Ija'tz: Planting Seeds for Coffee and Change
Lake Atitlan has been called by some the most beautiful lake in the world – an understandable title when you take in the views of this crater lake surrounded by mountains with three majestic volcanos rising from its shores. The area is home to a variety of vibrant and colorful Mayan cultures, as well as quality coffee with rich flavors.
Ija’tz, a cooperative located in the lake-side town of San Lucas Tolimán, fully embodies the meaning of collaboration towards a common goal. This group of 50 indigenous, small-holder farmers was founded in 1995, with the goal of reclaiming, preserving, and protecting their land and the surrounding environment, while revitalizing traditional agriculture processes and products to support their right to their way of life.
“Ija’tz” means “seed” in the indigenous language of Kaqchikel, and is a symbol of life and regeneration. One of the cooperative’s first projects was a seed bank of native plant species from around the Lake Atitlan area, to provide locals with access to indigenous plants and their agricultural heritage. In addition, many of the farmers began to grow coffee. They placed particular importance on cultivating coffee under the shade of native plants and trees, as they believe these are the source of coffee’s flavor and aroma – the roots of the plants intertwine in the soil and form a coalescence of nutrients and qualities that lead to incredible coffee.
The journey of Ija’tz to the present day has been full of challenges. Originally the cooperative’s plan was to support and teach permaculture, with its seed bank as the main income-generating activity. They also supported other community initiatives, including a system of micro-financing similar to a saving circle. As the group grew to over 100 members they introduced a nutrition program and female members opened a kitchen for catering and meal service. Some members began to focus more on coffee, as they began to realize the economic opportunities of this cash crop.
The cooperative was on the path of growth and expansion when literal disaster struck. Tropical Storm Agatha hit Guatemala in May of 2010, with torrential rains that caused massive flooding, landslides, sinkholes, power outages and over 150 deaths. The day she hit, a number of the women of Ija’tz were cooking over 400 tamales for a wedding they were catering the next day. Their children were with them, as the women had planned on working through the night. As the water rose, they had to move the kids first onto the tables, and then to a house further up the mountain. By the end of the night the water was knee-high in the kitchen, and the Ija’tz office, located at a slightly lower elevation, was completely destroyed and then looted. The wedding was off, but the women of Ija’tz didn’t let the tamales go to waste, offering them to their fellow community members who also suffered big losses from the rain and flooding.
After the storm Ija’tz showed resilience, focusing on the future after having lost their offices, the documented history of their work, and their seed bank. De la Gente began working with Ija’tz in 2015 as part of our most recent expansion, supported by a grant from the Rotary Club of Sanibel-Captiva. We were inspired by Ija’tz’s story and dedication, and knew that they had the fundamentals for producing quality coffee: good elevation, varietals, understanding of processing, and location in a well-known coffee region. We didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to provide quality trainings, or check in with them during the harvest season, but we had a really good feeling about this cooperative, and sometimes a feeling is all you need.
Ija’tz’s hard work has paid off in the quality of their coffee, with floral aromas and light flavors of chocolate and citrus. We invite you to see for yourself - check out our online shop and pick up either one of our two coffee bundles - Los Nuevos, which highlights our two newest cooperatives or La Colección where you can sample all four of the coffees we are offering this year. Your purchase directly supports the cooperative members of Ija’tz as direct trade equals direct impact.