“Two years ago I sold my horse and bought a truck” he told me. I asked him how long he’d been a coffee farmer, “over twenty years” he responded.
I spent an entire morning with Eduardo, a coffee producer and farmer, who is part of the co-operative supported by De La Gente on the outskirts of Antigua in Guatemala. A group of four; we scaled half a mountain to reach the plantation; traipsing the hot and dusty field we examined the coffee plant, touched the leaves, picked some beans, slipped our way back to firmer ground; learnt how to process coffee and eventually we were allowed into the kitchen to watch the magic! Enjoying a boiling hot pot with Eduardo and his wife was a culmination of sweat and hard work and we only spent three hours in the field!!
Thank you to WakuliMarket and De La Gente
Late one night I was surfing Instagram and I came across a social enterprise called Wakulimarket who were posting photos of coffee from Guatemala. I knew of De La Gente (as we’d just been on a peanut tour with them) but I’d never heard of Wakulimarket and I sent them a message asking for more information and wondering what I could do to assist this young social enterprise.
By the end of the day, I’d spoken to one of its founders Tess and learned that Wakulimarket is a social enterprise that looks to supply coffee as a direct trade to the European market. Basically this means the middle men (who frequently exploit farmers) are eliminated and the farmers can earn a decent wage. If you want to know more head over to their webpage where they’ll be shortly announcing a kickstarter.
I volunteered my photography skills to go and meet a local coffee farmer that is supported by De La Gente and that Wakulimarket will sell from.
What does De La Gente do?
De la Gente has three pillars:
- Coffee Business: The De la Gente brand of coffee exudes great produce that has a positive social impact. The business creates direct connections with buyers and consumers and is a source of improved income for the small-holder farmers they work with.
- Cooperative Assistance: De la Gente helps cooperatives build their capacity so that they can be autonomous, democratic and profitable organisations that provide income for their members. Through training and financing, DLG provide access to the knowledge and resources farmers and artisans need for success.
- Community Tourism: DLG tours and group trips open up a world of adventure and opportunity for tourists and are mutually beneficial for the individuals, the communities and the travellers. De la Gente tours take people beyond mainstream tourism to learn far more about Guatemala, the people, and the culture than they would on conventional tours.
Meeting Eduardo; the coffee producer
Early one morning I caught an Uber from our little village on the outskirts of Antigua to San Escobar which lies about 30 minutes outside Antigua.
Spending time with Eduardo and his family and learning about the coffee process was a humbling experience that defined how important it is to understand where our food comes from. This is important primarily so we can eliminate human exploitation (unfortunately still too common today) but also so we can understand the process, the value and the ingredients!
Growing coffee is no easy task and I’ll try to explain why. Please be patient as it may take a while!
Five long years to grow
Coffee plants take five years to produce a good crop, in which time they require tender, loving care! I’m not joking either.
It takes the coffee bean eight months just to germinate and produce a 2cm stalk and leaf. After that the plants are carefully wrapped in plastic bags and transferred to the fields for planting.
After two years in the ground the plant will develop and finally start to produce a small number of beans but it won’t produce a full crop until it’s five years old… Can you imagine that? I am impatient if my chilli plant hasn’t sprouted in a week lol.
Onion and garlic?
During its growing process, the plant requires nurturing where the farmer carefully rubs onion and garlic on it to prevent bugs and checks the roots and leaves weekly for fungus. If fungus shows, the plant must be cut back or sprayed with limestone and copper sulphate to prevent further spread.
Every few weeks chicken, horse or cow manure is spread across the field to provide a natural fertilizer to encourage the coffee plant to grow big and strong.
The rainy season and shade
There is no natural irrigation system in this part of Guatemala so the farmers rely upon the rainy season and the natural shade from other trees planted around the plantation to protect the coffee from the Guatemalan sun.
The rainy season lasts between April and July with the best rains coming in June. The farmers dig large holes at the sides of their fields to collect the rain water and disperse it around the crop.
Too quickly the water will be gone though and the farmer relies upon the shade of trees as further protection.
The plants that Eduardo showed us were full of beans; green (not quite ripe); red (ripe and ready to be picked) and brown (burnt but good enough for instant coffee).
With his plastic bucket attached to his waist Eduardo will collect the beans three times a season which lasts from December to April. The green beans are left to ripen, the red beans are placed in the basket and the brown beans are put into a bag to sell locally or drink themselves.
Injuries to the farmer
Depending on the size of the field, Eduardo can collect between 200-600lbs of coffee in one picking and here is the relevance of the horse!
The horse can only carry so much (about 200-400lbs) without injury as the coffee plantations are incredibly steep and dry.
What the horse cannot carry, Eduardo must perch on his shoulders and back using a head strap which is placed around the circumference of the forehead.
Spinal and knee injuries are all too frequent with the farmers who struggle with their heavy crops. Buying a truck has enabled Eduardo to transport more beans without the fear of injury.
By now, we’ve only learned about half of the coffee process and I’m already dripping in sweat, thirsty and covered in the dry,brown dust of the fields.
There is no shelter from the heat as we slide down the dusty soil into the town of Escobar where Eduardo lives. Now we’ll be learning about the peeling and fermentation process which happens in Eduardo’s home.
We enter Eduadro’s house which is nestled into a small plot in the middle of the town. He opens the wooden gate to reveal his truck; a blue second hand 4×4, his pride and joy! The yard is covered with corrugated metal and we shelter from the heat listening intently to Eduardo and Julio our translator.
My Spanish is still improving and I frequently miss the most important word of the sentence! Julio is fantastic and brings Eduardo’s stories to life for me. Julio is the son of a coffee farmer who is also supported by De La Gente.
In the garden there is a small, hand rotated machine which the family uses to remove the red husk from the coffee bean. The slimy white bean which is left, sits in a bucket for twenty-four to thirty-six hours to ferment.
The smell is sweet and a little bit like rotting alcohol. It attracts the flies but it’s an essential part of the coffee making process. Good farmers will use the removed, red husk as fertiliser for the field or can make it into a coffee-tea which is fast becoming popular as a cheaper alternative to coffee.
After washing the beans in water (which is often in short supply here), they are laid out in carefully prepared rows and dried in the sun for 8-12 days.
Roughly 600lbs of coffee beans are laid out in Eduardo’s yard to dry. The coffee beans change from this slimy mass to something that vaguely resembles a hard, white bean but now that second, white husk needs to be removed.
The machine to remove this second husk is too expensive for Eduardo to buy and he must now bag up his 600lbs of dry beans and drive across town where he pays to rent a machine. Removing the second husk finally reveals the coffee bean which is described as ‘gold coffee’ or ‘green coffee’ but now the coffee needs sorting and that has to be done by hand.
Bad beans will be removed and the family can expect to lose approximately 50% of the crop due to it not being good enough. These ‘bad beans’ may be kept by the family for their own coffee or they may be able to sell them to a corporate buyer for a pittance.
By hand the family must sort through the beans to grade them. They can expect to grade roughly 60lbs of coffee per day.
It is back-breaking work; to see them hunched over small bowls of coffee beans, painstakingly searching for beans that might be the ‘wrong colour’ or too small is a humbling experience.
I had no idea that coffee production was so intense. Did you?
Is it ready yet?
Now, finally, the coffee is ready to be sold. Before joining De La Gente Eduardo used to sell his coffee to the mansion sized fincas that line the road to Antigua. These corporate middle men would exploit him, giving him just a few dollars/pounds for each crop, whilst selling the premium coffee at huge profit around the world.
When I learn this, that dam lump appears at the back of my throat and I am reminded of a ‘coffee crisis’ that hit the UK about twenty years ago. It was at this time I had learned how WE (the unfortunate, rich, white, supermarket frequenters) were being exploited by the coffee companies.
Slowly it materialised from journalists that we were alas NOT the victims and the plight of the farmers was raised. That lump doesn’t fade quickly.
The highlight of my morning is being allowed into the kitchen with Eduardo’s wife, Francisca. She roasts the beans on an open fire and my nostrils come alive with the delicious smell of dark roast.
Instantly I am transferred into a happy place; a place of memories where I am sat, warm, safe and cosy, my hands hugging a hot mug and remembering the rain pattering against the glass. You can tell I’m from the UK, right?!
Grinding the beans
Francisca does everything by hand. Once the beans have been roasted into a dark brown colour she tips them onto her ‘piedra de moler’ and grinds them methodically into a rough powder.
Enjoying a cuppa
The ground beans are thrown into a big pot of boiling water where it sits for a few seconds before being transferred into a pot.
We sit and enjoy a mug of boiling hot coffee and discuss what it has been like for the family to be supported by DLG.
How De La Gente have helped Eduardo
Joining De La Gente has enabled Euardo to earn a fairer wage. It’s still a hard slog for him but he is making progress. Selling his horse and having the funds to buy a truck made a big difference to his long term health. His house is now made from concrete, not maize stems or wood and they can affor to visit the Dr if they need to. His son is able to go to school, dressed smartly in his white pressed shirt and his eldest daughter has also joined DLG, training to be an artisan.
I buy some more coffee from him and he is very grateful, shaking my hand with a warm smile. I wish I could buy more – I know we spend more on toothpaste per month than I’ve spent on a bag of his coffee.
How YOU can help
If you cannot visit or attend a tour, there are a number of ways you can help!
The biggest way to support farmers is to stop drinking exploited coffee. The national average monthly wage in Guatemala is $260. How many people in America, Europe, Australia spend £2.50/$3/€2.90 a day on their take out coffee? That’s $90 a month.
- Ask questions about where your beans come from.
- Support independent coffee houses.
- Buy FairTrade (still has its problems but is better than nothing).
- Buy directly from the country/seller.
- Don’t buy chain coffee.
- Don’t support billionaire corporations that exploit people and nature.
- Don’t buy coffee from companies which use palm oil in their products (a different problem but still connected).
- You can also help by buying beans directly from Wakulimarket or De La Gente.
This was originally published in…
A copy similar to this text was first published for Wakulimarket on their blog. <- read it there.
Planning on visiting Guatemala? You should definitely visit DLG, so add this to your Pinterest board!