One of our research objectives for this trip includes identifying responsible travel experiences. Thursday morning we were lucky enough to have one such experience that was also coupled with another research objective—finding social enterprises and cooperatives making a difference in Guatemala. I had read about the De la Gente (“from the people”) Coffee Cooperative online prior to the trip and was really excited to meet the group and the farmers.
We met Marta and her husband Mario in the plaza of San Miguel Escobar, a small pueblo outside of Antigua, and were soon joined by a translator from De la Gente. Although I understood most of what Marta said, it was nice having the translator there to convey the technical words and processes. We began an uphill climb into the mountains where Marta’s family had tierra and farmed coffee and various other fruits and vegetables. The first thing I noticed was the incredible natural beauty of the place. As we climbed higher, we had sweeping vistas of the town, Antigua, and the surrounding volcanoes. The fertility of the land was astounding; we were amazed at the colors and varieties of flowers peeking out among the other plants and found ourselves lagging behind a bit as we tried to capture photos of the landscape.
The idea for the De la Gente was formed when outsiders realized how amazing the conditions were in the area for growing coffee, relaying to the farmers that they could be earning much more money for their hard labor on their farms if they took the time to produce high quality coffee for export. Though the land was very fertile, the farmers were generally only producing low quality coffee. They sold the fruits at various markets where they were earning very little profit. Many farmers still operate this way; either they sell the fruits or they complete only part of the process of coffee production and sell the “green” beans. Though the land here is lush, the farmers lack some of the technical knowledge involved in high grade coffee production, which not only requires much more effort than other farming, but also expensive equipment.
Since its inception, the process for most of the farmers of De la Gente has become easier, as the cooperative has acquired various pieces of essential equipment, much of it electric. However, Marta stresses that this type of coffee production takes much more work than almost any other type of farming. The process is long and complicated, so I’ll give you a brief rundown of my understanding from Marta. Every fruit (a fruit similar to a cherry) must be hand-picked individually and the seeds (what we know as the “beans”) extracted and sorted. Only the best are kept and the others are sold as lower quality coffee beans and usually used domestically by Guatemalan families. The beans then have to go through a machine that separates an outer layer, exposing the part that will become what we know as a coffee bean. After going through this machine, the beans are dried out on large tarps in a field or on a roof for about three days. The farmers have to turn the beans every twelve hours or they will become bitter. Only then are the beans ready to be roasted. The process is long and arduous: for every 100 pounds of coffee picked from the trees, only about 12 lbs will become exportable coffee. De la Gente mostly exports their beans to Cincinnati to be roasted so that they’re especially fresh, but they do a bit of roasting in Guatemala for domestic consumption.
Marta took us to her parents’ home in San Miguel Escobar, where she showed us the old equipment used for processing the beans (I believe this machine in particular separated the outer layer from the seed so that it could be dried). The machine was hooked up to a stationary bike, so in order for it to work, someone had to be pedaling at all times. Although some people still use machines like this, Marta told us that a family who had taken the tour a couple of years ago donated new electric machines to the co-op, making the process a bit easier. At her parents’ house, Marta then showed us the way that they prepare coffee in the traditional way, roasting it on a large stone stove (also used for tortillas) and then grinding it on a metate with another stone shaped like a rolling pin. The ground coffee is then placed in a ceramic pot with boiling water to brew. We had our coffee with a traditional meal prepared for us by Marta and her mother, which consisted of sliced and grilled vegetables (carrot, onion, zucchini, and potato), rice, and fresh tortillas (Rachel also got a piece of grilled chicken). The best part of the meal was being able to share it with Marta in her family’s home, surrounded by her children, some of her other family members and their children, and their animals (including, but not limited to, a couple of dogs tolerating being yanked around by said children, squawking chickens, and a couple of horses loaded up with firewood). Although the setting was definitely different from my home, I loved watching the children play with each other. Watching Marta’s eight-year-old daughter carry around her baby cousin and her ten-year-old son cuddling his dog, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own family. Even the noise was comforting to me, as I recalled a similar cacophony just a few weeks ago at my home for Thanksgiving.
It was really interesting to listen to Marta describe how being in the co-op changed her life and I was thrilled to have a female farmer as our guide, as there are only five women in the co-op of about 30 total farmers. She told us about her childhood as one of 10 children in a family of farmers. Because they didn’t have much money, the children often worked in the fields and accompanied their mother to the market to sell fruits and vegetables in larger towns to make a living. Most of the older children did not have much formal education, some not even finishing elementary school. When Marta joined the co-op a few years ago, her life changed for the better. Although being involved in the co-op requires more work for her, Marta is making significantly more money and producing top-quality coffee for De la Gente. She has access to low-interest loans through the co-op that she would otherwise never be able to secure, and has capitalized on that opportunity by purchasing more land to harvest coffee plants. Because of her steady and substantial income, Marta can afford to send her children to school and to take them to the doctor when necessary, opportunities that she missed out on regularly as a child. Her hard work and dedication is paying off, as her children will have better lives. Though this may not sound like a ground-breaking initiative, it’s astounding to look at the facts of coffee production in Guatemala. Fewer than 13% of coffee workers in the country have completed primary school, and the majority of them do not even receive the government-mandated $3/day wage for picking coffee. They lack access to healthcare, education, and basic human rights. By giving people the resources to provide adequately for their families, De la Gente is making a huge difference to individual families and the community at large. The cooperative is open to anyone willing to put in the necessary work and resources and will hopefully grow in the coming years.
We will be discussing this issue more at length in the future, but I just want to point out that cooperatives such as this one are truly life-changing for entire communities and especially for women. When women are involved in the formal economy, their value in the eyes of their society (and of their husbands) increases dramatically. By working with the cooperative to produce high-quality products, these women are becoming resourceful and independent. They do not have to rely on their husbands for money and generally have more influence than they would if they were working outside the formal economy (e.g. rearing children and doing housework). Study after study shows that when women are in charge of household expenses, more money is spent on children and investing in the future. So by empowering a woman, we are not only affecting change for one person, but for entire families and communities.
The De la Gente Coffee tour was definitely an experience I’d recommend to anyone traveling in Guatemala. Coffee cooperatives exist throughout Guatemala, but not many are as organized and efficiently run as De la Gente. The co-op has an office in San Miguel Escobar, where they sell other products made by members of the co-op, such as peanut butter, honey, lip balm, and bags. Their approach has three main pillars: coffee business, cooperative assistance, and community tourism. The coffee business is associated with high-quality coffee beans sold in the U.S. and Canada that provides a direct connection between consumer and producer while also supplementing the farmers’ incomes. They provide strategic support and resources to the co-ops so that they are autonomous and democratic organizations focused on supporting their members sustainably and responsibly. And through community tours they create experiences that are mutually beneficial to both tourists and local communities that are also cultural and personal. If you are interested, De la Gente offers volunteer programs in which they host students or other groups for a week or more at a time. To learn more about this co-op, ways in which you can get involved, or where you can buy their delicious beans, check out their website!
De la Gente Coffee Cooperative Tour
When: Any day of the week (with a day’s notice) at 9am or 1pm, lasting 3-5 hours
Where: San Miguel Escobar (about 4 miles outside of Antigua by taxi)
Cost: 200 quetzales (a little under $30) for the tour and one bag of coffee, 50 quetzales for the traditional lunch