Fair Trade coffee plot inspections with Rio Azul, Jacaltenango

My time with Guaya’b and Rio Azul in Jacaltenango included visits to their coffee parcels. These were my first proper visits to see Fair Trade coffee areas and it was a fascinating insight.

WIth Rio Azul, I accompanied Manuel and a farmer, Don Juan, to inspect Don Juan’s son’s coffee plot. About a 45-minute walk from the town, we left the dirt road and meandered through plots of corn to get to the coffee.

Each plot is barely demarcated from another; typically by a dilapidated barbed wire fence. Don Juan’s son’s (Antonio’s) plot is typical of the size of many family-owned plots, around 1-2 hectares. To the untrained eye (i.e. me) it was hard to notice all the coffee bushes amongst the other growth of trees and bushes. However, gradually through the morning I got to learn about a typical plot and what goes into making a productive plot. The bushes are planted in rows at regularly spaced intervals about 2m apart. Sometimes it is difficult to notice it because of the sloping terrain of the plots. The way the plot is looked after and cultivated is driven more by organic standards than Fair Trade. For organic certification, no chemicals or fertilisers are used. Compost is added to the soil behind each bush, by digging what I would just call a ‘flat spot’. Such is the terrain of many coffee plots this is an arduous and time-consuming process. Doing this gives the bush the right sort of nutrients it needs and also protects it from runoff and erosion that can easily occur on these steep slopes.

Manuel uses an extensive checklist when conducting the inspection. This is a standard checklist (I saw the same ones when with Guaya’b) and we conducted a check of the soil, the bushes and the surrounding plots. For organic certification it is necessary to check on surrounding plots, particularly if they are conventional, because possible runoff from chemical inputs used in those can contaminate the organic plot. Manuel checks the state of the soil, other bushes and trees that are in the plot, any ‘barriers’ that help stabilise the terrain and several other things.

We often hear of ‘shade-grown’ coffee and no doubt most people feel ‘good’ when they know they know they are drinking shade-grown coffee. The reality, of course, is more complex and just because there are other trees within a coffee plot doesn’t necessarily make that a good thing. The type of trees and bushes in a plot can help or hinder the fertiliy of the soil. The same goes for ‘bird-friendly’ vegetation.

We spent a good couple of hours within and around neighbouring plots. Don Juan told me he’d been a coffee farmer for most of his life and he had a very pleasant, upbeat demeanour. He is one of those people who you could tell had a happy outlook on life. I asked him about what life was like in previous years but he didn’t give me much indication that he’d had big struggles when coffee prices were lower.

After that Manuel took to see a conventional coffee plot within the Rio Azul co-operative. It is certified Fair Trade but not organic. I could immediately see obvious differences but that could have been partly down to location. Manuel showed me the difference in the soil and where fertiliser inputs are used for each bush. A little fertiliser is needed, but Manuel can easily tell the difference between the two methods of farming. The farmer, Jose, tends the plot by himself. His two sons have moved away, so it would impossible for him to tend the plot to organic standards, given the extra work involved. After more than 35 years as a coffee farmer, the additional money he would receive does not offset investing in the extra work involved. It was obvious that this is hard, hard work.

A third plot Manuel took me to was a ‘transitional’ plot. If a farmer wants to switch from conventional to organic, it means undergoing a three year ‘transition’ process. This time required is necessary for the soil to recover from artificial inputs that are forbidden from certified organic coffee. This particular plot was in the 2nd year of transition and of the three plots I saw this day it was the one on the most steeply-sloping ground. The farmer here had already started to create the ‘flat spots’ behind each bush and I shook my head at what obviously looked like the incredible amount of hard work involved. Organic certification also requires more ‘weeding’ of the parcel. One real problem for the farmers is that during this transition process they do not receive additional income, despite the additional work involved. They only receive ‘conventional’ prices. Given that these standards are demanded from a ‘developed world’ perspective, there should be some way of assisting farmers in this process, if this is what we, as consumers, are demanding of our coffee.

Later I asked Ramon about conventional vs organic farming within the co-operative but he says this kind of situation (at Rio Azul) is typical. Although organic farming is encouraged, he is realistic enough to know that many farmers will not switch to certified organic methods. However, Fair Trade standards do mandate against the use of certain chemicals and fertilisers and there are certain ‘environmental’ practices that are required for Fair Trade certification.

At the far end of coffee production, particularly with Fair Trade products, we see the happy, smiling faces of the farmers on the back of the packaging and that makes us ‘feel good’. Whilst Fair Trade does help, it often masks the massive amount of work that goes into food production, and my visits here made it obvious how we take it all for granted.

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Guaya’b organic coffee inspection, Jacaltenango

The following day at Guaya’b an annual inspection took place conducted by BSC-Oko Garantie, a German organic certifier. Three inspectors arrived and with two of them we conducted some inspections. I accompanied Miriam to check the coffee plots along with two of the Guaya’b staff. There are many organisations that conduct organic certifications. BCS-Oko conducts inspections on a range of food products, particularly bananas, pineapple and cocao.

For our inspection, we checked a number of different plots. Beforehand, Miriam from BCS-Oko talked with Guaya’b staff and checked the internal inspection notes of many plots to decide which ones to visit. She checked over some statistics for the co-op, such as size of the organic areas, total volume of organic exports (also any transition areas) and which areas cater specifically for North America or Europe. For the inspections, anything that might be a concern or require a check was noted. Internal inspections are conducted at least once per year, but it is impossible for an external inspection to visit every plot, so it is only those that Miriam deems of possible concern that are inspected.

Miriam told me of some of the things BCS-Oko look out for. The typical concerns are the location of the coffee plot relative to other conventional plots. At one plot a drainage channel was under construction that would take any potential chemical runoff from a neighbouring conventional plot away from the organic one. Also we checked the soil of the plots to get an idea of its fertility and/or evidence of chemical input. Leaf rust (royo) can detrimentally affect the coffee bushes as well, so evidence of this is noted.

The co-op pays for the inspection and the cost depends on what is required and the size of the areas to be inspected. Inevitably, the inspection costs are absorbed by the farmers themselves. It’s obviously difficult to inspect in detail these plots but I was a little surprised at how brief some of the inspections were. My guess is that on some plots Miriam was looking only for specific things noted from the internal inspections. I didn’t get a chance to ask Miriam if there was any cause for concern with the plots but I didn’t detect anything she was particularly concerned about.

It was interesting to get an insight into how the process works, but it was clear from my experience the previous day that the internal inspections are conducted in more detail than these organic ones. It’s clear that retaining organic certification is important, particularly for the farmers. The amount of work they have to put in to obtain (and retain) organic certification is significant, but certainly for some it is not worth the extra effort, or they do not have the means to do so. More and more Fair Trade coffee is certified organic as well, and the quality is certainly higher, but I think sometimes we in the developed world get a little too carried away with demanding ‘labels’ on products without giving due consideration to the demands this places on the farmers themselves.

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Fair Trade Visit: Rio Azul – Jacaltenango, Guatemala

The other co-op I visited in Jacaltenango was Rio Azul. This is a smaller operation than Guaya’b, comprising just over 200 members. Approximately 20% are women. Like Guaya’b it is 100% Fair Trade with both organic (about 85%) and conventional coffee. They produce only coffee and it is all exported to North America and Europe. In some cases, Fair Trade co-operatives cannot sell all their Fair Trade (a discussion for another time!) but Rio Azul typically does export all of their coffee at Fair Trade prices.

Like most of my other visits, I just turned up but was welcomed by Ramon, the manager, and Manuel, who conducts quality control (there are only five employees altogether). Ramon and I quickly got into a discussion about the recent changes at Fair Trade USA (its proposed split from FLO, the international Fair Trade umbrella organisation) and Fair Trade licencing fees. Rio Azul are FLO-certified and when I mentioned IMO (another Fair Trade certification organisation) he did not appear to know much about them. The discussion about FT USA could keep me here for several days, but the sense is that Ramon is concerned about it, particularly with respect to allowing coffee plantations to be certified Fair Trade (currently the system in coffee is only for co-operatives). Because Rio Azul are a small co-operative, their licencing fees make up a higher percentage of their total costs.

Ramon then showed me around the facility. Currently there’s a huge construction project going on here, with a new warehouse, office and security fence underway. So it didn’t look at it’s best but when finished (before the harvest starts in January) I’m sure it’ll be cracking. I got to see the progress anyway, and the big thing that Ramon kept repeating was ‘costa‘. All these projects are costly for the co-op, but clearly are necessary for their future. In the last five years their membership has increased by 25% (which is unusual for the places I’ve visited) so they need modern infrastructure in order to grow.

It’s still a little before the harvest (typically from December-April) so I didn’t get to see the facility in full operation, but Ramon gave me a good sense of what happens at harvest time: coffee delivery (whole cherries), separation (organic or conventional), depulping, washing, drying, processing the pergamino (shell) to the final green (oro) coffee for export. Hopefully within the next few weeks I’ll be visiting a coffee co-op during harvest time. It’s normally a quiet time before harvest with all the construction going on it was busy…in a Guatemalan way.

The next day Manuel took me to inspect a coffee parcel that was looking to join the co-op. But I’ll save that for the next post…

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Fair Trade Visit: Guaya’b – Jacaltenango, Guatemala

Not far across the border in Guatemala is the remote town of Jacaltenango. I hoped I’d be able to visit two co-operatives there, and as it was ‘only’ 50 km off my main route I gambled on getting lucky when I arrived. Yes it was only 50 km, but the uphill climbs more than made up for the short distance.

I had a little time in the town at the weekend to track down the Guaya’b office and then I dropped by on Monday morning to see what I could find. I ended up spending six days in the town as I felt I got very lucky with both co-operatives.Jacaltenango is a small, remote town up in the highlands. It is perched high above the Rio Azul with a number of smaller communities dotted around the surrounding hillsides at various degrees of precariousness.

Guaya’b is a coffee and honey co-operative comprising more than 400 members. It produces 100% Fair Trade products though its coffee is both conventional and organic. They have organic (US & European), Fair Trade (FLO-Cert) and “bird-friendly” (Smithsonian) certifications. Mayacert are a national organic certification body but Guaya’b export all their coffee. Most of the members are indigenous Popti’ with the rest mestizos. Guaya’b exports all its products to Europe and North America. In organic coffee, the European and North American coffee are kept separate. All coffee exported is ‘oro’ (green) beans. Conventional coffee predominantly finds its way to Spain. The honey is produced primarily for markets in Austria, Germany and Belgium.

Lucas Silvestre is the President/Manager and he was very happy to let me get an insight into the Guaya’b operations. Manuel, who oversees quality control, took me to the bodega (warehouse) where I was able to see coffee and honey processing operations and one of the Guaya’b coffee nurseries.

Guaya’b have invested quite a significant amount into their operations in recent years and have received financial help from outside, including Oxfam Spain. The investment was obvious in the new bodega and honey processing buildings; both looked modern and well-equipped for their needs. Another major investment in progress is a ‘coffee drier’ – I don’t know the technical name but it is a huge machine that enables the coop to dry the coffee at harvest time on days when the rain comes down. It’s quicker than drying in the sun but obviously a lot more expensive. In quality terms it is very similar.

Back at the office Lucas had invited a number of productores to a meeting/presentation to get an update of the FLO standards and get information on the 2011 harvest (typically the harvest is completed by May/June). Around 15 producers turned up (all men) and we squeezed ourselves into plastic chairs in a little room where Lucas then did some nifty improvisation to get the projector balanced and firing up against the wall. It is always interesting to see what sort of facilities each co-op has that I visit. Guaya’b have up to date computers and projector, a nice office and a really interesting minature coffee roaster that is kept in the social room. It looks like many typical large roasting machines but is small enough to fit on a tabletop!

Lucas then presented a whole range of information for the producers. Firstly a review of changes to FLO Fair Trade standards that commenced in April 2011 (such as minimum price and organic price increases) and then an overview of the income and costs for the co-op in the previous harvest. Organic coffee is the highest earner, with conventional coffee and honey contributing lesser but significant amounts. Most of the discussion with the farmers seemed to be about how to make sure that organic standards are maintained. I picked up on quite a debate about the use of ‘honey water’ that is required at harvest time when washing the coffee.

As is typical in these parts, the meeting started late and probably carried on later than anticipated too, so some refreshment (fizzy pop of course) was well in order part way through. At meeting’s end a few of the farmers got to pick up a payment. Perhaps that’s why the turnout was good! In Fair Trade, income is typically spread out at intervals through the year, rather than conventional farming when the farmers only get paid at harvest time.

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Adios Mexico, hola Guatemala

After a long, long stretch in Mexico I’ve made it to Guatemala. I probably spend twice as long in Mexico as I first thought and for quite a while I was looking forward to getting here. I did like Mexico, but it took some getting used to early on and I found the cycling quite tough at first, so I was happy to move on.

The other thing for me is that Guatemala is my first ‘new’ country on this trip. I’d been to Mexico before (albeit briefly) so it was refreshing to get to a completely new country. New money, of course, but essentially the same as Mexico. Or is it…?

Well it’s hard to put my finger on the little differences, but in my first couple of days I noticed a few things. Drivers here seem to be in even more of a rush than in Mexico; the stares I get are a little more friendly – there’s some cheerfulness in their demeanour and I even got an encouraging hand clap on one of the many hills; ‘agua’ means a soft drink, not water (‘agua pura’).

Otherwise it seems much the same, but I’ll notice more as time goes by. The other big difference are the mountains. I didn’t spend much time in the mountains in Mexico, but Guatemala is dominated by them. Big, green, fierce and beautiful, they make for spectacular scenery and lung-busting ascents. I got my first real taste on my way to Jacaltenango…

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Fair Trade Visit: Union de la Selva (Cafe Tenam) – Comitan

A short hop from San Cristobal (well it felt a bit shorter on some of the downhill parts) is the city of Comitan. During my stay in San Cristobal I’d had some great coffee at the La Selva cafe. I noticed a Fair Trade label on their menu which turned my head. I found out their office is in Comitan – perfect for me as I was going to pass through there anyway.

Yet again I wasn’t able to confirm an appointment beforehand, and even with the address it wasn’t easy to find, but I showed up the day after I arrived, met with a couple of people and we arranged to meet again earlier this week.

I met with Jose Rene Hernandez Cruz, the President, and Juan Barrayan who gave me a good insight into the co-operative and it’s history (Jorge Hernandez Cruz later showed me their roasting and packaging area too). It was established in 1979 and is comprised of mostly indigenous tojolabales and tzeltales members located in the Selva, Altos and Sierra regions of Chiapas. The ethos is to promote a ‘social conscience’ and to help preserve the environment and health of its customers.

Their coffee is 100% organic and just under 50% is sold as Fair Trade. They currently have IMO (Fair Trade) and Chiapas ‘original’ certifications. Certification fees are paid by the co-operative. The Comitan office is also where the warehouse (bodega) is located and where the green coffee is graded for quality separation for the different markets. The better coffee is exported abroad to markets in Europe and USA.

The coffee comes in a ‘dry-processed’ state (pergamino) and I got see the machine in action that strips the beans of this parchment, that leaves the green bean (though it is referred to as ‘gold’). At harvest time (December-April) the machines next to the warehouse grade the different beans by size and quality for export.

In another part of the site they have their processing facility where the coffee for the domestic market is roasted and packaged. The roasting machine looks a lot different to the ones I’d seen in other places and resembled an old mainframe computer from the 1950s. Lots of buttons and electronics, though I couldn’t see any whirring tapes…It’s a high-volume roaster and apparently more modern, though I couldn’t help feeling that it lacked a lot of style. After the roasting they have grinders and a machine to bag the coffee for sale.

Their office area looks relatively modern and certainly has had some money invested in it. Part of the area is a small shop/cafe where the public can come to buy the whole bean or ground coffee or to sit and have a cup. They’ve also created a nice little sideline with the kind of souveniers and products you’d typically see in an up-scale Western cafe. Prominently displayed on a shelf are La Selva-branded mugs, travel mugs, magnets and little ‘stove-top’ coffee makers.

Jose Rene has his own cafetelera, comprising around 3,000 plants on 2 hectares. He said this represents a normal density of plants, given that there are other trees and vegetation on such a typical ‘shade-grown’ plot. In common with most coffee producers throughout Mexico (and elsewhere), this represents a typical plot size. Small sizes predominate. However much of the “Big Coffee” (Nestle, Kraft etc) coffee comes from direct sun plantations that grow lower quality (robusta) beans. This is a lot more common in Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam, among others.

The producers of La Selva take great care to produce their coffee to organic standards. Whilst this is very exacting, laborious and time-consuming it helps to improve coffee productivity and the environment and ensures the growers receive a higher price for their coffee. Juan told me that he would like to sell more of their coffee as Fair Trade, saying that in future it would be possible to sell up to 80-90% of their exports as Fair Trade. In Mexico there is a domestic organic certification available (Certimex) but the La Selva coffee carries a certification that guarantees it is 100% authentic ‘Chiapas’, a certification given to a range of different products (amber, coffee, textiles, crafts).

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Resting in San Cristobal

I decided I would take a bit of time to relax in San Cristobal, and it was a good place to do so. Decent food (for me, plenty of vegan options), excellent coffee (mucho organic, local and some ‘fair trade’ options too) and an attractive centre that makes for some easy-going, meandering walks around and about the distinct colonial architecture of the town.

It’s been a great way to unwind a bit and though I haven’t explored much outside of town I did get to see a good few things here. As well as my Fair Trade visits, Dan suggested I visit one or two of the several NGOs that are based here. Most of them are geared towards helping the indigenous populations in Chiapas. I met up with Faustino & Gilberto at Desmi and popped into the office of Frayba. As Dan had explained to me on our visit to Acteal, the local indigenous populations have suffered heavily over the years and organisations like these two try do what they can to help.

Desmi promotes the interests and rights of mixed and indigenous communities in Chiapas. They work to promote economic solidarity through means of justice, equality, dialogue and environmental respect, all geared towrds creating autonomy within these communities.

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Frayba) Center for Human Rights is an independent non-profit Civil Organization. Frayba was founded in 1989 through the initiative of Samuel Ruiz García, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They work in defense and promotion of human rights, especially for the indigenous villages and communities here in Chiapas.

Changing tack…my time here coincided with an annual culture festival (Cervantino Barroco) so I got to sample some local music in different venues around the town. There is normally some music to be had here if you wander the plaza or some of the pedestrianised streets

I also took the chance (and I would certainly describe this as ‘taking a chance’) to send a couple of things back home. I’d tried to do so from La Paz and was confronted by the impressively convoluted way of using the Mexican postal system. When I was there, any package must first be inspected by customs, which was conveniently located about 3km away from the post office. So I expected more hassle here in San Cristobal, but firstly I had to find an envelope…

After trawling around town trying to find a large packet envelope (Mexican post offices haven’t got around to selling the kind of things you might need to send a package. Just stamps), I went back to the post office to await the fun. Amazingly enough it was not only straightforward but I got a lot of help getting it sent. The guy behind the counter found an old box that I could use; he packed it up (firstly having to check what I was sending) and conveniently ignored the extra few grams that took the package into a higher price band. I expected nothing but more hassle and so I’ve had to revise my view a little. The other strange thing was seeing the row of staff busy typing away on typewriters, though one lady looked particularly bored as she plodded her finger on the space bar to get to the end of the line…

I stayed at a nicely-run B&B called Gite del Sol. It was inexpensive and friendly, on the lower scale but suited my needs (apart from getting used to the cool evenings and crispy mornings). It’s run by a Mexican-Canadian couple so I kept hearing French and English as well as Spanish, as welll as the odd spattering of German too. As for food and coffee, I found some great places here. The best vegetarian (where I went repeatedly) was Arcoiris, which does a vegetarian buffet. It’s very homely and low-key and they do some ‘interesting’ combinations when using up the previous day’s food, particularly the bread…but it’s generally fresh and it was easy to find vegan options there. My top recommendation! There are a couple of really good bakeries (Madre Tierra and Casa del Pan Papalotl, which is also organic) too where I ate enough bread to make up for all the tortillas I’d been eating for the previous two months. For coffee I had too much choice…from the Cafe Museo, Casa del Pan, Madre Tierra, Cafe La Selva, Cafe Yik…all organic, some Fair Trade, all local Chiapas coffee.

Leaving San Cristobal was hard to do…but Guatemala soon awaits!