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GUATEMALA: Waking Up to a Better Coffee

Inés Benítez* - IPS/IFEJ

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 22 2007 (IPS) - “Before, we didn’t know how to market the coffee, or who would buy it in other countries, all we knew about was planting and harvesting,” says Guatemalan coffee grower Pablo Pérez.

Guatemalan coffee growers harvest their crop. Credit: Courtesy of Anacafé

Guatemalan coffee growers harvest their crop. Credit: Courtesy of Anacafé

He represents an association of small farmers in the northwestern department of Huehuetenango, a member of the Café/Caffé programme, which seeks to improve product quality in order to boost the producers’ incomes.

“The project helps us with the prices. Before, the intermediaries kept most of the profit,” said Pérez in an interview.

The programme, launched Sep. 6, is financed by the Italian Foreign Ministry and the International Coffee Organisation, which contribute, respectively, nearly 1.5 million and 600,000 dollars.

Pérez, one of the 170 small coffee growers in Guatemala participating in the project, says they are paid “a little bit more, 45 quetzales per quintal of ripe beans,” in other words, about six dollars per 46 kilos. “But we earn little because the fertiliser is very expensive.

The usual price is 4.60 to 5.30 dollars per quintal. Four or five years ago, it was 2.60 to 3.30 dollars, recalls Manrique López, local technical coordinator for Café/Caffé.

“Our philosophy is to utilise coffee as an axis of development,” says Massimo Battaglia, in charge of the Italian Overseas Agronomy Institute in Florence, executor of the project.

In two years, Café/Caffé hopes to help 2,000 small coffee growers in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic, by reducing their socio-economic and cultural vulnerability, increasing the sustainability of their crops and promoting rural tourism in coffee-growing areas.

“Coffee has the advantage of being grown in beautiful places. Why not take advantage of that?” says Battaglia about the tourism potential for Huehuetenango, a mountainous area covering 7,400 square kilometres with a variety of climates and landscapes.

Guatemala has a population of 13 million, with 75,000 coffee growers, two-thirds of which are small-scale, says Rodolfo González, general manager of the National Coffee Association (Anacafé), which is collaborating with the programme and issuing licenses for the exportation of coffee.

Lucía Ramírez, of the Mam indigenous community of Tuibosh in Huehuetenango, is the mother of six children and has been working in coffee plantations for 18 years. “Now they pay better because the coffee is of better quality,” she says.

The coffee growers received training in better harvesting, processing and drying techniques; preserving traditional systems of production; as well as ways of recycling the byproducts to turn them into another source of revenue.

Furthermore, promoting “the local product is an effort towards defending the land,” says Luca Fabbri, Italian representative of Slow Food, a foundation that has been providing assistance since 2003 to small coffee growers in Huehuetenango.

Some of the coffee, which is manually cultivated in the shade at an altitude of 1,500 to 2,000 metres, is exported to Italy, where it is distributed by the importers Pausa Café, Mokafe and Eataly to restaurants and supermarkets.

The 2006-2007 harvest saw 1,500 quintales of coffee exported from Café Baluarte, in Las Tierras Altas, Huehuetenango.

“The small producers can grow high-quality coffee while taking care of the environment,” according to Iliana Martínez, representative of the Italian cooperative Pausa Café.

She says the coffee growers learn to use the appropriate fertilisers, to clean up their parcels and to recycle the byproducts, and that there is a quality and taste control for each lot of coffee.

Café/Caffé’s López, who is also general manager of Baluarte Marketer in Huehuetenango, which works with various associations in the region, emphasises that participants in this project range from ministries and producers to buyers and local government officials.

“Behind every product there is land and there are people,” he says. The small farmer should be a principal part of the coffee production chain and receive economic, social, technical, commercial and environmental benefits, he adds.

Fifty-one percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty, and 80 percent of the poor are in rural areas. Although agriculture generates 75 percent of employment, it contributes just 23 percent of the gross domestic product.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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