Friday, February 27, 2009

San Pedro to Monterrico

As I answer one question that burns within me about the culture of coffee trade here, three more arise in its place. That wasn´t the idea.

Two days ago Laurel (whose Guatemalan travels can be kept track of at and I left San Pedro La Laguna en route to Monterrico. *sigh*

Monterrico is a little beachside paradise. Expectations here are very manageable. Recreation of choice is mostly playing in the strong waves and warm water of the Pacific, and Hammock-Swinging. The beach is of black sand, the sun is strong, the roofs are grass and the livin´is eeeassyyyy. I may get stuck for a while, but coffee is calling me back.

In San Pedro, the livin´is pretty easy too. But much about the place did make me slightly uneasy as well. It is a little hippie enclave on lake atitlan, where gringos outnumber locals in multiples in some parts of town, owners and workers at bars and restaurants are white european expats, you can do yoga, get bagels with cream cheese, and buy crafts or bread from local folks without much else for a way to get by. The scene and industry and culture is very accomodating. almost...too easy. I´d heard a lot about how there is tension between the hipster whiteness and the native communities and it is evident. That said, I want to go back.

My second day there I stumbled across a coffee mill in the middle of town and watched people loading bags of freshly picked cherry until I was invited to help out. for a couple hours I heaved hundred-fifty-plus pound sacs of coffee out of a pickup truck and onto a scale, off from the scale and dumped into a pit where from there they fell into the depulper, and i asked all the questions my spanish would allow me to. Where is this coffee coming from? Who is buying it here? what´s the price like now? do you guys do the picking? how much do you get paid per quintale? Where is the coffee ending up? how does it get there? the answers to these questions at times surprised me, for some I knew the answers before i asked. Ultimately, I gathered that this was a pretty conventional operation. Coyotes involved, no certifications, not the highest quality processing, water running from the mill to the lake with no treatment...but the kids (late teens... I call everyone kids...) were excited that I was working with them and I was invited to the fields to harvest with them, unfortunately later in the week than I´d be around. and surprisingly, I had a good conversation about coffee markets with the person buying the coffee there at the mill and overseeing the operation. I was also shocked to hear that the price they said the pickers get was over three times more than the price I´d heard was typical elsewhere. This is one reason I need to get back. to clarify.

The next day I heard about another mill just outside of town, so i went there. I gathered with my first visit that it´s a Fair trade and organic association of indigenous maya coffee farmers from around the area, and I was invited back later by Pedro, the agrarian technician of the association, to see the processing. he was inviting, generous, knowledgable, passionate and glad for my visit, it was an altogether different feeling from the mill in town. When I returned later that night (on a motorcycle borrowed from my new friend Phil. Dreamy. Riding a motorbike around lake atitlan to visit a coffee mill? thanks phil!) I caught the first bit of processing the days harvest before being introduced to the president of the organization. All I said was "hello, My name is Marcos, I´m from the United States" and the man´s face lit up and I was eagerly escorted into his office. From here we spoke, strictly spanish, for almost an hour about the organization, the communities it serves, the challenges they face, the assistance they need, the projects they want to start, and the hospitality I would be shown if I were to return. And so I feel I must. I made it clear to him that I came to learn but alone don´t have the resources to offer the assistance they need. I am, after all, only me. But I think that the prospect of having their story heard in the states is enough.

So in San Pedro I have one operation in the middle of town where I have been eagerly invited back by the workers and the buyer to learn more, though the social responsibility of it is questionable. There is much more for me to find out. I have been invited to return and stay with a fair trade and organic certified association of indigenous coffee farmers in the same town. to do both would be tricky. but I think I´ll have to chance it.

one last note:

- President of association, when asked if the coffee in town was produced with just practices and social responsibility.

- Buyer of coffee at the mill in town, when asked where the coffee would ultimately end up.

So there.

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