CCDA Fair Trade co-operative, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Ah, Lake Atitlan. It’s somewhere I heard about a long time ago and yes, it is spectacular. Surrounded by volcanoes and steep hillsides, it is a heady mix of green and blue, and the warm sun looks down gracefully from high in the sky. At least when I was there it did!

There are tourists galore, particularly where I stayed in Panajachel, the largest town on the lake, and plenty of opportunities for hiking, tours, boating and whatnot. If this lake was in Canada, there wouldn’t be an inch of lakeside real estate left…

Anyway, I was more interested in visiting CCDA (Comite Campesino del Altiplano [Commitee of Farmers of the Highlands]). Established in 1982 to help workers recover lost lands over several centuries and to help rebuild culture and community. CCDA comprises producers of not only coffee but sugar and cotton. Producers come from many regions, not just around Lake Atitlan.

CCDA was very much on my radar because of the connections to Vancouver, my home. Two brands of coffee, Cafe Etico and Cafe Justicia are both available there and it was via these that I learned about the CCDA. A large part of Fair Trade is to establish relationships between producers and buyers/retailers/importers and I was keen to meet a few of the producers who provide Etico and Justicia with their coffee – and if you buy it, I saw what you’re drinking (or will be…).

Both Cafe Etico and Justicia are modelled on ‘direct trade’ rather than ‘certified fair trade’. They call it ‘fair trade plus’. They do not have the Fair Trade labelling, though the principles of Fair Trade are very much in evidence. For an organisation as small as CCDA, the licensing costs of labelling (and associated formal inspections) are too high. CCDA work closely with a Vancouver-based organisation, BC CASA that works in solidarity with different organisations within Guatemala, one of which is CCDA.

The farmers receive prices significantly higher than the Fair Trade minimum. The processing mill I was at employs organic methods of production, including filtering and recycling the water used for washing; composting the coffee cherry pulp; cultivating mushrooms from used corn; and of course not using any chemical inputs for the coffee plants themselves. The site also has a ‘demo’ garden that they use to show the farmers what can be grown on their own parcels.

I was met by Rodolpho, who was very happy to show me around the small site. When I arrived it was break time and all the workers (about eight of them) were gathered in the shade having some Pepsi and snacks. All were male and most were young men. Once break was over Rodolpho showed me around and gave me some history into CCDA and how things are today. Rodolpho is a short, stocky guy, with a serious manner but was very helpful and accommodating and helpful. He has been with the CCDA for 20 years and is their ‘technical’ guy. He spends most of his time visiting/inspecting the coffee parcels and giving training to the farmers. Later on I met Marcelo, the ‘legal’ guy who usually works at the CCDA office, located south away from the lake.

The site is relatively small. Farmers bring their coffee to the site towards the end of each day. The process is then similar to what I saw at Finca la Florida, though the equipment is different. It looked just as old, but smaller in scale. The depulping and washing is done in the same fashion and the coffee gets sorted by size into its ‘quality’. The larger beans are typically export grade. The beans are sorted and emptied into the large tubs to ferment. After this, the process looked to be a lot more laborious than at la Florida, as it required a worker to jump into the large tub and manually scoop out the coffee into large sacks. Those sacks were then carried to the side and emptied onto the patios. There are only four patios at the site, but they looked clean and well-maintained.

The co-op have a number of future plans to grow and diversify, in common with many places I’ve visited. Unfortunately the plans were progressing slowly (it seemed to me) and I did wonder how soon they can get their ambitions realised. The ‘casa grande’ that is under construction will have a kitchen, meeting areas and some ‘hospedaje’ for producers to stay in if required. When I asked Rodolpho if it would be finished next year, he said he hoped so, but I could tell he probably didn’t expect it. Another initiative was the construction of a couple of bungalows that overlooked the lake. These would be to try and attract eco-tourists. They are being constructed using as much local materials as possible.They would also like to roast their own coffee, for the Guatemalan market at least. They currently experiment with a small amount of their coffee but would like to do more.

One facility that has been completed was a ‘drying’ machine – industrial-sized. This helps dry the coffee if and when outside conditions prevent the coffee being dried out on the patio.

I didn’t stay long at the site, as I had to get back to Panajachel. Rodolpho walked me back to the roadside to ensure I got a ride on a ‘picop’ (pickup truck) back to where I caught my boat back. As I was standing on the back, swaying and clinging on I noticed many people by the roadsides with large sacks and what looked to be weighing scales. It took a few minutes to figure out what it was and it was surprising. These were family farmers selling their coffee by the roadside to ‘coyotes’. The picture I had of coyotes is how they exploit the coffee producers, but this looked different to me. I couldn’t tell what prices the people were getting, but it all looked very civilised from my limited view. It could be that people just accept this situation as the way it is, and exploitation is a big part of this, I’m sure. But when you have someone arriving at the end of your day in the field willing to give you cash in your pocket, it can be a hard thing to resist for families who often live and survive week by week.

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Finca la Florida: ‘eco-tourist’, fair trade community, Colomba, Quetzaltenango

A brief word of warning! This is a long post with lots of pictures…sit back with some Fair Trade coffee…

From Xela I headed to Finca la Florida, a tiny community that grow fair trade coffee and promote eco-tourism. It was a couple of bus rides away and as I planned on returing to Xela I didn’t have any inclination to cycle there. Good thing I didn’t as the Finca is 12-15 km off the main road via some steep dirt roads.

With this visit I managed to get some kind of plan and a phone call to Rosaura at the Finca meant she knew I was on my way. Still, when I started walking up the road towards where I thought the Finca was, and greeted by Frankie, a young lad who unsettled me from the start, I wondered if I had made the right choice. Frankie does actually live in the Finca but my first encounter with him, his strange mannerisms, indecipherable speech and his willingness to show me his machete put me on edge for the rest of the walk there.

Luckily Rosaura greeted me when we arrived and put me at ease. I was shown to my ‘room’ and then quickly ordered over (in a nice way) to Miriam’s, where I would eat all my meals whilst staying there.

Finca la Florida is part of the organisation SCIDECO (Sociedad Civil para el Desarrollo de Colomba [Civil Society for the Development of Colomba]) that was formed in the 1980s during the civil war. The Finca produces coffee, bananas, macadamia nuts and cacao as well as other forms of subsistence agriculture such as farm animals and beans. They have also tried to establish an ‘eco-tourist’ project for foreign visitors and volunteers to come and stay. It is a self-sustaining community and everyone who lives there works together for its common good.

The history of the ‘project’ is very unique. In 2002 a group of landless peasants of SCIDECO began to occupy the Finca that had previously been abandoned by the owner years before. A three-year struggle followed, but in April 2005 the group were successful in its application to own the land, with the help of a loan from the government. There were many struggles over several years before this moment (for more insight, have a look at More struggles after 2005 followed, but at this point the community has no debt and owns the land as a community co-operative.

My visit was short so I only got a glimpse of the life the community has. The main resource the community has developed is their coffee. It is 100% organic and Fair Trade, and the group uses a larger, multi-organisation co-operative, Manos Campesinos, to export its coffee to the US and Europe. I also visited the Manos Campesinos office while I was in Xela.

The community seemed happy to have me there and were very hospitable. I ate with Miriam & Dionisio and their family, notably Merli and Esteban, the two youngest children. The food was simple but hearty and Miriam seemed to have no problem accommodating my vegan requirements. Lots of hand-made tortillas! Rosaura and her husband Esteban were also very warm and welcoming towards me.

Luckily for me my visit coincided with the coffee harvest time. It’s a very busy time for the community and everyone gets involved (usually coffee work is only done by men, but at harvest time women and children also contribute). Every day the coffee is picked and brought to the processing building to be washed. Coffee for export must be depulped and washed the same day. It is the left in huge tubs to ferment, after which it is ‘rinsed’ and set out to dry on large cement patios. Fermentation usually takes at least a day, and drying the same. Although hard work, the atmosphere is relaxed and happy. For the community this is a special time because coffee is their main source of income.

I got a tour of the finca and saw a few of the thousands of coffee bushes. In addition, I saw macadamia nut trees scattered around, and many banana trees. Bananas are typically harvested year-round and although plentiful, do not contribute a large source of income. On the morning I left, a truck full of bananas would earn the community only around CAN $650.

The community works ‘together’ on communal work each workday morning. In the afternoons and weekends people are able to work on their own plot of land. There is little opportunity for leisure days as a result. Most of the community gets up around 4am. I was woken each morning around that time when they kick-started the ‘tortilla machine’. This is when the tortilla dough is made for the day. Miriam probably makes 150 tortillas every day for her family. Even though the community has autonomy and exports its coffee as Fair Trade, it is still a very poor place.

Many families still live in tin-roofed shacks. Medical and dental facilities are lacking. Miriam says she rarely ventures to the nearest town (Colomba) because it costs money to get there. A pick-up truck comes a few times a week with basic food items for people to buy.

I was saddened about the progress of the ‘eco-project’. It looked like an ambitious undertaking. I was only one of a few visitors they had seen this year. Several rooms had been earmarked as accommodation, along with a ‘cafeteria’. When I was there, I stayed in what looked like the only habitable room. It had a bathroom but little water, and even a bidet… Electricity worked intermittently (it comes from a hydro-electric project, so in summer, the dry season, there’s much less electricity available). The cafeteria was full of junk and upstairs the balcony railings had been removed. Although it looked like reconstruction work was underway, it felt as though little progress had been made for a long while.

However, there were many decaying photos still pinned to the wall, showing how it had been only 2-3 years previously. Clearly it had been relatively popular at one point. Rosaura was keen to point out to me that they wanted to attract more visitors and helpers. So it is still in their plans to develop and refurbish the ‘casa grande’.

One of the major investments in the community of late was the opening of a new school (just 2 rooms) in 2010. It’s only at primary level, but the community has at least 50 youngsters so it is clearly needed. The teacher comes here from another community.

Events and festivals are rare here. I got a chance to see a community gathering, when there was a celebration for a female missionary who was leaving for Chiapas, Mexico after working in the local area for 12 years. A projector was rigged up, electricity coming from a generator, and a short film was shown, along with presentations and speeches for the guest of honour. Afterwards on the coffee patio, some of the younger people put on a play about some of the recent history of Guatemala. It had very limited resources, was funny in parts, and wouldn’t earn any awards for acting, but I was impressed that such a performance came from these group of people.

By my last evening, I was beginning to feel the sense of community within the finca. Although a very tough life, for the people here it is better than what they had before. They have autonomy and a willingness to share and work together. They want to provide a better life for their children and expose them to the outside world, which includes having outsiders coming to their community.

It’s possible to stay here for several weeks or months, but I was happy to get an insight into life here. A few days of ‘remoteness’ and limited facilities was a great experience but I was ready to get back to Xela and continue on with my trip.

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Fair trade chocolate and weaving in Xela

Chocoloate and weaving? Not together, that could get quite messy. But I did a couple of tours here in Xela to get an insight into organic/fair trade chocolate-making and textile weaving.

For the chocolate-making, it was actually cacao for hot chocolate (which here is just called chocolate), not chocolate to eat as we know and love. I found out about both co-operatives that make the chocolate and textiles through my visits to Al-Natur, the Fair Trade shop and cafe.

Trama textiles formed in 1988 as a result of the ongoing civil war that left women without husbands and little means of obtaining an income. It is now comprised of 400 women from five regions in the western highlands area of Guatemala. There are five different indigenous languages amongst them. The Trama co-operative offers a central location where the women can come to weave and buy and sell their products. Mostly the women weave in their own communities. It is a supportive and secure place for them that also offers training and education. Trama pay for their products up front so the women are always guaranteed being paid. Volunteers at Trama may have a design background and they give advice to the women on more contemporary products and designs. But such is the profusion of weaving products in Guatemala that designs and products are frequently copied by the different weaving groups in the country.

To help generate income Trama offers weaving classes and demos. I just went for the demo and saw how the different equipment (i call them the spinning wheels, the ‘ironing board’ and the weaving ‘hammock’) is used together to create the products. Typically cotton is used and the colours are mostly naturally dyed, though not always. Trama is not ‘certified’ in fair trade. It’s income is not sufficient to pay licencing/membership fees but it does operate within ‘fair trade’ principles. Textiles have a different model within Fair Trade (there’s rarely a ‘label’ such as the case with coffee etc.); it’s typically a membership situation that doesn’t require inspections or formal certification.

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The cacao co-operative is comprised of 8 women in the Xela area. The cacao itself comes from further afield. This co-operative creates the final chocolate products. The process is relatively simple and the facilities I saw were pretty low-key. But it gets the job done (and fast!). The cacao comes to this co-op roasted by the women or their families. From there it’s a simple process of liquifying it and combining with sugar (and also with other ingredients such as vanilla, almonds, cardamom) to create the paste. This is repeated and the ‘paste’ comes to the next room for chopping up into 1 lb blobs that get slapped into the moulds before being packed. All the staff I saw were male, so it seems like ‘man’s work’ here. I didn’t see the women that comprise the co-op. Paola co-ordinates things from a separate office location (where the lights often don’t work..).

The cacao visit was certainly the most fun and I got my hands chocolatey. The end product is not quite like our typical ‘cocoa’ as it comes loaded with sugar and a flavour and you just add hot water, rather than milk. It’s very rich though, and certainly delicious.

Again there is no ‘Fair Trade’ certification as the products are typically only found locally. Guatemala ranks quite low in cacao production so many other countries produce a lot more cacao for export.

Back at Al-Natur (where the visit is co-ordinated) the tour includes a cup of chocolate and Mario was very keen to point out how the Mayans drank the chocolate before battles because of the energy it gave them. He said it’s perfect for the more contemporary pursuit of cycling, so I’ll be loading up before my riding days and no doubt failing any drug test…but who cares, it’s worth it!

Also here’s a link to videos from both visits..

Fair Trade and comfort food in Xela (Quetzaltenango)

I made my way up and down a few hills to the relative metropolis that is Quetzaltenango (or Xela, it’s name in the local language). I was happy to get here for a little rest, gringo food, and to explore some local Fair Trade organisations.

After recuperating from my volcanic experiences, I set about exploring the Fair Trade aspects of the city centre. Xela is popular with outsiders and tourists for Spanish language schools and adventure touring. There’s a number of young gringos around the centre and several places that cater for this type crowd. Of most interest to me – food and Fair Trade. I found more than enough here to satisfy my cravings.

I started with a couple of places: Al-Natur and El Cuartito. El Cuartito is a western-style cafe and coffee shop that serves Fair Trade organic coffee that tastes rich, sweet and comes in western-style sizes. Perfect! Al-Natur is more interesting though, as it’s a Fair Trade shop and cafe.

Al-Natur is run by Mario and his wife Carolina. Established three years ago, it’s a great little one-stop shop for local and regional “fairly traded” products. “Fair Trade” as a certification is rare within Guatemala, and really only exists for coffee that is exported to Europe and North America. Within the country there isn’t any official “Fair Trade” certifier or organisation that supports Fair Trade (for organic, “Mayacert” does certification within Guatemala). So the products at Al-Natur, which are typical of the products from small producers, are made based on fair trade principles. Al-Natur sells quite a range of things: textiles made by women’s co-operatives and associations; shampoos and natural products; jams; granola; peanut butter; flour; tea; coffee; chocolate (for drinking); as well as others bits and pieces. Most products are developed by co-operatives and individual producers. Mario used to work in helping various women’s groups and co-operatives and so now Al-Natur is a place where those producers can sell their products. It was here that I found out about the Trama textile co-operative and ASICHOQ, the chocolate producer association. I visited both organisations last week.

On the vegan and food side, I quickly found a few places that became favourites: Artesano for fresh bread (and vegan muffins!), a place I stumbled into every day; the Blue Angel cafe for decent, simple food and vegan cookies; and Aeropagus where I had the odd bagel and some very tasty vegan apple pie.

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Volcanic eruptions and tremors in Quetzaltenango

Volcanic activity isn’t the only thing erupting in Quetzaltenango (Xela). I arrived here several days ago, into a city that’s surrounded by hills and volcanoes. It’s a spectacular setting.

There are many volcanoes in the region, stretching southeast towards Guatemala City. Luckily the volcanoes here looked quiet, but I had my own version of volcanic eruptions not long after arriving, which kept me very close to my hotel for a few days. Safety first. Coincidentally during this time the earth did move, along with the cupboards in my room. A tiny tremor of a couple of seconds, but a gentle reminder of the other forces of nature…

Chajul (I): Asociacion Chajulense

From Huehue I made a gruelling ride towards Chajul, in Quiche province. I didn’t quite make Chajul, deciding to stop in the bigger town of Nebaj. I faced some quite steep climbs along the way but it was the amount of climbing that did for me that day.

Nebaj and Chajul, together with San Juan Cotzal, are the three main towns that comprise the heart of this area known as the Ixil Triangle. It’s an isolated area and not hard to see why, as Nebaj is protected by a ring of mountains that I had to climb/stagger over before dropping steeply into the valley below.

Chajul is at the end of the main road and when I got there the following day it was obvious that the town felt quite isolated (though it’s only 20 km from Nebaj). My reason for coming here was to visit the Asociacion Chajulense, a group of indigenous Ixil people that has developed a number of interesting projects to preserve their customs and language. Even having checked their website for information, I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d find. The ‘eco-tourist’ posada sounded like it would be a good place to stay at, so I headed there first. Or tried to, getting lost along the way. When locals directed me along a dirt track, I figured that perhaps things weren’t going to be quite as advertised…and so it proved. “Hot water, internet, tv, parking, cafeteria” it advertised. They had one out of five…

Still, I wasn’t really complaining. I wanted to see what else they had going. The website showed a variety of operations: a coffee export co-operative; honey exports (both organic & Fair Trade); women’s association; promoting women’s and children’s education; radio station; textiles; running the ‘eco-tourist’ lodge that also acts as an education/workshop site.

When I wandered into the village I happened by the office, so popped in to have a look and arrange something for the following day. I had a quick chat with Miguel, the manager, but it became clear that seeing much of the Asociacion`s activities would be unlikely. Coffee production within the Asociacion is scattered quite some distance from Chajul, at least a 2-hour drive. Miguel told me that a meeting had just finished of some of the honey producers. Miguel looked busy so I suggested coming back the next morning. I thought that the posada, being part of the Asociacion, would be a good place to get info, but again, I didn`t see anyone around who was able to help.

The next morning I came back but was out of luck. Miguel wasn’t around, even though I waited around for a few minutes. No one else seemed able to help either. I was on my way out when Miguel did drop by, but he told me it was his last day before vacation and he was very busy. So I left it at that, thanked him for his time and headed back to the posada. By this time I’d sampled village life and was happy to get on the bike and head back to Nebaj.

That’s the way it goes sometimes…despite my lack of success in this Fair Trade visit, my short time in the village was fascinating. It was a shame that things didn’t work out with the Asociacion. But I got to see their office and the village itself, more about which I’ll post up next. I also posted a short video taken outside the office, reflecting on my lack of success this time around…

Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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Cafe Museo, Huehuetenango

While in Huehue I found a great coffee shop that I visited a couple of times. Called Cafe Museo, it has a collection of interesting pictures, artifacts and old pieces of coffee harvesting equipment that decorate the cafe. Each table has coffee beans built into the glasswork on the tabletops, and little flowers in vases filled with coffee beans. It makes for a cosy ambience to go with the excellent coffee.

While I was there I found out more about the cafe and its coffee from the manager, Manrique Lopez Castillo. He works with many small coffee producers to source coffee for the cafe. When I told him what my trip was about, we got into an interesting, but unfortunately limited discussion (due to language issues!) about Fair Trade. He is adamantly against the ‘certified’ route of Fair Trade.

Manrique is the only one in his family who is still involved in coffee. His father has a farm of around 2 ha in size (which is typical of a small producer). He asked me how much a bag of coffee costs in Vancouver, and I had to guess at the price of a conventional bag, as I can’t remember the last time I bought one. He doesn’t support pure ‘organic’ coffee either. His view is that the price differential between organic and conventional doesn’t offset the extra work involved (in organic) and the lower productivity of organic farming. Although he supports the idea of sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming, it’s no good without the farmer getting the price reward to match the extra work required.

For him, it requires a balance. Using a small amount of chemical/fertiliser input directly into the soil (no spraying) is good, but not too much, as that would be unsustainable. He equated it to a person taking vitamins!

We talked about prices per sack (quintal) of green (oro) coffee and how much each one might sell for, whether conventional, Fair Trade or Fair Trade & organic. He suggested that conventional productivity of his farmers’ coffee can be about 4x that of organic. This sounded surprising to me;it was the first I’d heard that conventional was so much more productive than organic (so I’m not sure that it’s true).

And another type of certification – bird-friendly (e.g Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center [SMBC]) that gives an extra amount per pound of coffee – is another pointless certification. He says that most farmers would shoot the birds!

Any price difference at the retail end between conventional and organic/Fair Trade does not go to the farmer, according to Manrique. At the higher ends of the chain (importing, roasting, retailing) those extra monies go to those other ‘western’ companies, not the farmers.

What Manrique does advocate is a ‘direct trade’ model. This is popular among some small importers and roasters in the developed world, and has its plus points if done properly. If done well, the importer works directly with the grower and establishes a long-term relationship with them, also typically paying a higher price. However, as a consumer there is no independent way of verifying the claims of any ‘direct trade’ retailer/importer. Also he is a supporter of the Slow Food movement. Some co-operatives in Huehuetenango have partnerships in this, such as the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium, which comprises four co-operatives (150 farmers) in La Libertad and Todos Santos. Cafe Museo source their coffee from these farmers.

Although I would have liked to have had a more detailed discussion with Manrique about all this, it did show that there is more than one way to produce ethical and ‘fair’ coffee. We in the developed world are open to all sorts of scams and untruths which is why a certified Fair Trade label is a good guarantee of minimum growing standards. But if you can find reputable alternatives, those can be just as good. The problem, of course, is knowing the good and genuine from the bad. So wherever your favourite coffee shop is, it’s always worth questioning the source of their coffee. Talk to someone there and make sure they’re sourcing ethical and fair coffee..!

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Nebaj: ADIPCASAL Fair Trade Coffee Association, Quiche province

I had a rest day in Nebaj after my ‘rustic’ experience in Chajul. I appreciated the home comforts of a good bed and wifi 🙂

The Nebaj area, part of the Cuchumatanes moutain range, has some spectacular hiking opportunities and is a draw for those looking to get some good hiking away from the tourist crowds. I opted for a fairly easy hike along the river valley and it was on my way back on the edge of town that I saw an office for the coffee Association ADIPCASAL. It being Saturday I expected no one to be around but I thought I’d check just in case. And my luck was in, although Huber’s luck certainly wasn’t, as I interrupted his watching his favourite football team, Barcelona play Getafe. Although it was near the end of the game and Barcelona were losing (they lost), he gave me a quick tour and insight into the Assocation and its related co-operative, CoveNorte.

ADIPCASAL (Assocation of Integrated Development of Coffee Producers) is a 100% organic, Fair Trade association, certified by IMO (Institute of Market Ecology; a slightly newer worldwide certifying organisation. The most common certifier is Fairtrade Labelling Organisation [FLO]). It has existed since 2002. CoveNorte was set up in 2010 as a co-operative so that the coffee could be exported (as organic) through the FLO system, giving them more flexibility. ADIPCASAL has around 100 members and CoveNorte 75, so even together they are small organisations. Members are scattered throughout the Ixil and Quiche regions, some more than 90 km away (which is a very long way when it’s a dirt road!).

Exports from the Assocation and co-op are co-ordinated through FEDECOCAGUA (a national Guatemalan federation of small producers). The volumes exported are small; a little over 2,000 bags of green coffee per year (each bag holding 45 kg). Coffee is exported to Europe and USA.

Huber gave me the ‘tour’ of the facilities. It was the most basic I’d seen yet. Effectively just two rooms – the office, and the ‘warehouse’. Because of the remoteness and distance of the producers from Nebaj, the washing and drying of coffee is done within the communities. Once bagged, they are delivered to the office in Nebaj. But even then, the difficulty of getting to Nebaj means the producers club together to hire a 4×4 to bring the coffee here. Huber himself visits the producers by motorbike. As is common with other co-ops I’ve visited, the Assocation provides credit to producers to help them produce their coffee. It being a small co-op there is limited opportunity for other product development, but some women create and sell coffee sacks that are used by Association producers.

In future, they hope to gain more members and build a newer warehouse on the existing premises. Even Huber himself is not an employee of the Assocation; he is contracted to them from the FEDECOCAGUA organisation. There are only two other staff!

On the road to Huehue

After leaving Jacaltenango I had a stopover back in La Democracia, where I comforted myself in a decent hotel with wifi. Such are a traveller’s needs!

From there I knew I’d have an uphill ride to Huehuetenango (Huehue), the regional capital. It was a spectacular ride and although I gained a lot of elevation, overall the gradient of the road was very friendly (particularly compared to my experience getting to Jacaltenango) and I was able to get a decent rhythm for most of the ride.

I steadily climbed through some outstanding scenery – towering, green slopes to each side with steep canyon-like sides and the river winding its way through below. But a couple of hours into the ride I encountered an arresting site that made me pause for reflection. Police by the roadside, parked ambulances, and a number of people wandering around. I stopped where most people seemed to be, and it was pretty clear that someone bad had happened.

I spent a few minutes there and got the general idea of what had happened. Three days earlier a car/pickup had gone over the side of the road into the ravine below. No doubt it was overcrowded as there were nine people in it. No one survived. On first seeing the commotion by the road I assumed something had happenered earlier that morning, so I was surprised to see so many people gathered three days later. However, it still made me pause for reflection on what I’m doing and at times how isolated I can feel, being out here on my own on a bicycle. This was the first time I’d really felt like I’d come close to witnessing an accident and I reflected on how far away I am from my family and friends. It made me question the whole purpose of my trip.

It was a sombre and poignant scene, made more so by one lady who sang a prayer or lamentation for those who lost their lives. I didn’t know if she was a relative of friend of any of the people.

Naturally I couldn’t linger too long and I had to make my way to Huehue. After a few more minutes with many thoughts going through my head my mind began to ease up as I had to focus on the road ahead and get myself to Huehue. I don’t know the statistics for road accidents in Guatemala, Mexico etc., but it seems obvious to me that people take their lives into their own hands with the overcrowding, not using safety belts and sometimes just the road conditions. Perhaps that’s the philosophy of people here and its an ‘accepted reality’, as harsh as that sounds. I’m thankful I’ve made it this far and hope that this continues through the rest of my ride. It made my debates with friends about wearing my helmet seem incredibly frivolous.

A few hours later I rolled into Huehue, tired and grateful.

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