May 2, 2009

Guatemalan Experience: Weekend at a coffee Finca

Just four years ago, the community of Nueva Alianza wasn’t sure how they would survive. After working hard for generations for the sole benefit of the coffee plantation owner, they were left with nothing after he declared bankruptcy (due to the global drop in the price of coffee) and fled, still owing them 18 months of back pay.

Located in a temperate area 1000 meters above sea level in the Guatemalan municipality of El Palmar, Quetzaltenango, about 45 minutes north of the coastal town of Retalhuleu, this small community looks quite different today. They no longer live their lives in fear working under slave-like conditions but are working collectively, for the benefit of all 40 Guatemalan families in the cooperative. Thanks to sustainable projects like organic coffee and macadamia nut production, bio-diesel production, hydro-electric power, and a purified bottled water facility, Nueva Alianza has greatly improved their quality of life. Another project that has made a significant difference is a thriving ecotourism program through support from Café Conciencia, (an international, non-profit organization that works in solidarity with worker-owned coffee cooperatives in Guatemala to help them achieve social and economic justice).

I weekend trip to visit the finca and hear all about their history and projects.

The weekend starts at 7:00 am at the Parque Central in Quetzaltenango where a private mini bus picks up us for a 2 hour drive. Arriving at the Finca, we have coffee and fruits before going for a 2 hours hike in the jungle. The guide explains the use of the different medicinal plants present in the finca. Some have been used by generations to cure the cold, the pain or the insomnia. The path brings us to the nursery of the coffee plants. They mix two families of coffee plants to make a stronger plant and let them grow for a year before planting them in the field. It takes 2 years before they start producing fruits.

Back to the hotel, we have lunch following by a quiet time to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere and the warm weather. At 3:00 pm, we go for the coffee tour. This year they have changed their machines to be more ecological, using less water and the recirculation the water. The whole process, from the time they bring the fruits from the field to when the coffee is ready to be sold, takes about 80 hours. The harvest is between July till December.

After diner, they are selling coffee and macadamia. Then someone from the community comes to talk about their history. In the 80’s, the finca was owned by a man and everything was going fine until he died. One of his sons took over the finca but he was a bad administrator and with the drop of the price of the coffee he started owning them many months of salary. The situation got so bad that people left the finca to look for a job in Quetzaltenango. After the owner declared bankruptcy, they took a loan in 2002 to pay the finca. Fondo Del Tierra, the organization that loaned them the money, gave them 12 years to pay back the 1.2 Million of Quetzals. So they organised themselves in a cooperative and have been working hard since then.

On Sunday morning, we do the tour of the different projects: bio-diesel, purified water, furniture in bamboo, macadamia, compost and organic garden. Each project is independent and run by a committee. They have too a chicken farm and a pig farm run by the women committee. The Bio-diesel project started with the help of an American student who teach them the process and gave them their first machine. Then thanks to a donation they were able to buy better machines. Now they make bio-diesel for the community, to use for the trucks of the purified water and the motors.
We finish the morning by a small hike to a waterfall before having lunch and getting ready to go back to Quetzaltenango.

For more information about the tours to Nueva Alianza, check the community website . If you’re in Quetzaltenango, visit the office at 12 Avenida 3-35, Zona 1.

No comments: