Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

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Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Guatemala: generosity from first to last

I was getting itchy feet. It was time to make tracks into El Salvador. After Christmas in Panajachel, I had a few days in the lovely town of Antigua (somewhere I would have liked to have spent more time) before making it to Guatemala City. This was going to be a new experience for me – the big city, el capital – and so cycling into and out of here would be a challenge.

Donning my face/dust mask (I don’t think it helped much) I dodged and weaved in and out of traffic, cursing the city drivers who wouldn’t indicate, the buses and their exhausts and tried to find another pair of eyes to keep myself in the clear on the road. Luckily though, the route was fairly straightforward and I managed to get to my hotel without too much trouble.

A couple of days there and I was off (unfortunately missing out on a visit to UPAVIM [United For a Better Life], a local group of women’s artesans that also set up education for local children). On New Year’s Day. What better (and quieter) way to get 2012 off to a good start. In fact it was a perfect time to get out of the city as it was eerily quiet. I wasn’t too interested in finding the best party in town anyway for New Year’s, so an early start out was perfect. I rang in 2012 chatting on skype to a good friend, and that was good enough for me.

It took two days to reach El Salvador, and my last night in Guatemala gave me yet another example of the generosity and warmness of the people I’ve met here. My map gave me the impression that the town I headed to was ‘big’, but it wasn’t. Asking a genteman who’d stepped off the bus if there was anywhere to stay in town, he said there wasn’t any hotels, but indicated there was somewhere I could find. He ended up taking me to his sister’s house!

By that point I was tired and didn’t care what they had to offer, so a dilapidated room and mattress was good enough, though I had to wander through their house to use the bathroom. Sheila and Jesus seemed to have a procession of visitors throughout the day, perhaps because they had a huge widescreen tv, still with it’s wrapping on. The next morning when I tried to pay Sheila, she refused, though she did seem quite interested in the gold ring I was wearing…

From day one, when I was helped by a young lad to push my bike up a short hill when I was slipping on the wet road, to this day, I’ve found the people in Guatemala to be hospitable, generous and welcoming. Most people here have very little and their warm attitude was quite refreshing and at times humbling. How would El Salvador compare?

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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.

http://cafejusticia.ca/

http://etico.ca/etico/

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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 http://cafedigno.org/blog/). 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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