Trips: Bill’s “Spring Break” Travels, Part 1

Written by Cafe Campesino on Apr 1, 2006 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |

Coffee growing in the Guatemala Highlands

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala — I joined a group of wary locals who were gathered around the bus driver, carefully watching to make sure that each piece of the brake drum and tire assembly which were scattered about found a proper home. The bus driver and his buddy were putting the final touches on the brake repair as I had walked up to the bus and asked “is this the next bus for Colomba?” The driver enthusiastically responded “Si! Si!” and told me that we would be on the road in 10 minutes… He smiled as he saw my eyes roaming over all of the parts. I tried in vain to summon the appropriate Spanish in order to convey “Please, please do not rush — I am not in a hurry and really hope that you repair those brakes correctly.” Instead I just said “bueno” and trusted that it was also in the driver’s best interest to get those brakes repaired properly before we descended 3,000 feet down Guatemala’s Pacific slope.

I was boarding the bus for my last visit with the farmers before heading home — this “reunion” would end my whirlwind of travel throughout Guatemala and Mexico. Coop Santa Anita awaited at the bottom of the mountain and would make the 11th farmer’s cooperative I had visited during this extended Spring Break from the paper chase in Americus.

My trip began four weeks prior with the arrival of an enthusiastic delegation of coffee roasters, an adventurous writer from Louisville, his photographer and my cousin. The purpose of the delegation was to meet farmers, gain a better understanding of their realities, learn about the processing of coffee and to meet a few Fair Trade craft organizations. We also wanted to learn how Hurricane Stan, which roared through last October, had impacted the communities and this year’s coffee harvest.

Several years have passed since I last led a delegation of wide-eyed coffee folks to “the source” as we sometimes call it. This was the first time most of these coffee professionals had met farmers, walked down the paths that they walk every day, seen coffee cherries still on the tree and learned just how difficult it is to grow, harvest and export a good coffee bean. Our wonderfully inquisitive team of coffee travelers continually reminded me of how important it is for organizations like ours to make these exchanges available and how much I enjoy taking folks down to Guatemala to this country through their fresh eyes.

While there, the delegation visited four cooperatives while following a broad circular route from Antigua west along the Pacific slope, through the western highland hub of Xela, over to Lake Atitlan and back to Antigua. We started our adventure at a processing mill just outside of Guatemala City and watched a container (40,000 lbs.) of Coop Nahuala’s coffee being cleaned, graded and bagged for export. Then we drove 4 hours to Coop Nahuala in the small town of Pasac where we were greeted by many members of the cooperative and provided with enough food for a week. Our makeshift dormitory was their partially full coffee warehouse. The next day, we met with their board of directors and wandered all over the surrounding hills which looked from a distance like forests but were actually coffee fields covered with lush shade trees. And of course we were served a lot more food — mounds of fresh fruit, black beans, tortillas, beef and plantains. We learned that the cooperative is growing in terms of both membership and the willingness of the 120+ members to deliver all of their coffee to the cooperative. Their goal is to get more families to join the coop — almost all of the 250 families in the village grow coffee as their main source of income and about 80 of them have joined the cooperative. Next year they anticipate doubling their exports from 2 to 4 containers of coffee but to do so they will need considerably more prefinancing than they can currently access — a problem that we will need to address later this year.

The next stop was Coop Santa Anita where discussions of “la situacion” dominated our visit. “The situation” is the term we all used to describe a confluence of factors that caused this community of 32 families to have a dreadful crop of coffee this year — harvesting only 25% of anticipated production. Applying real dollar figures to this their plight is the easiest way to understanding the severity of their situation. The community anticipated exporting one container of coffee which would have grossed about $60,000 and provided a net income of at least $40,000. Due to torrential rains during Hurricane Stan and the resulting mudslide and plant damage, as well as renovations to their coffee trees which temporarily causes a loss of production, Santa Anita only produced about $15,000 of coffee for export. After paying all of their expenses, 32 families will have to live on less that $10,000 this year. The details of their situation were disheartening for all of us, but their spirit and determination were apparently. More than once we heard community leaders say, “We have lived through more difficult circumstances and we will survive “la situacion.” We will continue to partner with them and support them through this crisis.

Our team then headed for Lake Atitlan by way of Quetzaltenango where we stayed overnight and visited Manos Campesinas for a cupping, or tasting, session. Manos is the exporting coop for 6 different coops in Guatemala and the place where I usually set up my roving office while I am in Guatemala. On beautiful Lake Atitlan, we visited one of Guatemala’s most successful farmer cooperatives, La Voz Que Clama en el Desierto, in the small town of San Juan la Laguna. Here we saw the most physical damage from Hurricane Stan, but we also viewed signs of a thriving cooperative that is determined to overcome Stan’s impact.

As we approached San Juan la Laguna by boat, we could see large streaks of missing land and vegetation scarring the mountains that surround the lake. One farmer described the view “as if God’s hand reached down and scraped the side of the mountain”. We were told that 25% of the farmers in this cooperative lost their land to the mudslides and must now find new land and replant. Don Antonio and Don Domingo reported on their coop’s status as our group walked through the new coffee eco-tourism project that La Voz had just opened the day before our arrival. Our conversation was rather disconcerting at times because we were bouncing between the their descriptions of the devastation of Stan, the benefits of Fair Trade and their obvious excitement in just opening the coffee eco-trail. While many cooperatives are new to Fair Trade systems and just beginning to realize tangible benefits from Fair Trade, La Voz has been selling to the Fair Trade market for 14 year. “We changed our lives selling Fair Trade coffee,” said Don Domingo, a founder of La Voz Coop. “We could support our children and send them to school.”

We visited several other Fair trade projects which are located on Lake Atitlan. including “Los Cuchareros de Guatemala — the spoonmakers of Guatemala,” San Pedro Women’s Health Collective or APROS, and Maya Traditions in Panajachel. Each of these innovative projects reminded us that dedicated people are working in a variety of creative ways to solve the same problems of economic and social justice that small-scale coffee farmers face. In fact, the wild ride that Cafe Campesino has been on for 8 years now is analogous to the bus ride that I mentioned earlier. We are on this bus together — farmers, supporters in the north like you and companies like Cafe Campesino that connect the two. We have to trust each other and trust that these trade systems (like those brakes) will work and even improve over time. We are dedicated to forming direct, long-term relationships on both sides of the equation — producers and consumers. If those relationships fail us, well…this bus and those on board will be in real danger of careening down that Pacific slope. But as long as we take our time, make sure all the parts are in place, I believe this bus can get us where we all want to go.

Bill Harris is a partner at Cafe Campesino and the president of Cooperative Coffees, our importing organization. He’ll be back next month to share more stories from his travels in Guatemala and Mexico.

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