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.