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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Fair Trade coffee plot inspections with Rio Azul, Jacaltenango

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.

Fair Trade Visit: Rio Azul – Jacaltenango, Guatemala

The other co-op I visited in Jacaltenango was Rio Azul. This is a smaller operation than Guaya’b, comprising just over 200 members. Approximately 20% are women. Like Guaya’b it is 100% Fair Trade with both organic (about 85%) and conventional coffee. They produce only coffee and it is all exported to North America and Europe. In some cases, Fair Trade co-operatives cannot sell all their Fair Trade (a discussion for another time!) but Rio Azul typically does export all of their coffee at Fair Trade prices.

Like most of my other visits, I just turned up but was welcomed by Ramon, the manager, and Manuel, who conducts quality control (there are only five employees altogether). Ramon and I quickly got into a discussion about the recent changes at Fair Trade USA (its proposed split from FLO, the international Fair Trade umbrella organisation) and Fair Trade licencing fees. Rio Azul are FLO-certified and when I mentioned IMO (another Fair Trade certification organisation) he did not appear to know much about them. The discussion about FT USA could keep me here for several days, but the sense is that Ramon is concerned about it, particularly with respect to allowing coffee plantations to be certified Fair Trade (currently the system in coffee is only for co-operatives). Because Rio Azul are a small co-operative, their licencing fees make up a higher percentage of their total costs.

Ramon then showed me around the facility. Currently there’s a huge construction project going on here, with a new warehouse, office and security fence underway. So it didn’t look at it’s best but when finished (before the harvest starts in January) I’m sure it’ll be cracking. I got to see the progress anyway, and the big thing that Ramon kept repeating was ‘costa‘. All these projects are costly for the co-op, but clearly are necessary for their future. In the last five years their membership has increased by 25% (which is unusual for the places I’ve visited) so they need modern infrastructure in order to grow.

It’s still a little before the harvest (typically from December-April) so I didn’t get to see the facility in full operation, but Ramon gave me a good sense of what happens at harvest time: coffee delivery (whole cherries), separation (organic or conventional), depulping, washing, drying, processing the pergamino (shell) to the final green (oro) coffee for export. Hopefully within the next few weeks I’ll be visiting a coffee co-op during harvest time. It’s normally a quiet time before harvest with all the construction going on it was busy…in a Guatemalan way.

The next day Manuel took me to inspect a coffee parcel that was looking to join the co-op. But I’ll save that for the next post…

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