Trips: Bill’s Latin America Travels II

Written by Cafe Campesino on Mar 1, 2003 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |
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Last month we chronicled Bill’s trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This month we continue with the Guatemala and Mexico producer visits.

Our group doubled in size when we gathered at the Dos Lunas Pension in Guatemala City. Monika, Scott, Helen and I were joined by Kelli of Sentient Bean, Kate of Idyll Foundation, Ethan and Kristina — both representing Larry’s Beans. Our expanded group began with a morning visit to Orocafe, a green coffee processing plant that cleans and exports the coffee from our Guatemala trading partner, Apecaform. We toured the warehouse, cupped our coffee and then headed out of the city — next stop Lake Atitlan.

Lake Atitlan is certainly one of the prettiest places on this earth. Surrounded by three volcanoes — with lake surface at over 5,000 feet in altitude — it is also one of the best places to grow coffee. We visited in search of a second Guatemala partner cooperative. Our friend Jeronimo of Manos Campesinas traveled with us across the lake to the quiet town of San Pedro for our first exploratory meetings with ADEPMA. First, we hiked to the edge of town for a tour of their processing mill and drying patios. Mill manager Freddy gave us a delightful tour of the impressive, environmentally-friendly facility. Then we caught an afternoon boat over to Santiago to meet the leaders of ADEPMA, learn more about their organizational structure, and explain to them how Cooperative Coffees operates. We concluded this visit with the hope that next year our green coffee cooperative would buy their first fair trade, organic certified export container of coffee.

After a leisurely Sunday morning in San Pedro — which included a swim in the refreshing clear water — we headed back over to Panajachel in order to catch a bus to Mexico.

Our agenda in Chiapas began with a two day visit with the Coop Mut Vitz, our long-time trading partner located in the autonomous region just north of San Cristobal de las Casas. Roman, the newly elected president of the cooperative, met us at the cooperative’s office in La Estacion and led us on a half-day hike through the area. We started by visiting his father’s plot of coffee — sharing that he remembered the shade trees and coffee trees being planted when he was ten. We then, through a series of sophisticated whistles, found Porfirio Gonzalez Ruiz, another member of Mut Vitz who was picking coffee a bit further down the mountainside. Porfirio was immediately bombarded with the clicking of cameras and questions. He explained the picking and drying process — pointing out that he must wait until the coffee cherry turns red before picking — and that he had to lug several hundred pounds of coffee back up the mountain at the end of the day!

On day two, the leaders of Mut Vitz gathered at the office for discussions concerning the financing and shipment of this year’s crop. First, the cooperative leaders presented themselves and updated our group concerning changes within their organization. Next we presented the members and organizational structure of Cooperative Coffees. Then, we began several hours of negotiations and discussions concerning the shipment of 4 containers of coffee during the upcoming export season. Mut Vitz has never sold this much coffee to one buyer so most conversation concerned a delivery schedule that worked for both parties. This is the essence of fair trade — amiable negotiations and agreements that benefit all involved. Mut Vitz would love to sell all of the coffee immediately — as importers we must stagger the deliveries in order to manage inventory wisely and better fit the coffee roasters needs. Through these discussions, often conducted in three languages, we settled on a delivery and payment schedule that suited everyone.

Our next visit in Chiapas was with Maya Vinic, a cooperative born in the aftermath of the December 22, 1997 massacre of 45 members of the larger civil organization Las Abejas, to which the Maya Vinic members also belong. Last year we purchased the first coffee exported by this budding cooperative — and our purpose for the visit was to affirm our continued support of their work and to sign a contract for this year’s harvest. After morning meetings over a bowl of chicken soup, we were surprised with the proposal to visit one of their communities, Yashgemel, to see how their coffee is being produced… ending the day with yet another delicious bowl of chicken soup!

Our last — but certainly not least — bit of coffee business required a return to Guatemala via the overnight bus from San Cristobal to Tapachula — then a short van ride to Malacatan in Guatemala. Here we met with the leaders of APECAFORM to confirm our ongoing partnership, discuss delivery schedules and listen to their future plans for the cooperative. Our meeting was held in their simple, wooden warehouse — where the cooperative hopes to build a larger storage facility in the near future. We concluded the meeting by walking back to town and having a great lunch with the farmers— pizza of all things — in a surprisingly good restaurant overlooking the town square.

The trip concluded with two days of R&R in the historic town of Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala. We overdosed on liquados (a blended fruit drink), pancakes, sushi and other creature comforts while contemplating our two intense weeks of travel and meetings. Each time I visit with our farmer-partners, the return home is more difficult. While it is great to see family and friends again, the shock of interstate highways, fast food alleys, strip malls and our frantic way of life is such a stark contrast to the slow pace of the coffee countryside. Signing off with a smile and a sigh, Bill

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