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…

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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.

Reflections from Jacaltenango

With two co-op visits in Jacaltenango, I learned a lot during my time there. It was also interesting to spend a few days in the small town and experience the way of life there.

Guaya’b and Rio Azul are quite different co-ops. Guaya’b is larger and has been established for longer than Rio Azul. Honey is also a significant contributor to the co-op’s revenue. Rio Azul faces challenges that are typical of smaller co-ops, such as high costs and obtaining sufficient investment, but they have grown over the years (when others I’ve visited remain fairly steady in membership numbers). They are playing a bit of ‘catchup’, but realise the need to make investments in their warehouse, security and office facilities.

There are also many other coffee organisations in the region of Huehuetenango and it is a prized area for coffee production for both domestic and export markets.

My visits to the coffee parcels demonstrated the amount of work required and how difficult they are to maintain, particularly to keep to organic standards. At the front end of coffee production it’s an arduous life and the rewards are few. The farmers I saw are at least able to maintain their own plots and being within the co-operative does give each farmer some collective support and access to resources that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Seeing Lucas give presentations to the farmers was also very interesting. It is a requirement of Fair Trade that the farmers are given information on the performance of the co-op. In his presentations, Lucas outlined the importers who made purchases, when, the quantities and the value. This was broken down for organic and conventional coffee. Costs and income was shown on a series of slides. I attended a 2nd presentation with Lucas in a nearby village, where Lucas presented using the indigenous language Popti’. I thought it quite funny when Lucas stopped midway through to check his Blackberry for the latest coffee prices to show the farmers.

Both Lucas from Guaya’b and Ramon from Rio Azul were incredibly helpful during my visit, ensuring I got a good insight into their co-ops. I’m still amazed by how friendly and open the people are when I show up on their doorstep asking to see some of their co-operative!

Aside from my time with the co-ops, I got to see a little of the town itself. There is certainly not much ‘to do’ in the town, so I had to adapt to the pace there and ‘slow down’ a little. No tourist cafes, sights to see or big hikes in the hills…I found myself wandering the streets a lot, checking the market stalls (some of which seem to exist more in hope than expectation). The quiet atmosphere of the town seemed only to be interrupted at night by the yapping of the local dogs. At least it made a change from nightclub music.

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