Last winter I was fortunate to spend time in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. I paid my ticket and was off on an adventure with Joey Pittoello, the director of coffee for Just Us! Coffee. The purpose of the journey was to connect with producers from the ASOBAGRI co-op, which I learned is a relationship that Just Us! has had for over 14 years. I have wanted to do a trip like this for many years due to my connection with "Breaking the Silence". I had heard many stories about Guatemala from their interns at the Tatamagouche Centre and their work with the CCDA cooperative. However, nothing that I had learned or heard could have prepare me for the varied emotions I had for the land and the people—especially the women that I got to meet along the way. It also made me think deeply about the trip that Just Us! co-founder, Jeff Moore, made so many years ago when he travelled on a bus through the Chiapas region of Mexico without any connections and a language barrier; he felt that deep need to do something tangible because of the unfairness he had witnessed throughout the region. After that very trip, Jeff returned home and started Just Us!, the first certified Fair Trade coffee roaster in North America.
Over the years the relationship with ASOBAGARI has stayed steady. In a time where bottom dollar speaks to most companies, Just Us! stayed true to its original goal of paying a fair price. The main change that is happening now is the shift from Fair Trade to the SPP symbol, which is a symbol that is rising out from indigenous farmers all over Latin America that allows the farmers themselves to make decisions about a fair wage. It's not just about fair price: it's about insuring sustainable communities.
As we entered ASOBAGRI's main office in Barillas, the formal introductions gave way to laughter, warmth, and connection. We met with Baltazar Francisco, the General Manager of the co-op, and we all spoke quickly and excitedly with each other as though we were long-time friends—an opportunity that can really only happen because of the long term connections that have been made. It takes time to build up that level of trust and awareness: a knowledge that you are mutually interested in seeing something deep continue to develop.
Out on the road and on the fincas (farms) we noticed a massive difference between this place and Costa Rica from which we had just come. There were no scattered micro-mills in each community to process the cherries. The road infrastructure was rugged. In fact, many parts were best travelled on horseback. All I could see from village to village was coffee drying in among the abundance of life that was happening. There were drying beds in every yard. On one of our stops, we met some young women helping an older farmer named Francisco Juan, wash the freshly picked cherries. They would journey back and forth to collect the baskets on a steep incline that was thick with mud. They had begun their day at 6am and were working steadily until late that afternoon.
Picking the coffee proved to also be a massive challenge. We would climb a steep incline at 1400 m to get to the coffee plants. Between avoiding falling and trying not to step on the valuable underlying fruit trees like pineapples, we managed to only pick half a basket of cherries among four people. The average number of baskets picked per day in order to get the fruit off the trees and make a living is 22 per person, so we were far from the mark! If most North Americans realized the conditions and the speed they picked at, they would definitely demand to be paid a living sustainable wage! Or, at very least, they would pay better prices for the coffee they enjoy every day.
Sebastiana Gomez De Mateo was one of the women on the board of ASOBAGRI. Visiting her finca and community, Puente Alto, was a highlight for all of us. She is the single mother of four daughters and one son, and like many women, she is managing her farm by herself. She hires people from the community to help her pick and process the cherries. It was the first place we got to see a diversity of animals on the farm. A complete system of animals were used to provide the much needed nutrients and compost for the plants. As Roya (a plant rust that is devastating many of the coffee trees in Latin America) moves through the region, maintaining the health of the plants is essential. Her hopes for her children are that they will be able to remain with her in their traditional community. So many people from Guatemala are forced to seek employment in the United States—illegally and at great risk—to make ends meet. This out-migration leads to a severe breakdown in traditional communities, and it's the main reason we saw so many female producers single-handedly running farms.