for some time when I begin to wonder just how much deeper can we go into this land. It is nearly dark, and although it’s not late, the perpendicular 9,000-foot mountains have all but blocked the afternoon sun. This is Huehuetenango, in northwestern Guatemala, just steps away from the Mexican border. Where there are no straight roads, nothing flat, only a series of narrow valleys that with each bend in the road reveal yet another spectacular view. This is coffee-growing country, one of several growing regions in Guatemala, and home to the award-winning farm El Injerto. I am anxious to see what kind of quality is being produced in the different regions of Guatemala, and to find out how coffee production can have a positive impact on today’s social and environmental issues. El Injerto is an impressive place to begin my journey.
“We are almost there,” Arturo Aguirre, El Injerto’s owner, assures me sensing my impatience. I can tell, though, that in these far-flung regions, almost there can mean several more hours or even days. But for Aguirre, El Injerto seems far less remote now. When he first took over the century-old farm at the age of 15, he had to travel there by mule, braving a grueling eight-day ride from the town of Huehuetenango. “Slowly we built over 18 kilometers of roads, terraced the steep hillsides and experimented with varietals. Eventually, we greatly increased our production from the original 300 bags,” he tells me. Clearly, Aguirre is perseverant - just growing coffee on these unimaginable slopes 6,500 feet in the air is a challenge. But what does he do to produce such a high-quality product, earning top scores and prices at the Cup of Excellence seven years in a row?
According to Aguirre, his decision to divide the plantation by varietals made a tremendous difference. Back in the 1970s while everyone was focusing on production, he began to focus on quality. Separately planting and processing his elegant Bourbons, fruity Pacamaras and large-bean Maragogypes provided him with insights into plant behavior and cup characteristics.
When we hike up the dizzyingly steep hills the next day, I get a bird’s-eye view of the rows of sharp-leafed izotes neatly separating each varietal. Each section of the farm is also organized by lot. Each lot has its own name and unique features, including altitude and soil. This identifying information follows the coffee all the way to the buyer like a birth certificate.
For Aguirre, planting quality is only half of the equation. “What matters most is our people,” he tells me, “that is why we invest in training them properly.” Following Aguirre to the mill, I get a sense of the enormous challenge of producing both quality and quantity. Each day, nearly 1,200 pickers individually turn in their lot to be weighed and processed. The order that has been so diligently kept in the field must now be maintained during the processing. And that is no small feat. At this stage, the human factor is critical for both transparency and quality purposes. Walking through the mill, Aguirre enumerates some of his practices. “A pile of coffee should not exceed 60 centimeters. The coffee needs to be submerged in spring water for 24 to 36 hours. You should never fill the dryers more than 80% or the beans will sweat.”
Hearing about so many innovative details prompts me ask how he knows how to do this. “You have to be disciplined in your search for quality,” he tells me. He explains that he and his team constantly experiment, document, experiment some more, and then test the coffee by cupping it. “Let me show you,” he says as he guides me past the dryers to the back of the mill where an unassuming door leads into an enviable cupping room.
The smoky, sweet smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air and a table with freshly poured samples begs for a tasting. “This is where you come to really find out about quality,” says German García, one of El Injerto’s young managers, as he checks a new lot. “Before we started cupping,” he tells me, “we did not understand how the way we picked and processed the coffee affected the taste. Now we understand how one bean can ruin a whole cup.” Their involvement in the cupping process has motivated the personnel to be better managers in the field and mill. As I eagerly follow García, working my way down the table, I taste the sweet melon of the Pacamara, and indulge in the refined acidity of the Bourbon. We compare notes. The experience feels especially rewarding for the opportunity to see how even in this remote region, coffee offers more than just employment; it is a vehicle for personal and professional development. I bid my new friends farewell and head east to the really remote Ixil triangle to learn how cooperative coffee affects the daily life of the people of Chajul.
On the road to Chajul the differences in geography and culture strike me almost immediately. We are just a few hours away from Huehuetenango and the narrow valleys have given way to wide open spaces with clayish soils in a palette of colors varying from orange to lavender. Time also seems to have stood still here, as the landscape of pine trees, one-room adobe homes and the occasional shepherd hark back to another era.
Once in Chajul, the hillsides get greener and the women’s attire brighter and more ornate, creating an alluring mix of simplicity and richness like nowhere else. I have come to visit the Asociación Chajulense, a 3,300-member cooperative that produces organic, Fair Trade certified coffee. Its members are native Ixil spread across 57 communities around Chajul where they produce Arabica coffee with crisp acidity and chocolate notes in the cup.
What coffee means to this region is summed up by Arcadio Gallindo, the association president, who talks of coffee not just in pounds and quintals, but in terms of the profound social effect it has had on the region. Gallindo explains that this remote corner of the Ixil triangle was one of the hardest hit during the country’s 36 years of armed insurgency. In Chajul, the war “left nothing behind,” he says. Trying to bring life back to their community, those who had grown coffee before the war began to replant. In 1989 they joined forces to sell their first container. After the success of that first sale, the association continued to grow, establishing a dry mill and coordinating sales in Europe and the U.S., where today they ship over 28,000 bags.
To get an idea of what it is like to produce in this region, you have to get out into the neighboring communities where the coffee is grown, which are spread over 70 kilometers from the center of town. One such area is Santa Belina. A 20-minute drive from Chajul, the road to Santa Belina climbs into the mountains where it is suddenly much greener. There is no sign of the scattered deforestation seen nearby. Instead, coffee trees, shade trees from the Inga family and cypresses cover the hills. Coffee is truly artisinal here, grown in small, roughly half-acre lots, wet-milled by hand and set out to dry on doll-sized patios next to each home. For the people here coffee is clearly a way of life and a family affair.
Coffee has brought Chajul back to life. According to Gallindo, “If it weren’t for coffee, Chajul would have been abandoned.” Coffee has not just brought work, but has become a catalyst for other agricultural and social projects. “The goal is always to produce quality,” he tells me, “because that is how we can earn a better price for our coffee and continue to invest in Chajul.”
A weaving cooperative, known as Unidas por la Vida (United for Life), is one example of the positive impact coffee has had in Chajul. It brings together more than 95 women, many of them coffee growers, to produce textiles. As Juana Hu, one of the association leaders points out, “It allows women to work from their homes while still caring for their families and their coffee.” Just as importantly, their weaving provides access to microloans and a chance to preserve their cultural traditions.
The weavers get together in the basement of the coffee association’s building. As I step inside I am overwhelmed by all the colors and patterns. Yarns in mustard, violet and crimson hues are spun on gently moving wooden wheels by women so elegantly dressed it hardly seems like it could be an ordinary day at work. This enterprising group of women is a clear example of the positive ripple effect coffee production can have on communities.
Truly Green Coffee
I leave Chajul and continue my journey winding through the Cuchumatanes mountain range, past Sacapulas and Chichicastenango, to the south side of Lake Atitlán. I then head up one of the volcanoes to a farm known as Los Andes. This region has gotten a lot of attention lately for its innovative, sustainable coffee production - a model that focuses on both conservation and productivity. Here, coffee is grown alongside or within a natural forest system. The forest provides environmental services like erosion protection and water and nutrient cycling, while the coffee production provides income to conserve the forest. It is a symbiotic relationship that ensures sustainability for both.
Los Andes is just one of more than 25 farms in the region that have established private nature reserves on their property, creating a critical biological corridor that extends more than 6,000 acres across multiple ecosystems on the slopes of the Atitlán Volcano. This natural haven attracts more than one hundred species of migratory and endemic birds. But there is just one I am dying to see.
Dawn breaks early at Los Andes and the clarity of the early morning light provides a long-distance view from the farmhouse all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By eleven o’clock, however, the moist, veil-like clouds have begun their ascent into the mountain and infused the air with the necessary humidity to be called a cloud forest.
Los Andes produces Utz certified coffee, as well as organic tea, quinine and macadamia nuts. Quality coffee has not only had a profound effect on the area’s economic and social development, but is one of the driving forces behind environmental conservation. After an interesting tour of the coffee plantation and mill, I decided to see for myself how coffee can contribute to biodiversity by taking an early-morning bird watching tour.
It is fair to say that I have none of the qualifications needed to be a good bird-watcher. I am loud, clumsy, and hate to wake up early. But the prospect of seeing my first Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), the mythical emerald-green bird sacred to the ancient Maya, is enough to get me out of bed and hiking. It also helps that I am being taken to see this rare and mysterious creature, by none other than Jesús Lucas, better known by his nickname Chus. Chus is no ordinary bird guide. He is as much an integral part of the Los Andes cloud forests as the Quetzal itself. As he guides me through the lush forest, Chus melodically calls out to both male and female Quetzals with such accuracy that sometimes they answer back. During our walk we also hear toucans and tanagers and find a pair of jaguar tracks on the path.
It is easy to forget that we are on a hard-working coffee farm. As its owner Olga Hazard explains, “Our vision is to ensure that agricultural production, human development and environmental conservation are carried out in a harmonious and sustainable manner.” I am encouraged to find that quality coffee produces not just a great cup, but also a myriad of opportunities for both environmental conservation and social development.
“Mire, ahora - Look up now,” whispers Chus. As I glance up I see the meter-long iridescent tail of the Quetzal as it flies overhead. I hold my breath. It is truly magical here.
Christine K. Wilson manages Finca El Pintado, a certified-organic coffee farm in Antigua, Guatemala, and writes extensively on coffee, travel and lifestyle. She is currently freelancing for Rainforest Alliance, developing a Best Practices Manual for Coffee. Christine can be reached at email@example.com.