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Guatemala 2022: a land of collective diversity

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Guatemala is a diverse country. This can be said for the people and culture and the geography and climate. Of the 16.8 million people living in Guatemala, around 44% are indigenous, which include People such as Mayan, Xinca, and Garifuna. The remaining 56% are from non-indigenous, Mestizo and European heritage. The main language in the country is Spanish; however, there is an incredible 23 officially recognized indigenous languages still in existence and widely used. 

Guatemalan culture expresses itself in many colourful ways, most noticeably in the style of dress-there are over 800 different types of indigenous clothing in Guatemala. And the architecture extending from colonial buildings in cities such as Antigua to ancient Mayan ruins in places like Tikal and Iximché. The country is home to 37 volcanoes, three of which – Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito – are constantly bubbling away. One volcano, Volcán Tajumulco, is the highest peak in Central America. Throughout Guatemala, mountains, lakes, and forests produce a diverse landscape and geography, creating over 360 unique microclimates.

Coffee pulper, Lomas Verdes

Coffee in Guatemala is also, unsurprisingly, very diverse. Anacafé, the National Coffee Association of Guatemala, has defined eight key coffee regions: Acatenango Valley, Antigua Coffee, Traditional Atitlan, Rainforest Coban, Fraijanes Plateau, Highland Huehue, New Oriente, and Volcanic San Marcos. Each with its distinctive cup profile. Around 90% of the coffee grown in Guatemala is by smallholder producers on land as little as 1-2 hectares. The remaining 10% are large producers representing 100 hectares per farm. Guatemala’s coffee varieties range from Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon and Typica, to Pache, Geisha, Pink Bourbon and Pacamara. In addition, honey and anaerobic fermentation and other experimental post-harvest processing are increasingly common throughout Guatemala’s coffee lands, adding to the mix of unique and exciting coffee coming out of the country.

It was, therefore, with zealous expectation that myself and Priscilla stepped off our plane and into the humid bustle of Guatemala City last month. It was DRWakefield’s first origin trip since 2020. Neither I nor Pris had been to Central America for a while due to the pandemic, so were both excited to soak up Guatemala’s vibrancy, meet some of the nation’s wonderful people and, of course, taste some fresh coffee.

A map of Guatemala illustrating places and partners visited during the trip

Fedecocagua

We flew into Guatemala late in the afternoon on 17th February. After we landed in Guatemala City we met up with Gerardo, the Commercial Manager of Fedecocagua, an institution in Guatemalan coffee. Established in 1969, the cooperative organization works with 23,000 producer members, seventy per cent of which are indigenous groups from various regions, including Huehuetenango, Cobán, Verapaces, Retalhuleu, San Marcos, and Zacapa. The next morning, our first stop with Fedecocagua was Santa Rosa, southeast of Guatemala City. 

Drying Patio, Nueva Era Cooperative

Nueva Era Cooperative

Our destination in Santa Rosa was the Nueva Era cooperative, which is in the Morito District. The cooperative has two annexes, one of which processes Natural coffee, and the other Washed. We were shown around by the cooperative’s president, Marlon Perez, who manages the cooperative. Nueva Era has 32 members, and each producer is involved in all decision-making processes, such as education, agronomy, and production.

Coffee delivered to the Natural processing annexe of Nueva Era is grown on Finca Tololoche, a nearby farm which a three-generation family owns; Jamie Sanchez, his father Don Fernando and son Fernando. The farm sits on Jumaytepeque, a mountain overlooking the cooperative. The annexe also has a parabolic drier and raised beds to process experimental lots, such as honey. Don Marlon showed us how he carefully measures the Brix readings on all the coffee, looking for 22-26 on Natural lots and 18 on Washed. 

The Nueva Era Washed annexe is only a short drive away and receives coffee from nearby smallholder producers. Here coffee is washed with clean water purchased from a nearby supplier, then pulped in Eco Pulpers. The parchment then undergoes dry fermentation before being dried in vertical mechanical driers. Training is given to all member producers, and assistance provided by the technical team is essential. Many people we spoke with mentioned difficulties in harvest this year due to unusual ripening times of cherries caused by climate change. 

Following our visit to Nueva Era, we drove west to Escuintla to see Fedecocagua’s dry mill in Palin. The mill receives and processes all coffee from across the country and has six warehouses, with an annual capacity of 300,000 sacks of green coffee. Each lot is identifiable by a traceability code, volume, cooperative name, and delivery date. Attached to the mill is a cupping lab, where we tasted 16 coffees of the new harvest and a roastery housing a 15kg Diedrich roaster.

Jamie Sanchez, his father Don Fernando and Fernando of Finca Tololoche

Coatitlán Cooperative

The next day we continued our journey westward to Solola and the beautiful region of Atitlán, home to the lake and volcano of the same name. The Coatitlán Cooperative sits next to the lake and receives and processes cherries from 26 neighbouring smallholder member producers in the nearby mountains. Manuel is the cooperative mill president. The mill has three cherry collection centres dotted throughout the wide catchment area, which transport cherries to the central mill at no extra cost to the producer.

The cup goal of the Coatitlán Cooperative is to achieve sweetness and red fruit flavours. To achieve this, cherries are macerated for 12 hours before pulping, then separated and wet fermented for 36 hours underneath a plastic roof to ensure temperature consistency in the fermentation process. Experimental Honey and white Honey and Natural processed lots are also done but dried under a canopy on raised African beds. 

Coffee nursery at Coop Coatitlan

There is a nursery on the cooperative with over 50,000 seedlings and an experimental field with 36 coffee varieties from Brazil. Four main factors are considered when looking at new varieties: adaptability to the environment, resistance to disease, flavour profile, and productivity. The first eight successful varietals meeting this criterion were planted on the farm in 2017. In addition, coffee is intercropped with fruit-bearing trees such as lemon and avocado, and the coop also produces its compost using Red Californian Worms. 

Following our cooperative tour, we cupped a range of Coatitlan coffees in the adjacent cupping lab. The cupping room includes a roastery and a coffee shop run by Diego Mendoza, who came second in the Guatemala Barista Championships on the previous day. We all enjoyed a fantastic espresso made by Don Diego before our drive back to Guatemala City. What an honour!

Freshly washed coffee parchment at Coop Coatitlan

Huehuetenango

Hope Coffee

The next morning, we were up early to catch a flight to Huehuetenango, a 7-8 hour drive northwest of Guatemala City. After landing in Huehuetenango, our first port of call was a meeting with Don Otto Herrera of La Esperanza, marking our first day with partners Hope Coffee. Otto is a third-generation coffee producer, and his family has owned La Esperanza since the 1960’s. His three sons, Otto, Octavio and Jose, manage the Hope Coffee business in Guatemala City, working closely with smallholder producers. 

Over coffee and pancakes, Don Otto spoke about the challenges coffee production in Huehuetenango currently faces. Due to immigration to the US, there is a lack of labour in the region – on La Esperanza only 7 workers are available this year, as opposed to 14 in previous years – which has driven wages up by 50-60%. The remittance coming back into Huehuetenango from the US also means many family members who remain no longer have to work. There is a move towards investing in housing and transport in the main town rather than the surrounding coffee areas. Over the past 6 months, violence in Huehuetenango has increased, due to narco traffic and gangs, especially over the nearby Guatemalan Mexican border. Civilians are caught up in the conflict, and it is now considered dangerous to cross into Mexico, and many countries like the US consider Huehuetenango a no-go area. 

Overlooking La Esperanza, Hope Coffee, Huehuetenango

Following breakfast, we set off to La Esperanza, through San Pedro Necta. This journey was not an easy one. The main road to the farm is currently closed for 22 hours per day, and we were forced to take the smaller zigzagging roads up the mountainside. Unfortunately, the road was also closed due to an emergency repair, and we had to wait 2 hours until we could continue our journey to the farm. We arrived at La Esperanza in the late afternoon, and Juan, the farm’s warden, welcomed us. La Esperanza is a beautiful farm. Some of the coffee trees on the farm are up to 50 years old, still healthy and producing fruit due to Otto’s careful pruning and stumping practices. Cholum, Gravilea and Izote trees are intercropped throughout the coffee for shade protection, nitrogen-fixing, and preventing soil erosion, which adds to the scenic views. The sun was setting as we left La Esperanza, and our windy journey back brought us into Huehuetenango well after dark.

La Esperanza, Hope Coffee

Hoja Blanca

We were awake early enough to enjoy breakfast with the sunrise the next morning before getting back in the car for the 2.5-hour drive to Hoja Blanca – a journey we’d become very familiar with over the subsequent two days. Hoja Blanca, meaning ‘White Sheets’, is a small town in Cuilco, Huehuetenango. It is home to some fantastic coffee. And it is here where we would visit the smallholder farms whose coffee we source through Hope. Hope’s relationships with producers in Hoja Blanca are managed through Arsenyo Castillo, a producer who owns a warehouse in the town, receiving coffee and delivering training to neighbouring farms. Arsenyo’s brother, Wilmar, also assists in the process and owns the farm Vista el Bosque. The Castillo family are respected in the area and have done much good work promoting quality coffee in the region. 

Arsenyo and Wilmar Castillo, Hoja Blanca

El Recuerdo

We started our day with a visit to El Recuerdo, owned and managed by Epifanio Castillo, who has been working in coffee for 43 years and whose mother is cousins with Arsenyo and Wilmar’s mother. The terroir in this region is steep and lush, with many microclimates, and the farm is divided into two parcels, one at lower and one at higher altitude, to make the most of this. Cyprus and Pine trees are intercropped with coffee and used for income and heating at the farmhouse, and lemon verbena also grows and is picked for tea. 

Epifanio Castillo, El Recuerdo, Guatemala

Picking and processing on El Recuerdo are typical of many farms in the region. One of the reasons for this is that Arsenyo and Wilmar have delivered training to many producers around Hoja Blanca, assigning similar post-picking processes to create consistency and quality. During harvest, coffee is hand-picked and processed on-site. Cherries are pulped and dry fermented in the farm’s four fermentation tanks for 48 hours. Parchment is then washed and sorted through channels, and patio dried for 4-5 days by Elder Martinez, who rakes the parchment every 30 minutes. Like La Esperanza, due to lack of workers, there are only 10 pickers on the farm this year, rather than the usual 20, creating extra stress and drain on resources for Epifanio during the harvest.

Dry Fermentation, El Recuerdo, Guatemala

Vista El Bosque

Wilmar Castillo owns the nearby Vista El Bosque. Wilmar bought the farm 14 years ago after selling his father’s farm El Injerto after acquiring it in Directo and moving to Hoja Blanca with his brother for its preferred growing climate and access. El Bosque is 9 hectares in size and sits next door to Arsenyo’s farm, Bella Vista. The family has been growing coffee for 50 years and the brother’s father, Felino Castillo, still helps in production at the age of 75. Wilmar runs El Bosque with his wife Maura Rebecca Lopez. Arsenyo is also married to Maura’s sister. 

Drying Patio, Vista El Bosque

Wilmar grows Caturra, Maragogype, Arabigo, San Ramon, Bourbon and Sarchimor, which he has chosen for adaptability. The farm also has 2000 Geisha seedlings, which should yield cherries in three years. The wet mill is a 30-minute walk from the farm, which processes all cherries picked on El Bosque. Emir, the third brother in the Castillo family, and Felino, also work at the wet mill. There is housing at the mill for seasonal workers and basic facilities such as toilets, showers, laundry, and free meals during harvest periods. Both Wilmar’s uncle and mother own small coffee farms, neighbouring the wet mill. Their family has been growing coffee in the area for several years. 

By the time we’d visited the wet mill, the sun was setting once again on the majestic Huehuetenango landscape. And we set off back to Huehuetenango city during ‘golden hour’, stopping off briefly at another farm called La Ventana, ‘The Window’, owned by Ariel Perez, who is also Hoja Blanca’s local butcher.

Felino Castillo processing coffee at Vista El Bosque

El Cipresales

Another day, another early start and another drive back to Hoja Blanca. This time to visit El Cipresales, owned by Nohelo Castillo, also extended family to the Castillo brothers. Nohelo inherited the farm from his father, who bought El Cipresales 30 years ago. Unfortunately, production this year is low due to the climate, heavy rains, and lack of workers. Usually, Nohelo employs 20 people to help during harvest; however, he had just 4 people assisting when we visited, close family and friends. 

Not only does Nohelo process his coffee at his home, but he roasts coffee too in an oven he built himself, resembling that of a pizza oven. Each roast lasts 1 hour, but unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try it. Nohelo also keeps cows alongside coffee, which he uses for milk to sell and supplement his income. The cows come in handy, as the manure provides excellent compost material, which he mixes with coffee pulp. As Nohelo splits his time 50/50 between coffee and dairy, the two industries work well, as the time out of coffee harvest can be used to focus on the dairy aspect of the farm.

Nohelo Castillo, Cipresales

Following our visit with Don Nohelo we stopped off at the neighbouring farm, Lomas Verdes, owned by Don Alta Merathe brother of Arsenyo’s wife. Here we saw the use of a process called ‘Agua Fria’, a cold-water flush on coffee during the second day of fermentation. This is used to slow the fermentation process down as the mill gets especially hot in the summer, preventing any over fermentation.

Wet mill and fermentation tank, Cipresales

Hoja Blanca Bodega

Arsenyo manages the warehouse in Hoja Blanca with the help of Wilmar. They rent the warehouse and receive pergamino (coffee parchment) from neighbouring farms. There is also a second warehouse located in nearby Democracia. With Hope Coffee producers, 1kg of samples are taken from each coffee delivery. The sample is coded with the producer’s name and the number of sacks, then sent to Hope Coffee in Guatemala City for grading and cupping. Hope Coffee then approves samples and contracts coffee, after which parchment is delivered in trucks to the Hope Coffee dry mills for processing. 

Coffee sacks waiting to leave the Hoja Blanca bodega

Miravalle

We arrived at the Miravalle wet mill around 3pm. Julio Santobel and his wife Nelsy own and manage the farm after the land was bought by Julio’s father 12 years ago. Julio spent 8 years in America, working in Atlanta, Tennessee, and Florida as a painter, before returning to manage the farm, which is just 5km from the border with Mexico.

The farm is split into two parcels, each at 3 hectares in size: San Miguel Chiccaron, 1800masl and Cerro Verde at 1700masl. Julio’s brother and cousin also own another 7 hectares next to Miravalle, which can supplement volume if production is low. Julio is very close to the Mexican border and receives many buyers from Mexico. 

Julio Santobel, Finca Miralvalle

Fedecocagua

Camoja Warehouse

At the end of our trip with Hope Coffee, we linked back up with Fedecocagua and stayed in the warehouse in Camoja, still in Huehuetenango. The warehouse was designed by Gerardo’s son and is aesthetically beautiful – vast clean, concrete interspersed with bright green vegetation. Don Jose manages the warehouse and has worked with Fedecocagua for over 30 years. 

The site houses a cupping lab, reception area for visiting producers, a large 75,000 capacity storage area for parchment, kitchen, showers and lockers, laundry room and beds for all on-site workers. Luckily for us, there is also accommodation for visitors, which was very welcome. Currently, there are 10 full-time members of staff, who consist of a Q Grader called Maria Fernanda, 3 security guards, cleaners, and a warehouse. Thirteen cooperatives deliver parchment coffee to the Camoja Warehouse. Trucks transport the coffee to the Dry Mill in Palin for milling.  

 

Fedecocagua Warehouse, Camoja

Todosanterita

After an evening of delicious tacos made by the warehouse team, we set off the following day at 7am to Todosanterita, a cooperative near San Antonio Huista. Don Henry, Fedecocagua’s Marketing and Communications, Don Jesus Alvarado, the Head Agronomist, and Don Odair, the Regional Agronomist joined us for the trip. 

Todosanterita stands for ‘All Saints’ and refers to the infamous 1st November celebration of Saints that centralize around a yearly horse race. The cooperative formed 32 years ago with just 17 people. Today, there are 131 members, 23 of whom are women, many of whom dress in the wonderful handmade blue and red clothing known by the community. The average farm size is around 2 hectares, with 280 hectares of coffee in the coop. Two young technicians in the cooperative are training and spreading good practices, including soil conservation, terracing of land to prevent erosion, pruning, fertilization with a focus on organic composting and appropriate application, and shade management with the introduction of Chaloum trees (Inga Shade). Soil conservation is a relatively new practice but costly to implement. Maintaining shade trees helps protect cherries from falling and soil erosion from the heavier rainfall occurring in recent years due to the changing climate.

Members of the Todosanterita Cooperative

We toured the wet mill of Don Victoriano Perez Pablo and the farm Grano de Oro, owned by Cipriano Mendosa. On the tour we discussed the challenges Todosanterita currently face. These include the increasing prices of inputs, such as fertilizer, which is now three times the price as in previous years. It is also hard now to find pickers in the region, which has driven wages up by 50%. It was mentioned that the high C Market price this year might have saved many smallholders throughout Huehuetenango from falling below the cost of production. Certification is also significant for Todosanterita, and they are 100% Rainforest and Fairtrade certified. The Fairtrade premiums go directly to the producers, and the cooperative collectively decide how to invest this best. The Premiums have helped implement the agronomical practices mentioned above, which are vital in smallholder’s capacity to combat climate change. 

Cipriano Mendosa picking coffee cherries on Finca Grano de Oro

Peña Roja Cooperative

After a second night at Fedecocagua, this time with another fantastic meal and karaoke, we set off early again to Peña Roja, 1.5-hours’ drive from La Democracia. As we drove up to the cooperative, the landscape was much lusher and denser than the previous day, with rivers, wild forests and sweeping valleys flowing past our windows. We drove past the renowned growing region of Chaloum. We were greeted by the manager of the Peña Roja cooperative Anacleto Martinez as we arrived, and his son, Mynor Martinez, who is the cooperative’s head agronomist. Pena Roja was founded 40 years ago with 22 people. Today there are 81 active members, 67 men and 14 women. The cooperative has two warehouses, one in Pena Roja and one in Chaloum. All coffee is certified Fairtrade, RFA and Starbucks and over 90% of the coffee grown is at above 1800 masl. Farms are, on average, a little larger than Todosanterita, at 5-8 hectares in size.

Members of the Pena Roja Cooperative

We visited the farm of Anacleto Martinez called Las Piedras, meaning ‘Big Rocks’. As with many farms in the region, Anacleto has started growing Marsellesa, a good option for producers in this region. It adapts well to environments and is rust-resistant. Javier Martinez owns a wet mill nearby Las Piedras. Here he processes coffee grown on his 3 farms with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. Surrounding the wet mill, Javier has peach and Tabaquillo trees. There is a parabolic dryer with raised beds at the mill, which was built using funds from USAid, who has donated a total of $18m USD with Fedecocagua over five years to improve coffee production in the country. 

It was hard not to feel a little saddened driving back into Huehuetenango town from the picturesque mountains of La Democracia. The region is so beautiful. And the people were welcoming and wonderful. But we had to return to catch our flight back to Guatemala City that afternoon, in time for another trip out to a different region tomorrow morning – this time by helicopter.

Coffee cherries on Las Piedras

Nueva Granada

Dieter Nottebaum collected us from our hotel at 6:30 am and we drove to the same small set of hangers we landed into the previous night. Here we boarded a helicopter piloted by Toty Naldo, who has been flying helicopters for 21 years and, coincidentally, designed the helipad at Fedecocagua’s warehouse complex in Camoja and was the first pilot to land a helicopter there. The flight to Nueva Granada took 50 minutes, as we were travelling over 250km/hour at 4,000ft. We passed over some of Dieter’s macadamia and coffee farms and saw bursts of smoke erupting from the Volcano de Fuego and Santiagolito, the youngest volcano of Guatemala city.

Nueva Granada is in San Marcos estate, 1h drive from Mexico. Gustavo Herman, the farm manager, was waiting for us. He has been working on the farm for over 50 years. Nueva Granada feels like a whole community. Usually, the farm employs 600 workers; however, this year, there is only 185. The farm transports all workers via shuttle daily since they live as far as 50km. On the farm, 32 families live all year round. There is a primary and secondary school, housing, health clinic, church, and football pitch for the working community. Dieter also sponsors scholarships for 50 children from neighbouring villages to attend the school system. 

Gustavo, Ilsa and Dieter, Nueva Granada

As well as growing coffee, Nueva Granada produces macadamia and cardamom. 10% of the farm is wild forest and is home to animals such as puma, wild cats, rats, deer, squirrels and pipote. There are Inga Shade trees to help protect coffee and fix nitrogen and Robusta and Liberica at the lower altitudes. It was nearing the end of the harvest during our visit, but we were lucky enough to see some of our coffee being graded and bagged. This was done in the farm’s dry mill, which neighbours the wet mill. Auber Gonzalez manages the farm’s compost production, developing a recipe of 50/50 coffee pulp and macadamia skin. Nueva Granada produces over 40MT of compost each year using Californian Red Worms. After our farm tour Angela, Gustavo’s wife, cooked us a delicious meal of stuffed peppers before we boarded the helicopter back to Guatemala City. In Guatemala City we met with Holly, Dieter’s wife, for a late lunch. Holly oversees the Guatemala Burns Charity that Nueva Granada has supported for many years. 

Following our time with Dieter and Holly, we checked back into our hotel for one last night in Guatemala City, before our journey to London the following day.

Macadamias, Nueva Granada

During our trip we definitely experienced Guatemala’s diversity. Driving through (and flying over) different micro-regions reminded us of the vastness and variety of Guatemala’s various landscapes. Meeting with so many producers in one trip, we were also given an insight into Guatemala’s different cultures, languages, people, and traditions, which seep into the farming practices in coffee-growing communities.

But, interestingly, Guatemala’s vibrant individualism seems underpinned by a shared sense of collectivism. Whether coffee producers are small, like those associated with Todosanterita, or large, such as Nueva Granada, what bonds Guatemalan coffee together is community. This applies to regional producing communities, like Don Arsenyo, Don Wilmar and Don Epifanio in Hoja Blanca, as they engage with informal producer networks to exchange knowledge and increase market access. Or of more structured models such as the cooperatives of Fedecocoagua like Todosanterita, Peña Roja and Nueva Era, which involve producers in all organizational decision-making. And at Nueva Granada, where Dieter has created a society of workers who rely on the farm for accommodation, healthcare, education, and income.

Wilmar, Felino, Arsenyo and Emir Castillo

Coffee production in Guatemala faces many challenges. Climate change creates uncertainty in weather, with heavy rains affecting flowering and damaging coffee cherries. Inflation is increasing the cost of production through rising fertilizer prices. In addition, migration and remittance force local wages up whilst keeping labour availability down.

We saw on our trip that the size, shape, and location of a coffee farm doesn’t protect a producer from these threats. But collectivism and community can, for example, by helping a neighbouring farm during harvest when workers are hard to find, sharing and exchanging farming practices to help others fight the impacts of climate change, or supporting local communities when living costs start to rise. These collective actions can strengthen coffee farms and growing communities.

Guatemala produces some exceptionally unique coffee. They are grown by some extraordinary people. But collective diversity is at the heart of Guatemala’s coffee industry and will play an essential role in the future of coffee in the country.

Coffee sacks, Vista el Bosque
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