Indigenous Rights and Fair Trade
28 Apr '15

May 1st marks the three year anniversary of the murder of a community leader in Santa Cruz Barillas, Guatemala who opposed the damming of the sacred river, Q’am B’alam (Yellow Tiger).  Killed by security guards from a Spanish-owned hydroelectric company (Hidralia Energia), the death of Andrés Francisco Miguel was the first of many recent killings of community activists in the region.  Within the last two months, two other community leaders have been slain and dozens of others have been jailed, including members or relatives of members of our long-time partners, ASOBAGRI.

In January of last year workers at Just Us! and I visited with members of ASOBAGRI to visit farms, share stories, and discuss business and community projects. At the time, no one spoke of the violence except when you were along in a vehicle with them. Even then, the discussion was short and to the point. We could sense their fear and frustration, even if they didn’t express it in words.

During our travels through the remote member-communities of Huehuetenango, we drove along the Q’am B’alam river. The roadways were plastered with signs advocating for Indigenous Rights, respect for nature, and signs that quite simply stated to “STOP the DAM”.  You could just feel the anxiety from the community members because they knew, all too well, that the dam would flood their homes, impact their ceremonies, affect the way they farm, and allow for even more exploitative “development” of resources like gold and silver mining. 

Here in Canada, the parallels are strikingly similar.  Whether its fracking, pipelines, mining, damming, or any other natural resource exploitation our Indigenous peoples are denied the right of consultation, denied the adherence to treaty rights, and essentially denied the right to self-determination.

These situations, all too common, do challenge our notions of “fair trade”.  Is “fair trade” simply a trading partnership – an exchange of currency (cash for coffee) or is fair trade about relationships and ultimately about transformation.  Connecting with the farmers who grow our coffee allows us to move past a “supporting” role into a role of solidarity and mutual transformation. 

Three weeks ago I attended a major coffee industry event held by SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) in Seattle. As always, I scheduled a meeting with Baltazar Miguel and Carlos Alvarado, the General Manager and Export Manager at ASOBAGRI. They spoke of relatives who were currently in jail and a general neglect of the Indigenous communities rights by the Guatemalan government. It was sad to hear them say they expect little to change, even with a national election coming up this year.

When I asked what Just Us! could do to support their struggle they told me to tell everyone we know about the struggles and exploitation of their communities. As I do that however, I feel that it is so dreadfully little. Talk is cheap, but it is important that our customers know that these are the realities of many of the small, democratically organized producers with whom Just Us! shares a relationship and buys coffee.

So please read what you can and consider what role you can play. Read about Hidralia Energia ( Read about their methods ( Read about the Indigenous Mayan cultures of Huehuetenango. In the meantime, Just Us! denounces this violence in the name of development and we support the Indigenous cause against the damming of the Q’am B’alam river.