Coffee Economics Pt.1 of 3

During a green bean buying trip to Guatemala and Costa Rica last week, I visited several of our suppliers and saw some very different examples of community development through the currency of coffee.

My first stop was in Lake Atitlan to visit the CCDA (Comité Campesino del Altiplano). The roots of this small farmer co-op in the Guatemalan highlands are in the militia resistance movement of the indigenous Maya that have faced horrific oppression, massacres and genocide since the 60’s. The coffee co-op still fights for the rights of indigenous peasants, small farmers and agricultural workers. While I was there, a delegation of Canadians was also visiting, hosted by an intern from the Maritime Breaking the Silence Network. Leocadio, the CCDA manager, gave us all a detailed presentation on current social challenges in the area. They mainly stem from lack of access to arable land, lack of government action on promises and lack of profitability in farming. Land ownership is a very political issue and is at the heart of the struggle of the Maya in Guatemala. Many lost their homes & land when they became refugees during the long civil conflict. Upon their return to Guatemala, they were either forced into the highlands where soil is poor, or to labour on large farms or in factories.

Although the highlands are not as suited to food crops as the rich coastal soils, the environment is good for specialty coffee production. So this is the economic focus of the CCDA. The co-op is very active in human and worker rights and is also focusing on food sovereignty projects to improve the quality of life in the communities through greater access to nutritious food and relieving seasonal hunger.

We spent the afternoon picking coffee cherries on Leocadio’s farm, then stopped by the CCDA’s wet mill where coffee is pulped, washed and dried. Back at the office and warehouse, the staff had some lot samples from the recent harvest roasted for me to evaluate. We scrounged up some random cups and spoons and apparently set up the first ever cupping they have done at the co-op. I scored the coffees and sat down after with Leocadio to go over the results about varietal selection, picking, sorting and processing standards. The only real opportunities for small farmers to influence their level of income and to be profitable in coffee is to increase yields and / or access to higher quality premiums. Base coffee prices for these farmers are dictated by global market futures and fixed fair trade and organic premiums. The quality premium is variable and negotiated with buyers based on the cupping score. So any constructive dialogue between producers and buyers about improvements in production and quality will hopefully lead to more profits in the future for coffee farmers. Many of the coffee farm co-ops have relied on international development funding and subsidies to develop coffee processing infrastructure and basic community services, but in order to become independent, they will usually need to diversify into other economic activities or focus on higher quality coffee production. Coffee is like a form of currency to be traded. The higher the quality, the higher the valuation of the currency, the greater the potential impact on community development