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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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.

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