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…