Guaya’b co-op, Guatemala
Guaya’b is a cooperative of indigenous coffee growers in Huehuetenango, a highland region of western Guatemala, near the Mexican border. The co-op comprises about 300 Maya-Quiché coffee farmers.
Coffee is woven into the fabric of this beautiful mountainous region. Not only is it the primary export of the area, it is also largely to thank for the revitalisation of the natural habitat that has taken place in the last 40 years. The land in Huehuetenango had been stripped bare and the local wildlife devastated by deforestation over the course of the twentieth century.
When coffee was reintroduced to the region in the 1960s, the farmers planted their coffee under lush shade canopies to reduce erosion. This had the dual benefit of recreating a natural habitat for native and migratory birds. As a result, the native flora and fauna were able to flourish again, the growers were able to generate income, and coffee buyers all over the world were able to source an exceptional bean straight from the mountains of Guatemala.
Reciprocally, the influence of these mountains on the quality of the coffee is profound. There’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to measuring the quality of a coffee bean: the higher the altitude, the denser the bean, the better the coffee. Guaya’b coffee is “Strictly Hard Bean”, the highest grade available. What this amounts to is a rich dark brew that will knock your socks off.
The collective power and infrastructure of the Guaya’b co-op is crucial in making the day-to-day farming of the individual growers easier and more efficient. Guaya’b not only runs the business side of things for the farmers, but also provides a ute to collect coffee from the farmers directly (many of whom don’t own vehicles), a communal wet mill (which saves farmers a huge amount of work in their small individual home mills), and a warehouse to store the coffee before shipping.
But it’s not all smooth sailing for Guaya’b. With each visit we at Peoples are reminded again of the extent to which external forces control producers’ livelihoods.
When Peoples Coffee roaster Rene Macauley visited Huehuetenango in 2009, he heard first-hand the hardships that the growers have faced over the last decade. In 2002 the co-op lost seven years of profit when their local bank collapsed (four years on, they’d only recovered 30 percent of that money). Like many coffee-producing countries, they’re facing an ongoing struggle with the various effects of climate change, including flooding and a lack of distinct seasons.
At the time of Rene’s visit, the farmers were expecting crops only half the size of previous years, due to a widespread fungal disease called “ojo de gallo” (eye of the rooster).
This is why fair trade is so important to the growers. It is the pre-financing from their Trade Aid contracts, social premium payments and NZAID grants, as well as a lot of grit and determination from the farmers, that has allowed Guaya’b members to continue farming and trading despite these setbacks.