at the co-op offices, as well as some shopping at the Fair Trade store that features the artisan handicrafts and textiles of the co-op’s women’s group, we were invited to dinner at the home of the co-op’s director, Miguel Tzoz. Along with the traditional corn tortillas and black beans, we were treated to the regional delicacy of boshboles, corn cakes wrapped in dark, leafy greens and boiled, served in a brothy soup. 

The next day we ventured another three hours into the remote countryside, via a switchback-happy mountain road with sheer drops just feet from our bus’ sturdy tires, to visit Chel, one of the 56 communities that are a part of Chajulense. Here we met another small-scale farmer, Don Pedro Pacheco Bop, who took us to his farm — land that his father passed down to him — about a mile from the village.  He explained  the different varieties of coffee and shade trees on his parcel, and showed off the nursery that he maintains to supply himself — and other co-op members — with the next generation of coffee trees. We talked about farming practices that he employs, his children, who are in nearby primary schools, and the prices that he receives for his coffee, before heading back to Chel for lunch and then another three hour white-knuckle inducing ride back to Chajul to visit the co-op’s huge processing plant. 

Chajul produces over 50 containers of coffee a year, and their facility was buzzing with activity. The most memorable part of the tour for me was walking into a huge warehouse room and seeing three lines of 60 women each, dressed traditionally, hand sorting green coffee beans that were zooming by on a conveyor belt.  Tzoy explained that, though they own a machine that can essentially do the same task, the co-op decided that it is important for them to keep the women employed, as it provides them with a meaningful job that is also socially rewarding, and in the end only costs the equivalent of about two cents per pound of the export-grade green coffee that we buy.

By the end of my trip, my body was tired of travelling (I calculated that we were in the bus for over 50 hours, not to mention two 15-hour travel days bookending the trip), but my mind and heart were buzzing with my new connections to the coffee world — the trees, the farmers, the facilities, and the dedicated co-op managers. I got to see first-hand how Fair Trade works, and got to return to my Peace Coffee desk with greater appreciation for all that goes into producing the coffee that greets us every morning. Now, instead of just being conscious of the temperature, strength, and flavor of our Guatemalan coffees as I drink them, I can also visualize the faces and remember the stories of the people who helped bring it to me. I am both lucky and proud to represent and sell that coffee to our customers, and grateful to work for a company that cares so much about making as big of a positive difference as it can in the world.

Avatar image: smiling cup with bird

Published by Peace Coffee on September 15, 2011.

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