First published in the Toronto Star:
Building schools with cups of joe: Fiorito
Two Guatemalan co-op workers came here to see what we are doing with the coffee they produce.
By: Joe Fiorito Columnist, Published on Wed Jul 09 2014
Some months back — a long time, in the scheme of things — I met two people who work for a co-op in Guatemala. The co-op produces coffee, and the Guatemalans were on the last leg of a whirlwind tour across the country. They wanted to see the consumer side of the equation.
Full of Beans, on Dundas West in Little Portugal, is where some of the co-op’s coffee is roasted, ground and served. I had an espresso.
Neydi Juracan is an accountant by training; she volunteers as a political organizer. She is also the daughter of Leocadio Juracan, a man who works for land reform in Guatemala.
Leocadio lived in Canada for a time; he came when his life was threatened because of his work. I asked Neydi how he was doing since his return from Canada. She said, “The threats have lessened; there was a big march, and that got some attention.” Note that she did not say the threats had disappeared.
With Neydi on the trip was Marcelo Sabuc; he works for the co-op, and also for an international aid organization.
The co-op is called the Campesino Committee of the Highlands. How much coffee does it produce?
There was a quick discussion back and forth, in English and Spanish. I had the help of a translator. It seems that, each year, the campesinos belonging to the co-op grow enough coffee to fill seven containers; each container holds 260 bags; each bag weighs 70 kilos.
A lot of espresso.
Marcelo gave me a bit of background about the climate in which he works: “There are 22 provinces in Guatemala; the Campesino Committee of the Highlands is in 12 of them. In each of the 12 provinces there are different needs, but there are over 1,300 agrarian conflicts.”
The conflicts? Sugar cane producers and African palm tree growers are pushing peasant farmers off the land; monoculture is not good practice; palm and sugar cane require lots of water; rivers have been diverted, and drinking water is in short supply in some places.
And then there are the mines — hundreds of licenses have been granted on indigenous land, and there is mounting pressure to build hydroelectric dams.
Even though referenda on such developments are routinely defeated, Neydi and Marcelo both said that the government tends to back foreign and national companies, and it does so on occasion with the military.
How peculiar: Just as there would be no France without the family farm, so there would be no Guatemala without indigenous farmers.
My espresso was pretty good — and how bourgeois that sounds in the context of the conversation — but here I confess that I have always felt awkward about the state of coffee in Toronto. From Galaxy to Coffee Time to Tim’s — from Starbucks to Timothy’s to the hipster shops — and now, heaven help us, to McDonald’s — most coffee here is either weak and tasteless, burned and bitter, or as sweetly sickening as the double-double.
An insult to producers?
Wait for it.
I asked Neydi a question to which I knew the answer. She said, “With the sale of coffee we can align with other organizations; we can build houses, build schools, provide scholarships.”
This, from a cup of joe.
I asked about their trip across Canada; did they like the food? They laughed. “Our principal food is corn; here; there’s not a lot of that.” Alas, they were here at the wrong time.
What food did they like? They looked at each other. Marcelo said, perhaps to be polite, “Poutine, mi gusto.” And then I got my comeuppance.
What about the coffee in Canada? “What we drink at home is lighter, more watered down.” My heart sank, and then it plummeted. “In Guatemala, it’s cheaper to drink instant coffee.”
Draw your own conclusions.
If you can afford real beans, and want to buy directly from real producers so that you can make real coffee, you can send an email to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. email@example.com