Fair trade chocolate and weaving in Xela

Chocoloate and weaving? Not together, that could get quite messy. But I did a couple of tours here in Xela to get an insight into organic/fair trade chocolate-making and textile weaving.

For the chocolate-making, it was actually cacao for hot chocolate (which here is just called chocolate), not chocolate to eat as we know and love. I found out about both co-operatives that make the chocolate and textiles through my visits to Al-Natur, the Fair Trade shop and cafe.

Trama textiles formed in 1988 as a result of the ongoing civil war that left women without husbands and little means of obtaining an income. It is now comprised of 400 women from five regions in the western highlands area of Guatemala. There are five different indigenous languages amongst them. The Trama co-operative offers a central location where the women can come to weave and buy and sell their products. Mostly the women weave in their own communities. It is a supportive and secure place for them that also offers training and education. Trama pay for their products up front so the women are always guaranteed being paid. Volunteers at Trama may have a design background and they give advice to the women on more contemporary products and designs. But such is the profusion of weaving products in Guatemala that designs and products are frequently copied by the different weaving groups in the country.

To help generate income Trama offers weaving classes and demos. I just went for the demo and saw how the different equipment (i call them the spinning wheels, the ‘ironing board’ and the weaving ‘hammock’) is used together to create the products. Typically cotton is used and the colours are mostly naturally dyed, though not always. Trama is not ‘certified’ in fair trade. It’s income is not sufficient to pay licencing/membership fees but it does operate within ‘fair trade’ principles. Textiles have a different model within Fair Trade (there’s rarely a ‘label’ such as the case with coffee etc.); it’s typically a membership situation that doesn’t require inspections or formal certification.

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The cacao co-operative is comprised of 8 women in the Xela area. The cacao itself comes from further afield. This co-operative creates the final chocolate products. The process is relatively simple and the facilities I saw were pretty low-key. But it gets the job done (and fast!). The cacao comes to this co-op roasted by the women or their families. From there it’s a simple process of liquifying it and combining with sugar (and also with other ingredients such as vanilla, almonds, cardamom) to create the paste. This is repeated and the ‘paste’ comes to the next room for chopping up into 1 lb blobs that get slapped into the moulds before being packed. All the staff I saw were male, so it seems like ‘man’s work’ here. I didn’t see the women that comprise the co-op. Paola co-ordinates things from a separate office location (where the lights often don’t work..).

The cacao visit was certainly the most fun and I got my hands chocolatey. The end product is not quite like our typical ‘cocoa’ as it comes loaded with sugar and a flavour and you just add hot water, rather than milk. It’s very rich though, and certainly delicious.

Again there is no ‘Fair Trade’ certification as the products are typically only found locally. Guatemala ranks quite low in cacao production so many other countries produce a lot more cacao for export.

Back at Al-Natur (where the visit is co-ordinated) the tour includes a cup of chocolate and Mario was very keen to point out how the Mayans drank the chocolate before battles because of the energy it gave them. He said it’s perfect for the more contemporary pursuit of cycling, so I’ll be loading up before my riding days and no doubt failing any drug test…but who cares, it’s worth it!

Also here’s a link to videos from both visits..