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.