Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

The Awakening of a Better Coffee

GUATEMALA, Dec 15 2007 (IPS) - A project in two languages, Café and Caffé, has built a bridge between the most demanding Italian consumers and the poorest of Guatemala's coffee growers.

Guatemalan coffee growers in full harvest. - Courtesy of Anacafé

Guatemalan coffee growers in full harvest. - Courtesy of Anacafé

“Before, we didn't know how to market the coffee, or who would buy it in other countries; just planting and harvesting,” says Guatemalan coffee grower Pablo Pérez.

He is the representative of an association of small farmers in the northwestern department of Huehuetenango, member of the Café/Caffé program, which seeks to improve the quality of the product in order to increase the income of the producers.

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

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

Pérez, one of the 170 small coffee growers in Guatemala participating in the program, says they are paid “a little bit more, 45 quetzales per quintal of ripe beans,” that is, six dollars per 46 kilos. “But we earn little because the fertilizer 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 utilize 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 kilometers 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 growers, says Rodolfo González, general manager of the National Coffee Association, which is collaborating with the program 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 in 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 meters, 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 fertilizers, 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, emphasizes 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.

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