An Organic Coffee Cooperative

Trip Start Nov 05, 2007
Trip End Nov 29, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Sunday, November 18, 2007

             I sit in my room in Quetzaltenango, otherwise known as Xela. I've learned why there are two such different names for this city: Quetzaltenango is the Spanish name, while Xela is a shortening of the original name, Xelaju, given by the Mayans. 60% of the Guatemalan population self-identifies as Mayan; and, since discrimination and repression has caused some people to deny their heritage, the actual number is probably far higher. Nowhere is the indigenous culture stronger than here in the highlands, where Xela, Guatemala's second-biggest city, sits nestled amongst high mountain slopes covered with lettuce, radishes, broccoli, and other vegetables.

             My plan when I arrived here was to find a place to volunteer for a couple of weeks, possibly studying Spanish as well. Xela is a mecca for development projects, and its schools tend to attract more serious language students. As so often happens when one travels, however, serendipity had other ideas for me. I had just finished gathering contact information for several organizations in need of short-term volunteers when I saw a flyer for a four-day harvest tour of an organic, cooperatively-run coffee finca (plantation) leaving early the next morning. It turned out the woman I needed to talk to was right next door. Yes, there was still space, she told me, and showed me the well-planned itinerary. It included not only tours of coffee processing and roasting facilities, but also talks about the finca's history and fair trade, several hikes, and the opportunity to pick coffee ourselves. Why not, I thought?

             This turned out to be an excellent decision. In the course of four days, I went from knowing almost nothing about coffee (though I had learned to recognize the ubiquitous plants) to being enough of an expert to give presentations on the whole coffee production process. (I've tried to do a bit of this in the entry after this one - click on "Show Slideshow" from there for my annotated photos.) In addition, I learned quite a bit about the economics of coffee growing and the history of several farms. I've done my best to retell these stories below.  

             Nueva Allianca, the finca where we spent most of our time, used to be owned by a single patron, Rafael Monson, who managed the property well. When he died, he left the finca under the care of one of his five sons. Unfortunately, this son was not a particularly good investor and frequently had problems with money. During the 20-year period from 1980 - 2000, there were eighteen months in which the campesinos (workers) didn't get paid. When they reported this to the authorities, the patron used his influence to get out of having to pay.

              Many times the campesinos organized to try to receive their salaries. However, time and time again, the patron bribed the leaders to leave the community, offering only these families their back pay. About thirty of the seventy families left the finca in this way. Eventually, however, leaders emerged who refused to accept the bribe. At this time, however, the price of coffee and macadamia nuts (the other main product produced at the finca) dropped dramatically, and the patron declared bankruptcy.

             There wasn't much the campesinos could do at this point. Guatemalan law didn't require the patron to pay any of his debts once he was bankrupt. Though many of their families had been living on the land for four generations, the campesinos had no choice but to seek other work. However, they kept in touch with one another. Eventually they learned that a financial company from Panama had taken over the finca, due to the fact that the patron had a debt of 1.9 million quetzals (about $245,000) - not including the 1 million quetzals (about $130,000) he owed the workers. Unfortunately, the company said they weren't responsible for the patron's debts, and thus couldn't help the workers recover what was owed to them.

             Realizing they needed support, the campesinos began working with a workers' union. The Panamanian company now paid them more notice and said they would be willing to give them the finca in exchange for the 1.9 million quetzals owed by the former patron. Unfortunately, one of the patron's brothers offered to buy the land instead and moved onto the property. With the support of the union, the campesinos staged an "invasion" of the finca. Someone informed the brother, who left in the middle of the night with much of the important machinery.

             The campesinos now had control of the finca, but with no money they were reliant on donations from other communities and a few crops from the farm in order to survive. The brother threatened to send in the paramilitary, and ten of the forty families left in fear. The others organized themselves, posted guards, and publicized the brother's threats. At last, he backed off.

             At this point, the campesinos were lucky enough to receive a loan from the Fundo de Tierra to cover the 1.9 million quetzales owed to Panamanian company. This loan allowed them a four-year grace period, followed by eight years in which to pay back the money at 5% interest. (In fact, the debt was lowered to 1.5 million quetzals, due to the fact that the former patron had registered the finca as having less land in order to evade paying all his taxes.) As the campesinos began working the land once more, they initially received just 5 quetzales (about $0.65) per day. The brother had taken the depulper necessary to process the coffee cherries (the fruit that comes directly off the trees), so the workers had to sell the coffee completely unprocessed for a low price. Little by little, they were able to raise salaries to 30 quetzales a day (about $3.87). While this was still 20 quetzales lower than the national minimum wage, they needed to save money to repay the debt and to invest in other projects, so they wouldn't be so dependent on coffee and macadamia prices. (As an example of how far prices have fallen, five years ago a quintal (100 pounds) of macadamia nuts cost 550 quetzales (about $71); now, they cost no more than 200 quetzales (about $26)).

             It has now been three years since the workers received their Fundo de Tierra loan, and the finca is doing well. Projects include a water purification plant, biodiesel production, a hydroelectric plant, pigs, chickens, and cows, and, of course, ecotourism (the reason we were there, staying in the patron's former home, converted into a hotel). The finca is run by two Boards of Directors, one for men and one for women; each consists of seven or eight people elected to two-year terms. The women's board represents a particularly big change, since under the patron women had very little voice. Now they're in charge of the hydroelectric plant and a chicken-raising project, and many women have become much less timid. The finca has won several development prizes and grants; for example, 75,000 quetzales (about $9675) used to invest in the water purification plant, and 100,000 quetzales (about $12,900) from a UN small donations grant, used to build their hydroelectric plant. They've also been able to provide a much better education for their children. The patron had only paid for one teacher to teach first through third grade; now children can go to school through ninth grade. The community hopes that in the future, there will be more work at the finca for educated people, so that their children will be able to use their education and still stay in the community.

             The finca now also has a beneficio (processing plant) which takes the pulp off of the coffee cherries. They sell this depulped coffee to other farms who take off the final layers surrounding each coffee bean, called the pergamino, and who either export this coffee or roast it themselves. One of these is the Mundo Verde women's roasting cooperative, located in Loma Linda (literally, "beautiful hill"), which we visited on Day 3 of our coffee tour. The roasting project was initially one of three projects, along with raising chickens and growing vegetables. However, due to the proximity of a nearby volcano and the resultant ashes, the two latter projects were unsuccessful. At first, the women removed the pergamino with a mortar and pestle and donated their own money to pay for bags for the roasted coffee. Their first order was for 14 pounds of coffee from a Spanish school, which was all they sold in one year! Little by little, however, the women expanded their business. Finding and purchasing bags was a big deal; the initial bags they used kept the coffee fresh for only a short time. Collecting enough money to buy the coffee to roast was also a challenge. Eventually the women decided to take out a loan for 5000 quetzales (about $645). Luckly for them, the group from which they received the loan (Pastoral de la Tierra) also helped them to receive a donation of 150,000 quetzales (about $19,350) from an Austrian organization. With this money they were able to buy a retirador (the machine to remove the pergamino), roasting equipment, several buildings, coffee, and bags. The twelve women in the cooperative now each receive 25 quetzales (about $3.20) for a day's work.

             Learning the stories of these fincas helped me realize a number of things. I was surprised at how little money the campasinos received for coffee that sells for so much back home, and saw how much better it would be for farmers to sell their coffee directly to consumers; that, in part, is what Fair Trade coffee is all about, although even Fair Trade prices aren't always enough to help farmers receive a living wage. I also saw how important it is for businesses to have access to low-interest loans and grants, something I had never really considered before. Most importantly, I realized that these groups had been successful because they persevered, even when it looked like they would fail. Although these campesinos still didn't make much money, they owned their own businesses and had plans to make them even better.
P.S. Want to try the coffee from these fincas (or even see them yourself)? Visit the Café Conciencia website at, which sells coffee from both Nueva Allianca and Loma Linda (Mundo Verde). There's a minimum order of 10 pounds, so you may want to get together with other coffee-lovers to place your order. Aside from shipping costs, 100% of the money goes directly to the farmers, so you can feel good about your purchase.
P.P.S. Be sure to click on the pictures to see the accompanying captions, many of which tell more about the non-coffee projects at Nueva Allianca. If you click the first one, you should be able to then view them all in order. Also, be sure to check out the next entry for a photologue of the entire coffee production process!
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