My time with Guaya’b and Rio Azul in Jacaltenango included visits to their coffee parcels. These were my first proper visits to see Fair Trade coffee areas and it was a fascinating insight.
WIth Rio Azul, I accompanied Manuel and a farmer, Don Juan, to inspect Don Juan’s son’s coffee plot. About a 45-minute walk from the town, we left the dirt road and meandered through plots of corn to get to the coffee.
Each plot is barely demarcated from another; typically by a dilapidated barbed wire fence. Don Juan’s son’s (Antonio’s) plot is typical of the size of many family-owned plots, around 1-2 hectares. To the untrained eye (i.e. me) it was hard to notice all the coffee bushes amongst the other growth of trees and bushes. However, gradually through the morning I got to learn about a typical plot and what goes into making a productive plot. The bushes are planted in rows at regularly spaced intervals about 2m apart. Sometimes it is difficult to notice it because of the sloping terrain of the plots. The way the plot is looked after and cultivated is driven more by organic standards than Fair Trade. For organic certification, no chemicals or fertilisers are used. Compost is added to the soil behind each bush, by digging what I would just call a ‘flat spot’. Such is the terrain of many coffee plots this is an arduous and time-consuming process. Doing this gives the bush the right sort of nutrients it needs and also protects it from runoff and erosion that can easily occur on these steep slopes.
Manuel uses an extensive checklist when conducting the inspection. This is a standard checklist (I saw the same ones when with Guaya’b) and we conducted a check of the soil, the bushes and the surrounding plots. For organic certification it is necessary to check on surrounding plots, particularly if they are conventional, because possible runoff from chemical inputs used in those can contaminate the organic plot. Manuel checks the state of the soil, other bushes and trees that are in the plot, any ‘barriers’ that help stabilise the terrain and several other things.
We often hear of ‘shade-grown’ coffee and no doubt most people feel ‘good’ when they know they know they are drinking shade-grown coffee. The reality, of course, is more complex and just because there are other trees within a coffee plot doesn’t necessarily make that a good thing. The type of trees and bushes in a plot can help or hinder the fertiliy of the soil. The same goes for ‘bird-friendly’ vegetation.
We spent a good couple of hours within and around neighbouring plots. Don Juan told me he’d been a coffee farmer for most of his life and he had a very pleasant, upbeat demeanour. He is one of those people who you could tell had a happy outlook on life. I asked him about what life was like in previous years but he didn’t give me much indication that he’d had big struggles when coffee prices were lower.
After that Manuel took to see a conventional coffee plot within the Rio Azul co-operative. It is certified Fair Trade but not organic. I could immediately see obvious differences but that could have been partly down to location. Manuel showed me the difference in the soil and where fertiliser inputs are used for each bush. A little fertiliser is needed, but Manuel can easily tell the difference between the two methods of farming. The farmer, Jose, tends the plot by himself. His two sons have moved away, so it would impossible for him to tend the plot to organic standards, given the extra work involved. After more than 35 years as a coffee farmer, the additional money he would receive does not offset investing in the extra work involved. It was obvious that this is hard, hard work.
A third plot Manuel took me to was a ‘transitional’ plot. If a farmer wants to switch from conventional to organic, it means undergoing a three year ‘transition’ process. This time required is necessary for the soil to recover from artificial inputs that are forbidden from certified organic coffee. This particular plot was in the 2nd year of transition and of the three plots I saw this day it was the one on the most steeply-sloping ground. The farmer here had already started to create the ‘flat spots’ behind each bush and I shook my head at what obviously looked like the incredible amount of hard work involved. Organic certification also requires more ‘weeding’ of the parcel. One real problem for the farmers is that during this transition process they do not receive additional income, despite the additional work involved. They only receive ‘conventional’ prices. Given that these standards are demanded from a ‘developed world’ perspective, there should be some way of assisting farmers in this process, if this is what we, as consumers, are demanding of our coffee.
Later I asked Ramon about conventional vs organic farming within the co-operative but he says this kind of situation (at Rio Azul) is typical. Although organic farming is encouraged, he is realistic enough to know that many farmers will not switch to certified organic methods. However, Fair Trade standards do mandate against the use of certain chemicals and fertilisers and there are certain ‘environmental’ practices that are required for Fair Trade certification.
At the far end of coffee production, particularly with Fair Trade products, we see the happy, smiling faces of the farmers on the back of the packaging and that makes us ‘feel good’. Whilst Fair Trade does help, it often masks the massive amount of work that goes into food production, and my visits here made it obvious how we take it all for granted.