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.