Good To the Last Drop

I am filling in some blanks in my book on the politics of food and preparing the course I’m offering at Vancouver Community College in January. I first wrote this piece on coffee after my trip to Guatemala in December of 2004. I was doing a regular series on food issues on CBC’s North by Northwest at that time. This one aired early 2005. Co-Development Canada helped me organize the trip – “ an amazing group of people doing great social justice work in Latin America. Hallie and I hooked up with one of their staff members once we arrived in the Lake Atitlan region. Kirsten was our beloved and indispensable tour guide and translator. Co-Dev has a partnership with the CCDA and sells their coffee under their Café Etico label. Café Justicia is sold across Canada. There are a number of places to buy it in Vancouver including St. Andrews Wesley church and SPROUTS at UBC. So pour yourself a cuppa, and enjoy.

“We’re going to die before we’ve even had a cup of coffee,” I screamed at Hallie over a sea of bobbing brown heads.

We were standing up in an overcrowded pick up truck, rocketing through the western highlands of Guatemala. Everyone passes on a corner here, preferably on two wheels with a cliff on one side, a wall of volcanic rock on the other and a vehicle coming straight at you.

“Well, it’s been good – “ to the last drop!” Hallie quipped.

And speaking of plummeting, that’s what coffee prices have been doing on the world market since 1999. The price drop and a glut of low-quality product have devastated millions of coffee farmers in developing countries. But today we were visiting a farm that was weathering the coffee crisis.

El Paraiso co-operative is one of the prize coffee farms of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands. The CCDA is a Mayan umbrella organization working for social change in eight Guatemalan provinces. They grow and export a line of fair trade coffee called Café Justicia.

Fair trade means the coffee farmer is guaranteed a fair and stable price regardless of market fluctuation. The BC Central American Student Alliance, or BC CASA, is the Canadian volunteer group that imports the beans from the CCDA. They pay four times the market price a pound. The CCDA also gets an additional 39% of sales to finance youth scholarships and an organic farmer training program.

“Maybe they’ll have the coffee on there,” I said to Hallie hopefully. We hadn’t found any real coffee yet, only Incasa, the insipid instant that locals seem to prefer.

We’d already been walking for close to an hour and now we were hiking down a goat trail; a grueling 1850 metre drop into the valley. The slopes were planted with coffee bushes grown under a canopy of bananas, avocados, papaya and larger shade trees. The air was filled with birdsong, including crowing roosters and our occasional burst of pigeon espanol. As we slipped and slid down the trail, I conjured Spanish verbs and prayed for caffeine.

“This isn’t so bad,” Hallie chirped. “Breathtaking view!”

My traveling companion was a morning person and not as coffee dependent as I was. But at least I was in decent shape. I was worried about Hallie though; she was at least 10 years older than me and she had a cold. I tripped and slid part way on my bum.

“Yeah right, well the way back up is going to be even more breathtaking,” I grumbled. My caffeine headache was setting in.

Rodolfo, our CCDA guide waited patiently for us a distance ahead. I saw him pick a red bean off a dark green coffee bush and pop it in his mouth. Hey, coffee beans have caffeine in them! I decided to try it. The juice exploded in my mouth. Not bad, a little bitter. No coffee taste, but hey my prayer had been answered.

Rodolfo made this trip three times a week. The farm workers or campesinos we met along the way made it every day. The women were in colourful traditional dress, blanketed baskets on their heads and babies snuggled to their fronts. One man had a case of Coke on his back, strapped to his head with a belt. All this effort just so we can have a good cup of coffee back in Canada.

It was hot – “ around 25 degrees and we were eating dust every step of the way. I glanced over at Hallie. She had her scarf tied over her face.

“Terrorista!” I joked with Rodolfo. He laughed, but Hallie only sniffled. Boy, her lungs were going to give out on the way back up.

Finally we hit the valley bottom and passed through a field of coffee bushes. The campesinos were picking the red “cherries” as they’re called and putting them into baskets. Children scampered around them and asked us to take their picture.

When we arrived at the coffee processing area, I sniffed the air for coffee. But all I could smell was a compost bin gone bad. Turns out that’s what coffee pulp smells like.

Once the cherries have been picked they go through a lengthy process to get to that bag of beans we buy in the store. First the fruit goes into a depulper that strips away an outer layer of protective coating to get to a pair of seeds or “granos”. We watched as Rodolfo and another man patiently tweaked the machine. When they were done, he introduced us to his bearded co-worker. Mayans are usually clean-shaven.

“Bean Lawden,” Rodolfo said with a cherubic grin. Aha, so this is where he’s been hiding.

After depulping, the beans are soaked, sorted, washed and spread to dry on cement patios.

Rodolfo put us to work. My job was to rake the patches of coffee beans that were sun-drying on the patios. Hallie came behind me tidying up my sloppy edges with a broom. I stood back to admire my work. Suddenly I felt a sharp nip on my leg. I turned to see a classic Central American dog, blonde and short-haired.

“Get back to work you lazy gringo,” he seemed to snarl as he slunk off.

Once the beans are dry they’re taken to a larger coffee mill for final “curing”. The “oro” or green coffee is then shipped to Canada for roasting, bagging and selling.

As I’d predicted, the way back up was breathtaking. For me. I thought my lungs were going to explode. The climb was relentless. I looked longingly at the mangy horse that trotted by carrying two boys. We stopped several times. For me. Hallie wasn’t even breathing hard. She strode along like she was on one of those moving sidewalks.

Rodolfo shook his head in amazement. “Mucha energia!”

“Necessito café,” I begged him. “Por favor!”

Rodolfo laughed and lured me up the mountain with the promise of a cup of Café Justicia – “ once we reached their offices. Of course, first I had to survive the chicken bus ride. It better be good to the last drop – ¦

One Reply to “Good To the Last Drop”

  1. Great article I visted them shortly after you amazing Mayan hospitality. It is a shame the struggles they have gone through recently. I hope to have Leocadio come visit at the end of the month to speak with the many coffee addicts I have hooked on it in London Ontario. Cheers Dave

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