Hugo has aspirations of moving back to the USA. For many in Central America, the “American Dream” is very much alive and well. He’s another Salvadoran that had spent several years in the US, and he was keen to go back. In the meantime, he is a self-described “second cupper” at the Cooperativa Cuzcachapa. Located a few kilometres west of Santa Ana in the town of Chalchuapa, the co-operative is one of the largest I’d seen. I wondered if it was really a Fair Trade co-op; their website hinted that it was something they would do, but that information was three years old. Had they followed through and stuck with it?
I waited in reception once I’d got through the armed security. The offices are large and well-organised, and all the staff wore co-ordinated uniforms or company-embroidered t-shirts. It was all very smart.
Hugo himself has spent the last five years training as a catador (cupper). It takes many years of practice and he is sampling coffee almost every day. That’s a lot of tasting! His time in the USA meant his English was very good, and combined with his Salvadoran upbringing he was laid-back, informative and friendly.
The co-op does not have have Fair Trade certified coffee, and I got the impression they had never pursued the certification. However, their coffee does carry “Rainforest Alliance”, “UTZ” and another certification that seemed common only in El Salvador, “4C”. A lot of their coffee also carries organic certication and they have a number of producers whose coffee gains “micro-lot” status (if you ever buy a ‘single-origin’ coffee, typically it’s at a higher price, small volumes are produced, and it’s a very carefully created coffee of high quality). The Cuzcachapa co-operative is the host for the annual Cup of Excellence that is held every year. It’s a national competition to promote coffee quality and frequently the winning coffees fetch high prices from buyers in Europe and North America.
They produce 15m lbs of green coffee annually, from more than 1,400 producers and their families. The best (green coffee) is exported. Second quality coffee is roasted and sold for the Salvadoran market. Fair Trade certification gives guarantees for the producer (prices, social premium being two main benefits), but I couldn’t tell how this co-op helps its producers with something similar, as there is no Fair Trade certification. However, for producers and employees here, there are several benefits. These include a health clinic on-site (plus medecine is available when required), access to credit, assisting the elderly, donation for low-income school students and a ‘food bank’. Organic composting is also done at the site, which is available to producers.
Being a large coffee processor means they can invest in modern techniques and technology. They have numerous electronic gizmos to help process the coffee. I counted more than 20 depulpers (most other places I’d seen had no more than 2 or 3!); they have electronic size sorters; large drying machines (for when they can’t dry on the patio due to high volume or weather) and electronic colour sorters. Like the Siglo XXI co-op I saw the same week, some of this equipment replaces a lot of manual labour, particularly what used to be done by women at harvest time, who hand-sort the coffee on converyor belts. The offices are modern and it was the first co-op I’d visited where the coffee market prices are shown live on a computer in the reception area.
It definitely looked impressive, and for a large-scale producer they certainly do a number of good things. Having existed for more than 40 years they run their operation successfully. Their certifications can certainly help the producers, but it was hard for me to get a real sense of how the producers fare with this co-op. I believe their philosophy is good and a number of initiatives are designed to assist them. I was made very welcome, met a number of the staff, and really enjoyed seeing the cupping lab, in particular. It’s a fun thing to try. I left, wishing Hugo good luck with his plans to move back to the USA and headed out for the bus back to Santa Ana.