Trips: Bill’s Return to Guatemala

Written by Cafe Campesino on Feb 1, 2004 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |
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As my plane circled Guatemala City, I counted (using my fingers, of course) how many years had passed since my first, rather spontaneous trip to this beautiful country. Almost seven years! I honestly can’t believe that almost seven years have passed since Dick talked me into joining his Habitat for Humanity Global Village work team in April 1997 and introduced me to a coffee farmer.

Walking through Guatemala customs, I remembered the chaotic scene that would greet me just outside the airport – offers for taxis, hotels, hostels, buses and all of the other services that follow the international tourist trail. Just before leaving for the Atlanta airport, I’d sent an email to Lorena at the Dos Lunas Hostel in Guatemala City asking if they had a room for the night. As I exited the airport, I got my answer. Bouncing above the crowd was the “Dos Lunas” sign and my lift to a relatively quiet night in the city.

The purpose of this trip was to meet with three farmer cooperatives and to do a bit of strategic planning with Monika Firl, the Cooperative Coffees producer relations representative, and Scott Patterson, the director of Peace Coffee and chair of Cooperative Coffees. But I arrived several days early in order to relax in Antigua and meet a good friend, Kathy Manning and her Habitat Global Village team from Elon University. They were wrapping up three weeks of house building and Spanish classes through Elon’s service learning program. Where were cool programs like this when I was in school?

On to Quetzaltenango (also called Xela) to meet Scott and Monika and her three year old, tri-lingual daughter Kamila. A grand reunion at the Galgos bus station, an evening at the Hotel Rio Azul, and we were off for a visit with a potential coffee supplier – “La Asociación Civil Maya de Pequeños Agricultores.” We were joined by Mike and Eva of Just Coffee, who had just arrived, in Xela from Chiapas, Mexico. Mike had met the Vice-President of Maya Civil when Rigoberto visited Just Coffee in Madison, Wisconsin, late last year. Rigoberto met us in Xela and whisked us off for a day visit to the farm – a little more than an hour outside of Xela.

What an impressive cooperative! Unlike most of cooperatives that we work with, Maya Civil is a communal cooperative. Thirty-three families purchased the farm collectively from the Guatemalan government 5 years under a land distribution agreement established by the 1996 peace accords. This approximately 200-acre parcel had been a working coffee plantation for many years, but was in disrepair when the refugees arrived. These families had lived in a hotel for two years while waiting for this promised land, then ended up paying far too much for the property. But their spirits are high and five years they later have created a model coffee community. After several hours of meetings with community leaders and a wonderful lunch in their new eco-tourism restaurant, we went for a long walk through the coffee and banana fields. We ended the tour with a look at the old coffee drying facilities — and stumbled upon a game that creatively combined soccer and dodge ball being played by the children on the coffee drying patio.

Since the sun was now setting and we were thoroughly enjoying our visit, we decided to stay for the night rather than drive back to Xela as previously planned. Next time, we will remember to call the hotel if we suddenly change plans. The family that owns the Rio Azul back in Xela noticed that we didn’t return in the evening and alerted the Guatemalan police that we were missing! We packed our bags back at the hotel, apologized for this oversight, and piled in the 4WD with Jeronimo and Carlos for a trip to the volcano Tajumulco and a visit with our friends at APECAFORM.

Note to self: always remove baseball hat before heading up the mountain to Pueblo Nuevo. Three years had passed since my last trip up the cobblestone one lane road to this isolated village that serves as the headquarter for APECAFORM. Guatemala’s last leader was known as the “highway president” due to his penchant for big-ticket, visible road constructions projects, but that funding never made it to this part of Guatemala. Bouncing along this road at 5-10 mph, the trip up the mountain takes about an hour and a half. Your head only has to meet the roof of the vehicle once for you to be reminded of the pain that the small button on the top of a baseball hat can inflict.

We arrived late in the afternoon for the first of three days scheduled with APECAFORM. We learned upon arrival that due to a miscommunication, the farmers had been waiting since early that morning for us. What a way to start a visit! We soon moved past this uncomfortable first impression and planned the next two days. Scott and I were informed that they expected a half-day lecture beginning early the next morning. We worked late into the evening by candlelight (the recently installed electric lines to Pueblo Nuevo failed this particular evening) assembling a talk on the quality process. Scott would lead the farmers through a 10-point discussion of the progressive coffee processing steps and I would review two years worth of their coffee cupping (tasting) reports provided by our friends at Coffee Lab International.

We started early the next morning with breakfast in a local home. Rice and beans, tortillas and eggs, and thin sugar-laden coffee taken in a very rustic, smoke-filled kitchen, complete with a dirt floor and chickens roaming about. It was rather disconcerting, eating these eggs while chickens peck at your feet…do you think they know? All in all, this “typical” breakfast was quite tasty. Off to our meeting, which proved to be a lively topic. I was impressed by the frank quality discussions and sense of commitment to producing quality coffee that came forth from each farmer. We were meeting with seventeen men, each of whom is the elected “promoter” from their village. This means their job is to learn the latest coffee processing and organic techniques and carry this knowledge back to their village. They are paid a small wage by the cooperative for this responsibility.

Scott’s command of the Spanish language was quite apparent as he led a lengthy discussion concerning their current processing methods and their desire to build four central wet processing mills as soon as funds are available. I then talked about the technical evaluation of quality as defined in our cupping reports. Jeronimo volunteered to translate, as it’s hard enough to describe the taste of “mellow,” “full-bodied” or “rich and creamy” in English, much less my bad Spanish. I still wonder exactly what Jeronimo told them, but apparently my descriptions were quite amusing. At the end of the quality seminar, the promoters elected one farmer to meet us in Xela the following Sunday, drive with us to see the dry processing plant in Esquintla, and then travel on to Guatemala City to visit the exporting office and cupping laboratory. Margarito was elected by his peers to represent them and to return and describe the process, since this was the first time that any of them had visited the processing and exporting facilities.

We concluded our visit with APECAFORM impressed by the leadership and organization of this committed cooperative that has supplied us with great Guatemalan coffee for the last four years. They articulated several goals for the coming year, including the construction of a new office (they currently use the community center), the construction of four wet mills in various communities and the construction of a small warehouse at the base of the mountain.

The last few days of the trip were an interesting mix of Cooperative Coffees strategic planning, lounging about in a hot spring, a brief visit with one more potential cooperative partner and too many espressos back in Antigua. We actually had a bit of down time on Saturday and Sunday, which was an unusual treat for this hard working bunch. For a brief moment, Scott and I actually felt guilty due to the lack of agenda items. But we got over this! We wandered around the neighborhood that I called home during my three-week visit to Xela back in 1997, and located the family that I lived with while attending language school. Ceci and Daniel are 20 and 22 years old now and still living at home. Their brother Juan Carlos is now married a father, and teaching in the local schools. And Miriam, my “madre” during that first visit to Guatemala, now lives in New York and works as a nanny. As we sat in their living room sipping a Coke, it seemed that little time had passed since Ceci and Miriam taught me how to make a tortilla (I almost dropped my first one, Ceci remembered!). My first visit to Guatemala truly changed my life, and each time I visit I find the return to the states more difficult. We started Café Campesino and Cooperative Coffees in order to demonstrate that trade can benefit everyone involved. Almost seven years later we have many accomplishments under our belt, but there is so much more to be done. I’ve only been back for a week but am already planning the return trip!

— Bill Harris

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