Producer Profile: APECAFORM: Organizing Growth for a Sustainable Future

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jul 1, 2008 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |
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Because we are organized, we are able to count on a stable price for our product. Acting as a group also connects us to opportunities and organizations that we would not otherwise have access to if we were operating as individuals.”
-Rogelio Ramirez, General Manager, APECAFORM

APECAFORM is a producer cooperative comprised of roughly 400 members in 19 different communities throughout the department of San Marcos, located in the western highlands of Guatemala, where shade-grown coffee thrives. Its extended name, Asociación de Pequeños Caficultores Orgánicos Maya-Mames, translates as Association of Mayan-Mam Small-Scale Organic Coffee Producers. The Mam community is one of the largest of 22 distinct Mayan ethnic groups that share the country’s unique and challenging history, along with the ladino (Amerindian-European) populace. The Mam community makes up about eight percent of the approximate 5,200,000 individuals of Mayan descent in Guatemala today.

Arnolfo Ramos, president of APECAFORM

APECAFORM was established in 1992, with collaboration from the Catholic diocese in Guatemala, as part of an initiative to support the development of local farmers. It has since held a strong connection with the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Fair Trade program.

The relationship between APECAFORM and Cooperative Coffees and Café Campesino originated through Manos Campesinos, an umbrella organization owned by eight producer cooperatives and associations from four regions of Guatemala, whose main goal is the commercialization of its member farmers’ coffee in the Fair Trade market. Representatives from APECAFORM and the seven other cooperatives created the organization in 1997, which according to its website, now represents 1,073 individual small coffee producers.

Manos Campesinos’ vision is to “be the first financially independent exporting organization a buyer thinks of when he needs a first-class product and service delivered [responsibly].” As expressed, they are as equally committed to their purchaser clients as they are to their producer members.

Fair Grounds had the opportunity to interview Miguel Mateo, Marketing and Sales for Manos Campesinos, and Rogelio Ramirez, General Manager of APECAFORM, discussing the various developments and challenges in their scope.

Miguel has worked with Manos Campesinos for a little under two years, and when not visiting producers, spends most of his time in their central office, tucked into Zone 3 of Quetzaltenango (Xela).* Xela is Guatemala’s second largest city, but is no competition for the shadow of Volcan Santa Maria and her southern smoking sister, Santiagito. It’s a town where the author lived for a number of years, so before talking coffee, the discussion turned to the fact that, because of its high altitude, each day in Xela spits out a year of weather. On any given dewy spring morning, by mid-afternoon you are either coating on sunscreen or a rain jacket, then a 6pm breeze replaces the blazing sun, and by the time your cheek hits the pillow you are typically blue and shivering beneath your ‘sabana.’ Miguel has a cheery laugh…even through a shoddy Skype connection.

It was clear by mid-conversation that a calculator was needed in order to grasp the complexities of the sales and market concepts that accompany Miguel’s roll with Manos Campesinos. He explains, however, that “Manos Campesinos does not just search out new markets for our producer members, but we also help producers to achieve what is needed in order to compete in specialty coffee market.” 100 percent of the coffee exported through Manos Campesinos is certified organic and meets international Fair Trade standards, and Manos Campesinos provides technical support to each of its producers on everything from planting and harvesting, to stowing and transporting the wet-milled beans. Manos Campesinos also helps cooperatives such as APECAFORM to seek out grants and loans for expenses.

Miguel explains that each producer-member has an average of 1 hectare of land, the majority of which generates coffee.** The remainder, and often the space between coffee plants, intersperses food crops for family consumption and sale in local markets.

Rogelio Ramerez is one of these producer-members who also serves as the General Manager of APECAFORM cooperative. He lives on a small piece of land in San Marcos near the Mexican boarder with his wife and five children, all of whom assist in the production process. After a four hour journey to the Manos Campesinos office, Rogelio’s road-weary voice resonated more hesitant, and it took several minutes of conversation before the laughter met that of the dialogue with Miguel.

Rogelio has worked with APECAFORM since 1993, and says the major benefit of the coop’s membership with Manos Campesinos is the security of the price that each producer is assured for his beans. What this eliminates, Rogelio explains, is the need for member farmers to migrate to other parts of Guatemala during the harvest in order to supplement their income; they can stay put rather than abandon their land to work for someone else. As a community of producers, land is often shared between members, and as Rogelio emphasizes, this leads to higher production yields, and consequently, more income for the farmer and cooperative.

APECAFORM’s membership is spread throughout 18 communities, the farthest being only 20 miles apart, but a full day’s walk through these rugged mountains. Rogelio shares that the past rainy months have been a busy time for planting; in Guatemala the harvest typically begins in October, when the weather has dried.

In the late 1990’s APECAFORM launched an artisanal coffee roastery, which now serves to generate additional income for the coop, and is run solely by the women of the community, which comprise over three quarters of the coop’s membership. In this regard, the cooperative is able to enter its finished product into the local market, rather than exclusively rely on earnings from exported beans; another significant step towards financial stability. However, there remains a limited local market for coffee. The project received a CRS development grant in 2005, with which the group was able to purchase a more efficient roaster and assistance identifying local market strategies. Rogelio noted that the new roaster has made a significant difference in terms of efficiency, and that the women are now producing approximately 100 pounds of roasted coffer per month.

Rogelio is motivated by the tangible rewards of the Fair Trade market. He reflected, “Recently a team from Cooperative Coffees came to visit the cooperative. They hiked around the area visiting farms and it gave the members an incredible amount of enthusiasm… they don’t just sell the coffee in the market and that’s it.” It is this type of commitment to relationship that was represented in Xela in 2005, when Cooperative Coffees broke precedent with the industry and raised their minimum price from $1.21 to $1.25, and the organic premium from fifteen to twenty cents per pound, a move certainly buttressed by the power of producer group organization.

With regards to the future, Rogelio expresses that “mas que todo, members want to know how they can increase volume and attract more members…while always maintaining the quality of their product.” But Rogelio also hopes to utilize the leverage of their organized cooperative to improve local APECAFROM communities. “The two largest problems right now are access to water and education.” The coop members currently organize to share water for crops and household use, another benefit of operating as a group. However, education is a little more difficult; many families do not have the resources to send their children to school. The reality is that millions in the Southern Hemisphere exist below the poverty line in rural locations without infrastructure or schooling. Fair Trade may not be the difference between a Ph.D. and an assembly line, but it concerns itself with assessing where producers and their communities are, and providing choices.

APECAFORM does not currently have a established program for receiving outside financial support from individual donors. They have received assistance in the past from Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services for the sponsorship of specific projects such as the construction of an office, the purchase of a small coffee roaster, and farm income diversification projects. Therefore, Fair Grounds asked the leaders of APECAFORM if it was possible for them to directly receive small donations from the many folks that love their coffee. We then asked what they would do with small donations if a system for receiving financial support was established. They are currently wrestling with this question – but we hope that they will run with their first idea – which is to establish a fund that provides each child of an Apecaform farmer with a back-to-school kit. The kit would include notebooks, pencils and pens and other basic supplies.

The new school year begins in January, and if the APECAFORM board approves the project, Cafe Campesino will establish a simple means for connecting our customers and local schools to the School Kit Fund Project, with a goal of raising enough to fund 1000 kits- the estimated number of school-aged children represented by the co-op. In the meantime, we encourage you to connect with coffee farmers in Guatemala through www.cafeconciencia.org .

Notes:

* Guatemala is divided into departments, like provinces or states cities in Guatemala, like Xela, are divided into zones, like municipalities or neighborhoods.

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