By Jim Hodgson
For someone who thinks of coffee stains as what you get because of a loose lid at Tim’s, the night we joined coffee farmers near Lake Atitlán to unload their truckload of freshly-picked and still very fleshy coffee was novel. The fruit at this stage is like a small cherry, but the point is to remove the fruit (usually through washing) and to conserve the bean inside. Workers moved large bags of coffee onto a scale and then emptied them into a large bin and a kind of washing machine that removed the fruit. Everything was wet: hence the coffee stains.
But what a joy to see the people who produce coffee that helps to sustain the work of both the Comité Campesino del Altiplano – CCDA (Highlands Committee of Small Farmers) and Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network (BTS). The fruit, by the way, is not wasted, but turned into fertilizer for the next year’s crop.
In March this year, I spent a couple of weeks with CCDA and BTS co-operant Raphael Freston in the coffee-producing communities around Lake Atitlán. The coffee is sold to Canadian consumers through Café Justicia in British Columbia and Just Us! in Atlantic Canada in a “fair trade plus” arrangement.
The “plus” is about the relationships that extend beyond paying fair prices to producers into strengthening the participation of women and youth, supporting CCDA’s work in defence of the land rights of Indigenous communities across Guatemala, and building people-to-people relationships with BTS (through, for example, accompaniment by people like Raphael and me) and with the scores of volunteers who make the coffee available in Canada.
“We wanted to develop an alternative that went beyond just fair trade, beyond just pay more for the coffee, and so we called this fair trade plus, adopting an English [and French] word because our public is Canadian,” says Neydi Juracán, the CCDA staff-person responsible for production and trade of agricultural products.
“We want people to know where this coffee comes,” she adds. In buying a cup of quality coffee, you are also supporting labour rights, and also the rights of women, youth, Indigenous people and small farmers. And so we developed a scholarship program and provide health training. We assist with construction of homes and community centres.”
CCDA was created in 1982 during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. It wasn’t until after the peace accords in 1996 that it was able to work freely on issues of land reform and livelihoods. Later in the 90s, it gained control over several pieces of land in the Lake Atitlán region and began to explore coffee production as an economic alternative and to develop the connections in Canada.
From the outset, the idea of a producers’ co-operative was a goal, but it didn’t become possible until 2017 says Lesbia Morales, president of the Mok’aj Samajela (“Group of Workers”) cooperative, the entity that – still with CCDA accompaniment – now oversees coffee production and sales.
Establishment of the co-operative became necessary because CCDA is a non-profit organization and has been the object of “a lot of persecution” she adds. The co-op (also known by the acronym COICOMSA) has legal and tax status with the Guatemalan state.
“So now we have existed for six years,” adds Morales. “We’re still quite young, and still learning about coffee in these times, but we’re also producing macadamia nuts and honey, and working with women artisans.”
By “learning about coffee,” Morales is speaking of production techniques beyond the wash-dry-toast-grind cycle and into specialty methods (washed, natural/dry, honey) that give beans slightly different tastes – and prices.
“It’s a whole world to explore,” says Julissa Samines, quality control technician at the co-op’s processing site between San Lucas Tolimán and Santiago Atitlán. “We want to find new niches in the market for coffee, not just washed, but also natural and honey. This year, we are also working with anaerobic fermentation” (where coffee is fermented in pressurized tanks and deprived of oxygen, again creating a distinct flavour).
“Our coffee is called Justice because that is what we decided in an assembly,” said Morales. “We’re carrying out the work of social justice and we want that to be our name because what we want is that we all have equity, that we all have the same opportunities. We’re a fairly rich country, but it’s only a few people who benefit and they end up, we would say, destroying it for the rest of us.”
(Three women who help get the coffee from the field to your table. From left: Neydi Juracán, Lesbia Morales and Julissa Samines)