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  • Writer's pictureSpiced Cranachan

De La Gente

When the plantation flowered in the beginning of the rains, it was a radiant sight, like a cloud of chalk, in the mist of the drizzling rain.

-- Isak Dinesen

Coffee is such a normal part of our lives; a ritual as routine as breakfast. Most of us start our day with coffee and those who don't might find it in their desserts or flavouring their favourite chocolates.

Ground, whole bean, roasted, granules... we pour our daily drink without so much as a second thought as to its origins. "Peruvian" and "Guatemalan" coffees summon no thought as to where our beans have come from and instead serve only to entice the consumer to buy this coffee over that one.

But what happens when we do give it a second thought? If we were, just for a moment, to consider the lives of those who farm this staple of our diet or imagine the rows and rows of plantations that exist seemingly only to wake us up in the morning.

The coffee industry is so much more than we realise. And as I found myself in the Guatamalan hills, 2000 metres above sea level, I set out to understand all I could about this hidden world.

Only the reddest "cherries" are to be harvested, initially

It isn't difficult to spot the plantations in the hills. I write from Antigua, a colourful town of precise grid-iron streets overlooked constantly by looming green mountains and volcanoes, the latter enriching the soil and providing the fertility that is vital to the coffee plantations nearby.

But Antigua isn't where I'll find what I'm looking for. For that, I'll have to travel to San Miguel Escobar, a town to the south which has been farming coffee since the 19th century.

There is a bittersweet charm to the town. I walked down the main street that leads to the farm and pass along my way a number of skilled workshops: a forge, a bakery, a wood shop, a mechanic's garage, and even a foundry where old US school buses are restored and redecorated to serve as shuttle buses for neighbouring towns. The air is filled with the sounds of people going about their lives - the grind of metal on metal, axe slicing through wood, instructions shouted over it all.

In just a 5 minute walk, I saw a kind of skill and ingenuity that is missing from my home. Entire industries that are now either completely replaced by heavy machinery for mass consumption, or overlooked entirely for the skill and dexterity it requires.

I was encouraged to suck on the flesh inside, which was sweet and grassy

Near the middle of the street, I found my destination; the home of Alejandro and Estella, and their five children.

It was a small NGO that made our meeting possible. De La Gente represents over 140 small-scale coffee producers from across Guatemala and supports them throughout the coffee making process.

Luis, a representative from De La Gente, accompanied us on a tour of the farm with Alejandro. The path, like so much of this area, was incredibly dusty and scattered with small rocks. A pack horse passed ahead of us, kicking up more dust before it disappeared into the greenery once more.

Luis and Alejandro describe the history and diversity of the plantation

As we walked, Alejandro described the diversity of plants around us. Varieties of coffee all grew together, each providing different flavours, but also different characters. Some were so flexible they could bend to almost touch the ground, while others stood firm and tall and rigid. Dispersed among the coffee were trees that looked somewhat out of place; tall Australian trees, avocado trees, lemon trees, loquat trees. All intended to create the ideal amount of shade and protection from the sun, while also giving farmers an additional food source if necessary.

As we passed a loquat tree, Alejandro plucked a few fruits and we peeled them among the shrubbery, delighting in the sweet amber flesh and batting away the occasional curious fly. He pointed out an Australian tree a few metres away; I asked when it came to Guatemala, and while Alejandro didn't know exactly, he remembered it being there even when his grandfather owned the farm.

We watched Fuego erupt quietly in the distance. It was a subtle reminder of how the farmland came to be so lush, but also of the volatility of nature; it can give so much but take much more in the blink of an eye.

"What about climate change?" I asked Luis. "Has the farm been affected at all?" Not a simple question, I would learn.

While much of the coffee itself was untouched by the effects of climate change, the same cannot be said of the diseases that plague the farm.

Roya, the leaf rust, which I originally mistook for pollen

Roya, or 'leaf rust,' usually only affects plants at lower and warmer altitudes. But as the planet warms, a new mutant strain has crept higher into the hills of Guatemala, killing the leaves of the coffee trees and weakening the plant, resulting in a far lower yield.

Alejandro passed me an affected leaf. As I turned it over in my hands, the yellow fungus rubbed off on my fingers like powder. Such a small and delicate thing, that has devastated thousands of coffee trees and threatened the livelihoods of countless farmers.

We passed more affected trees, the yellow shadow following us every step of the way. It wasn't hard to spot the damage, hundreds of blackened fruits hanging before me like doused lanterns.

Poster from Alejandro and Estella's home

Small-scale producers like Alejandro, despite intergenerational experience and expertise in the industry, continue to be more susceptible to problems like this, as well as price fluctuations and exploitative supply chains. For decades, farmers were only able to sell their seeds and produce to street vendors and were victims of unfair pricing.

But as Luis explained, as we made our way back to Alejandro's home, De La Gente has tried to help with this.

Since 2014, the NGO has altered the supply chain, shifting it into a relationship-based system that offers farms much fairer and more stable prices. It supports with education and training, improving the capacity of the farmers under the collective, and assists with the procurement of higher grade fungicide, which has sharply risen in price with the onset of Roya.

Later, Estella shows me how the fruit becomes the coffee we drink. She has a kind smile, and as she talks me through the traditional roasting and grinding methods, there is a kind of informality in the air.

She eagerly insists I try my hand at the grinding technique and we joke together about the workout I am getting, in my broken Spanish. She talks about her five children as we work and I mention how my parents had four children themselves.

Estella explains the grinding process and displays how to crush the beans

Before I leave, we sit together in their kitchen and drink the coffee we roasted. It's wonderful, not just the rich flavour of the coffee, so different from what we have back home, but the feeling of being a guest in someone's home rather than simply an observer researching the coffee farmers of Guatemala.

Throughout mouthfuls of Estella's champurradas (sweet sesame biscuits), we talk about Scotland and how different life is there. I tell them that our coffee and chocolate tastes different and struggle to find the words to explain exactly how. We discuss De La Gente more and Luis talks in detail about their past, their values, and their future plans.

I'm hesitant to leave, but the shuttle arrives. I shake Alejandro's hand and Estella gives a warm embrace before I head off.

The journey home passes through San Miguel Escobar once more. I'm not sure what I expected from this visit. Certainly, I knew I would see farmland and meet the growers. But I didn't expect the warmth I was greeted with, nor did I expect to find myself drinking coffee in someone's home, surrounded by their children's artwork and family photos, over 8000km away from my own home.

Harvesting the fruit, although I'm much slower than the others

In the days that followed the visit, I found my thoughts drifting to the farm often. Coffee is such a simple thing at home. Bought without much thought, brewed quickly and often drank in haste so we aren't late for work. Or it is an entire hobby and enthusiasts spend hours creating the perfect blend and filtration method. But still, there is an entire world of coffee we don't see.

Through such a short trip, I was able to gain just a glimpse into that hidden world; from the families who spend their lives working the farms, to the organisations that commit to supporting the farmers, to the multitude of problems the industry faces in Guatemala. Even the implications of climate change - which is almost a daily discussion in the UK - was a surprise to me.

I leave Antigua feeling somewhat humbled, although thankful for this experience. In an increasingly shrinking world, I'm glad to have found something that makes even this small part seem just a little larger.

There is indeed much more to coffee than meets the eye; something that everyone should take the time to savour.

3 commentaires

09 déc. 2023

What an adventure & amazing work by the small farms. You seem to have been really looked after by the family whose coffee plantation you went to visit. Makes all the difference to your travels

Spiced Cranachan
Spiced Cranachan
09 déc. 2023
En réponse à

Really made the experience much more personal and made me consider the real lives behind the industry rather than just figures and statistics.


09 déc. 2023

This article made me think twice when I had my morning coffee today 😊

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