La Suiza is an old German coffee plantation located in the remote tropical highlands of the San Marcos department. The finca was sold under a government loan program implemented after the Peace Accords formally ended the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. 116 families of internally displaced and landless people decided to collectively purchase the land and build a new life as small-holder coffee producers. Each farmer works 36 cuerdas (approx. 5 acres) of land, but to reach some plots, due to the mountainous terrain and large expanse of land, up to a 1.5-hour-walk is required.
While having their own land was a dream come true for the community members, life at La Suiza has never been easy. When the new owners moved in, the fields were overgrown, the machinery had fallen into disrepair, and the only source of electricity (for just a few hours a day and only during the rainy season) was a small hydroelectric-powered system. The amount of work which has been done since then is truly impressive. The community reclaimed old coffee plants, planted new ones, built houses, as well as fixed up large production facilities, including wet and dry mills. Unfortunately, in 2012 La Suiza was hit really badly with the fungus that causes roya (coffee leaf rust) which destroyed nearly all of their plants. Considering that the whole community (approx. 600 people) depends upon coffee as their primary source of income, it was a difficult moment. The farmers were forced to start almost completely anew again...
San Marcos, the warmest of Guatemala's coffee-growing regions, also has the highest rainfall pattern, reaching up to 200 inches (5,000 mm) a year and humidity levels of 70-80%. The seasonal rains come sooner than in other regions, producing the earliest flowering. The northern portion of the department is mountainous, with the two highest volcanoes in Central America within its borders.
This was the time when De la Gente began working with La Suiza. Thanks to our generous supporters, we were able to provide assistance in several areas ranging from repairs to the beneficio to crop diversification. Of course the dominant project was the battle against roya, including farmer-to-farmer trainings and fertilizer and fungicide assistance. De la Gente purchased La Suiza coffee in 2015 for the first time.
The situation looks much better nowadays, as the roya was fought back successfully and the plants are healthy. In the meantime, the farmers paid off the mortgage to the government in full and the community decided to invest in solar panels to assure reliable power supply all year long. In 2017 the group of 28 farmers (including 5 women) collaborating closest with De la Gente registered a separate legal entity to commercialize coffee, Cooperativa Integral Agrícola "La Suiza”, which is now our partner organization.
La Suiza remains the most rural and isolated of DLG's partner co-ops and support is still very much needed. The nearest town is more than an hour away and the only point of access to the community is a rough dirt road that requires four-wheel drive during the dry season and is almost impassable during the other half of the year. There is neither public transport nor health service, and malnutrition is a serious concern. This remoteness has pushed the families to work closely together, and the culture, customs and traditions have been maintained over the years.
Máximo Velásquez is an incredibly kind and humble man. Originally from Tacaná in the San Marcos department, as a boy he used to help his parents with their potato, wheat and corn cultivation. Having grown up Máximo was forced to look for a new home, as the family farm was not enough to feed everybody. Together with his 4 brothers they joined the group purchasing La Suiza and over the years Máximo became a respected leader of the cooperative. His biggest dream is to be able to afford further education of his 6 children.