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.