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Xela’s Café Armonía: An ethical business model

By Patricia Macías López – Entremundos Correspondent

It’s harder than you’d think to enjoy a cup of organic and fair-trade coffee in Guatemala. The majority of the coffee produced here is exported, and grown on large plantations owned by very few and worked by many in abysmal labor conditions. It’s difficult for small producers to compete with the industrial-scale producers, even without considering factors like taxes, tariffs, the widespread predatory practices of middlemen, and even the effects of climate change as plant diseases like the fungus la roya enjoy longer summers, droughts become more common, and rainfall becomes harder to predict.

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Manos Campesinas (Farmer Hands) and ASOBAGRI (the Barillense Association of Farmers) are two successful Guatemalan coffee cooperatives. Manos Campesinas is a second-level organization (local cooperatives are considered the first level) that involves over 1,000 small producers and principally manages the commercialization of the producers’ coffee, all of which is certified organic. The organization was born in 2000 and in the words of its manager, Carlos Reynoso, ‘The idea to create a movement of small producers was the seed of Manos Campesinas. In that time, the idea of organic production didn’t exist; everything was conventional, and even the quality of the coffee wasn’t very valued. But from the very beginning of Manos Campesinas, the board of directors and others said, ‘‘Let’s work naturally. We can’t lose sight of this… We’re going to continue to protect the rivers, and continue to protect the land.’’’

Beyond caring for the environment, the fundamental job of these organizations is to assure that their farmers, who in the case of Manos Campesinas own on average one hectare of land, work in good conditions and make a fair wage. Large scale coffee production allows plantations to underprice small producers, since they pay low wages and don’t have to work with middlemen. Organizations of small producers can make them big, and make their product competitive with large producers. Second-level organizations are larger and can therefore negotiate prices, sell in bulk, and look for reliable markets. They also incentivize and promote grassroots self-organization of campesino collectives by increasing benefits, all of which leads to sustainability.

‘If we didn’t exist and these market conditions didn’t exist, I’m sure that many of these producers today wouldn’t be producers because the prices wouldn’t have compensated their work,’ said Reynoso. He added, ‘Having stable markets, which allow us to negociate prices, allows them to spend all year working their own property, and not to have to go somewhere else’ where they would likely have to work on a plantation.

After 15 years of work, a new initiative has emerged: Café Armonía opened in Xela in september, 2014. It’s a special initiative because behind it are Manos Campesinas and ASOBAGRI, and so its coffee comes straight from the small producers that make up these organizations. Reynoso said, ‘Café Armonía is our first experience. We want to offer a product of the highest quality, a product that’s wholesome, a product from small producers.’ Further, ‘The other cafés are owned by one or two propietors. This café belongs to all of the farmers.’

The baristas working in the café are children of members of the cooperatives. They were selected and then were professionally trained. Ondina Victoria, one of the workers who comes from the small coffee-growing community of Loma Linda, explained, ‘Café Armonía is a family.’ It’s a family that works together from the coffee plant to the coffee mug to deliver competitively-priced coffee that’s cooperative, organic, high quality, and provides fair wages to those in each step of production.