CAFE COLIS RESISTENCIA - MATAQUESCUINTLA, GUATEMALA
The producer group around Mataquescuintla - known locally as Cafe Colis Resistencia - face perhaps the most adversity of any of the three groups Semilla works with. I was first made aware of this group by Drew Johnson of Bows & Arrows in Victoria who -- after reading about the trials faced by one of the group’s leaders Alex Reynoso -- pursued all channels possible to get in touch with them and lend support. In 2019, many more roasters in Central/Eastern Canada and the United States became interested and purchased from the group, leading to 2020’s dedicated sourcing effort that seeks to increase the purchase volume as a means of lending economic solidarity while also raising our voices against the extractive projects which threaten their basic livelihood.
Quietly Built, Loudly Opposed
For the Indigenous Xinca, the Escobal silver mine looms in the background, both figuratively and literally. Owned and operated by the Canadian-based Pan-American Silver, it’s estimated to be the second-largest silver mine in the world, and yet was built without the consultation nor the consent of the local people, in direct contravention of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Yet, at this moment, it sits shuttered, license temporarily suspended thanks to the organized actions of the Xinca people, who claim a long and storied history of resistance to colonization and infringement in their territories that dates back to the Conquest of Latin America.
Canadian involvement in extractive projects in this area is well-documented and goes back at a minimum two decades. Escobal specifically was conceived in the late 2000s, and its potential existence was met by a series of local plebiscites and referendums held through 2011 and 2012. Due to its size, the profit a company stands to gain through this project is enormous, yet all the risk remains on the local people who must live with the guaranteed detrimental effects on the wellbeing of their families and the natural environment that sustains them. It makes sense then why all of these multiple plebiscites reported at minimum 93% opposition to the project by the local population. In the municipality where the mine was eventually built, San Rafael Las Flores, the plebiscite was blocked by municipal authorities, figures who have now been exposed as recipients of benefits from Esobal and its local subsidiary, Minera San Rafeal.
In this period, there were also a total of 280 complaints lodged with the Ministry of Energy and Mining stating that environmental impact testing had been insufficient. For example, in typical extractive licencing cases of this size, 5000 soil samples are expected to be taken to ensure harmful chemicals aren’t leaching into the soil. Soil samples taken and analyzed in the case of Escobal topped out at fourteen. Since then, multiple tests have shown elevated levels of arsenic in the water supply nearby the mine, while waters in the general area test as some of the cleanest in the country.
In December 2013, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declared that it was mandatory for then-owner Tahoe Resources to complete similar consultations and receive community approval for the project. Despite this obvious and documented opposition, and with complete disregard to UN Convention, the mine was granted its license in 2013 and began functioning in 2014.
Since this time, multiple peaceful protests have led to arrests and shootings, with an increase in random attacks and even murders by security forces in an effort to intimidate the group into backing down. Multiple of the producers in the Cafe Colis Resistencia group and their families have been victims of one or all of the above offences.
Gaining Traction, Maintaining Momentum
Their struggle has not gone unnoticed, however. In June 2017, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court sided with the Xinca Parliament, suspending Escobal’s licence pending proper consultations with the local people. In 2018, this was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court. The suspension of the license led to a plunge Tahoe Resources' stock, one so extreme the company had to sell the rights to Pan American Silver.
Pan American, as one of the largest silver extracting companies in the world, is clear in their belief that they can ride out any opposition and that short term loss will be outweighed by the massive profit they can accrue through the functioning of the mine. They have already begun engaging in illegal and false consultations, attempting to drum up support for the mine to present to the court without the involvement of the Xinca Parliament.
Kelvin Jimenez, coffee producer and lawyer who leads the Xinca Parliament explained that he feels heartened despite all of the challenges and struggles they have faced. For one thing, their resistance to Escobal forced the Guatemala government to recognize the existence of the Xinca peoples, despite previously arguing they hadn’t existed. against this mine has led to the first official recognition of their people by the Guatemala constitution, which they had been fighting for since 1996.
In the early days of protest against the mine, the government released information to the press seeking the capture of the heads of the XInca parliament. This public admission of their existence meant they couldn’t be excluded from the census anymore and since then, the number of recorded XInca has grown from 16,000 to 240,000 in 2018.
The Xinca resistance also set a national legal precedent when the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court voted in their favour, giving them the distinction of being the Indigenous group responsible for setting a constitutional standard that any extractive project needs to go through a consultation process. Even Mayan peoples, who number over 50% of the total population of Guatemala, were unable to achieve this in the past.
A Monopoly Hovers Above
This struggle against the mine would be enough on its own, but the Cafe Colis Resistencia group must also deal with the adversity and roadblocks that come with being a small producer in Guatemala. While most growers around Central and South America are used to being exploited or manipulated in one way or another, Guatemala small growers face a particular vicious structure that works against the average small producer, keeping them dependent on intermediaries or wealthy landowners who operate beneficios that purchase cherry.
In either case, these coffees are bought at prices that are frankly shocking, and vary widely throughout the harvest. This year, we heard prices as low as 65 quetzal to the highest price of 160 quetzal per quintal (100lbs) of cherry. In other words, they receive between $8.50USD and $21USD for 100lbs of cherry net. Pickers are typically paid 40-45 quetzal/quintal for conventional coffee, meaning that the producer themselves will reap between $3USD - $15USD for 100lbs of cherry, not including their other input costs. The numbers can be displayed in multiple ways, but the final conclusion is that the producers, selling commercially in cherry are as they say locally regalando or giving away their coffee.
This is the reality in this area and for many small producers around Guatemala -- local prices, which are typically the only option available, are simply unsustainable but many keep them going because they have no other options but also because they are attached to their land and to the process of cultivating coffee. They will accumulate debts via loans given by local banks, and their attempts to pay these back in time will almost always be for naught, leaving them crippled by interest rates.
The legacy of coffee growing is a complicated and nasty one in Guatemala. It began in the late 19th century with German and English immigrants purchasing large tracts of land close to ports and, with the support of dictator Justo Rufino Barrios, made the lion’s share of their profits off of the forced labour of Indigenous people who are beholden to work seasonally in these fincas by virtue of the mandamiento system. This ignominious birth of the national coffee industry seems to have stained it to this day, as despite a growth in Indigenous growers of coffee, the wealthy and connected local elite tend to dominate the export sector.
Over the 20th century, as coffee prices plummeted, many of these wealthy landowners or their children abandoned the pursuit of coffee growing, while Indigenous peoples -- who now populated high altitude remote areas due to a pattern of emigration forced by the mandamentio system -- found themselves able to grow quality product that would demand a premium. However, in most cases in Guatemala, coffee growing due to being a single production crop annually, and that most manage very small plots of land, cannot be a single option for sustainable living. Rather, as described in their article on smallholder growers in Guatemala, Edward Fischer and Bart Victor explain that the “true goal (of coffee production) should be the freedom of people to live by their desires” rather than being viewed as an economic boon that will reap them large fiscal rewards.
In Mataquescuintla, the Cafe Colis Resistencia group has struggled against a national coffee organization that fails to assist them agronomically nor economically, and has only distanced itself in recent years as they have protested the mine. Defined as a conflict zone, Anacafe closed their office in Mataquescuintla -- an area that counts itself as 70% dependent on coffee -- only a few years ago. Instead, this body supports major growers who purchase this group's coffees and sell them for a premium, never offering transparency in prices nor in market to these growers. Furthermore, Anacafe presents restrictive and difficult regulations around the obtaining of an exportation licence that leaves the group unable to independently organize the sale and exportation of their coffee.
Many of the group have stepped away or attempted to step away from selling in cherry, instead processing their own coffee to parchment or renting the services of a local wet mill to do so. Even still, they have been unable to obtain an export licence and as such are still dependent on this wealthy and elite group to mill and export at increased costs.
Worst of all is that without Anacafe, the group's access to intellectual resources surrounding agronomy, soils, and crop diseases has nearly completely evaporated. Currently, multiple members of the group are facing a disease known as Yellow Fever in which the coffee plant appears healthy during its flowering cycle only to completely dry up and die during harvest. This could be something as simple as a soil nutrient imbalance, but without agronomists who are willing to enter the zone nor the cash to pay for these costly tests, it leaves them to operate blindly on the hope that things will rebound.
In short, no matter the angle this group takes to defend their land and their communities, or to pursue a better life for themselves via increased prices and access to a solid and trustworthy market, they're met with adversity and obfuscation.
Steps we've taken together since 2018 now appear revolutionary. Multiple of these growers now have loyal clients and are finally gaining access to the knowledge and support and capital they need to actuate their desires, but there is still a long way to go. Most of these growers who dedicated buyers must sell in cherry to make it through the harvest and many more still haven't been able to invest in their own farms to process their own coffees.
Semilla’s goals for 2020
As always, Semiila’s main goal here is to share in risk and to advocate for a producer group who possesses the ability and the quality raw material to operate in the specialty market -- they simply need to be given a chance. Here below are a few things we achieved in our visit this year as well as that which we’re aiming to achieve in the months to come.
The first goal we have for 2020 is to amass more buyers who don’t pursue a Quality Over Everything agenda. Due to the multiplicity of factors facing this group, it’s impossible and indeed, even irresponsible, to place stringent quality demands. First and foremost, we’re seeking buyer partners who seek to lend economic solidarity and share the message of this group because as Alex stated to me last year: “Buying our coffee is important, of course, but we hope even more that you tell our story. Because people have died, and more people will die before this is over.”
This doesn’t mean these coffees are BAD, or that you need to buy bad coffee. The lion’s share of these coffees score between 84-86 points with a few outliers higher than this. It’s simply that they may not be the absolute best coffees you can find, but we believe in the potential for this group to produce higher quality with a dedicated and consistent buyer base. This is a getting in on the ground floor type scenario where solid to very good coffees can be purchased from a group who truly needs the support, and that your clients are likely to really love.
In order to support their struggle and their pursuit of quality, here is what we’re seeking to do or have already done for 2020.
Producer Exchange: As multiple members of Cafe Colis Resistencia are now processing and drying their own coffee without internal support, Semilla organized a Producer Exchange led by experienced small producer and roaster Esnaider Ortega of San Agustin, Huila. We held in person farm visits where we discussed issues specific to each grow ranging from treating diseases, to soil management, cherry harvesting, depulping, fermentation, and drying. We also held a group session in which members who are not yet processing their own coffee were encouraged to attend, and received at least 20 producers and answered their questions on the same subjects.
Increased Prices: Semilla has committed to a base price of 1500 quetzal/quintal of parchment coffee for all members of the group, with increased prices for those who are in the second year of sales, or for those who have suffered crop failure and require higher prices for survival. The national price of a quintal of pergamino is typically 500 - 800 quetzal, with 800 being exceedingly rare. We have decided on this price in discussions with multiple members of the group who place their costs of production at between 1000-1200 quetzal/quintal pergamino. This means that on average, we can hope for a 300-500 quetzal profit per quintal, as opposed to 200-500 quetzal loss selling nationally. This means prices are decided not based on quality alone but on production costs and specific needs.
Improved Exportation: Semilla is working alongside the group to see the exportation process streamlined so that they become more active members in the process, while also receiving a larger share of the profit. In Guatemala, yet another burden the producer faces is paying for the milling and exportation costs of their coffee. This often also leads to huge delays in payment which complicates even further their loans and credit with banks. Rather than using a third party who charges fees on top of the regular costs, we aim to have this process be handled solely by the group (in part) so that payment can be made instantaneously and transparently to the group and that they can receive more for their work. As this is a risky process, we will begin with a small selection of producers with the goal of building for years to come.
Interested? Drop us an email.