Observations and Reflections on My Trip to Guatemala

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jul 4, 2009 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |
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Guatemala Trip Report…  Actually, Reflections & Observations.
By Tripp Pomeroy
July 13, 2009

Last month, Bill, Maty, and I traveled down to Guatemala to participate in a CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods workshop and visit/plan with our good friends and trading partners at Santa Anita la Union and La Chajulense.  The ten days that we spent traveling around Western Guatemala were unforgettable and, because of our agenda and the people with whom we worked, particularly thought-provoking.

There is something utterly inspiring about Fair Trade when it is used to bring the key stakeholders together for face-to-face encounters, heart-to-heart conversations, and shoulder-to-shoulder collaborations.  In fact, open conversations in which questions, doubts, and concerns flow freely are central to making our model of Fair Trade work.  When managed with intention, they have the potential to strip away the very anonymity that characterizes the darker side of the commodities markets and in turn build the bridge necessary for consumers and producers to connect and better understand each other.  In our opinion, the ability to trace a product back to its human source is the starting point for making trade fair and improving the quality of life for our hard working trading partners.  Replace anonymity with identity and good things start to happen – important questions get asked, people begin to hold each other accountable for the way they treat others, and behavior changes.  After all, it’s hard to feel an ethical obligation to a spot trade, a forward contract or a future, tools of the trade for commodities.

So, what does all this have to do with our recent experience in Guatemala?  Well, the six-day CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods workshop was as true a Fair Trade stakeholder encounter as there is – laden with the very face-to-face, the heart-to-heart, and the shoulder-to-shoulder that makes Fair Trade work.  Bill, Maty, and I joined two other members of Cooperative Coffees (Jim Hottenroth of Doma Coffee and Caleb Nichols of Kickapoo Coffee), 30 representatives from five Guatemalan cooperatives (ACODEROL, APECAFORM, ASOCAMPO, Asociacion Sta Anita La Union, and Granja Juan Ana), and the CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods Guatemala program director Luis Rohr to discuss, assess, and document best practices vis-à-vis coffee quality – from crop to cup.  A week of workshops and field visits to Granja Juan Ana in the Parroquia San Lucas Toliman and Santa Anita in San Marco followed by cupping training sessions for the entire group at Manos Campesinas’ office and lab in Xela, produced volumesof information and exchangeof ideas, and tangibly improved everyone’s expertise in the area of coffee quality.  Together, we fused our trading partners’ knowledge of quality control practices and their innovations at the farming level with what we as roasters know about coffee quality in terms of “the cup” and our customers to produce a shared understanding of what quality means… to all the stakeholders.

This shared understanding in and of itself is hugely valuable, though it is only one of many benefits derived from the experience, some of which included: 1) the five cooperatives represented established contact and formed strategic liaisons with each other for ongoing and future collaboration; 2) we, as buyers, but more importantly, as trading partners, deepened our relationship with each of the coops’ that attended – some of whom we already have relationships with (APECAFORM and Sta Anita) and some of whom were new to us; and 3) the CRS CAFÉ Livelihoods Program demonstrated that NGO’s that are willing and able to collaborate in solidarity with coffee farmers and their trading partners can play a hugely positive role in advancing Fair Trade and effecting change at the grass roots level.  Not bad for a six-day deal, eh!

Now I have some final thoughts I’d like to share… about my new take on collaboration, competition, and transparency… and what they mean to me and Café Campesino, especially in terms of Fair Trade coffee.

In coffee producing countries like Guatemala, small farmers collaborate rather than compete with each other in order to beat the “coyote”, who essentially personifies the commodity market for coffee and its approach to buying coffee (buy low, sell high… I win, you lose).  We have seen this collaboration throughout the years and, once again, when we were in Guatemala last month.

During a walk in San Toliman near Lake Atitlan, my friend Caleb Nichols of Kickapoo Coffee challenged me on my attitude towards some of the many coffee roasters in the US… an attitude I have since changed (thanks Caleb).  When it comes to serving our trading partners, we, as Fair Trade roasters, need to differentiate between organizations that are competition (good) and those which pose a threat (bad).  Coffee roasters who honor transparency, acknowledge and share the identities of their coffee farming trading partners, and honestly pursue justice for coffee farmers, are competition… competition we embrace.  Coffee roasters who reject transparency, hide the identities of their trading partners, and who choose profit over people… they are a threat… not to Café Campesino but to the prospect of economic justice for the world’s coffee farmers.  If we can make the distinction at Café Campesino, certainly U.S. consumers can as well.

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