The Ija'tz cooperative is located in the department of Sololá, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. This crater lake surrounded by mountains with three majestic volcanoes is known not only for its stunning beauty, but also for the small picturesque and relatively untouched villages with strong Mayan culture and traditions. Ija'tz in particular is a community organization made up of indigenous Maya Kaqchikel-Tz’utujil families. In total, there are 35 small-holder farmers in the co-op and they own an average of approx. 5-10 acres of land. All coffee is farmed and processed by hand.
The group was founded in 1995, with the goal of reclaiming, preserving, and protecting the land and the surrounding environment, while revitalizing traditional agricultural processes. The name of the co-op means “seed” in Kaqchikel (the mother tongue of the members), and it was chosen as it symbolizes life and regeneration. One of organization's first projects was a seed bank of native plant species from around the Lake Atitlán area, to provide locals with access to indigenous plants and their agricultural heritage. The plan was also to support and teach permaculture.
Of the 5 volcanic coffee regions of Guatemala, Atitlán’s soil is the richest in organic matter. The daily Xocomil winds stirring cold lake waters have an important influence on the microclimate, along with the high humidity of around 70-80%. Harvest occurs between December and March.
However, many of the farmers began to grow coffee on the slopes of the now extinct Volcán Tolíman as an additional income-generating activity. Since the beginning, particular importance has been placed on cultivation under the shade of native plants and trees. The farmers 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. Over time some members began to focus on coffee more and more, as they realized the economic opportunities of this crop. Moreover, the cooperative received international support to build a processing facility.
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 many deaths. The storm destroyed Ija'tz's seed bank and all the documented history of their work. The office was also completely destroyed and then looted. But the storm didn't kill the spirit of the people who showed resilience and managed to regenerate their cooperative.
De la Gente began working with Ija’tz in 2015, providing training and guidance on production techniques to ensure that they have the capacity to produce a lot that meets the standards for specialty coffee. We first purchased Ija'tz beans in 2016.
The co-op also benefited from De la Gente's cooperative assistance program in many ways. With the support of our donors we were able to supply the farmers with a motorized backpack sprayer to prevent further crop losses due to roya (coffee leaf rust). Together we built worm composting beds to help increase the yield and in 2018 a service learning group constructed fermentation tanks which were sponsored by one of the U.S. roasters who buy Ija'tz beans.
Last, but not least, it is worth mentioning that Ija'tz has a long history of community-based projects driven by local needs, for example having introduced a nutrition program and opening a kitchen for catering. Moreover, the cooperative designed and implemented an innovative, environmentally sustainable water management system to help the town of San Lucas Tolimán deal with problems arising from its encroaching urban development. They constructed a sequence of channels and drainage ditches which improves the water flow during rainy season and prevents flooding in the area.
Roberto Cojtín was 8 years old when his father taught him how to plant coffee. Little Roberto got his own seedlings to take care of and then would carry his young plants with a block of soil weighing in at around 10 lbs to the field, one at the time. He always dreamed of recognition for the excellent coffee of San Lucas Tolimán and the small-holder farmers who grow it. Knowing this could never be achieved alone, he believed the farmers need to stand united and that's why he joined the co-op in 2001 and has been its president since 2012. He is most proud and happy to see the name "Ija'tz" on the bags of roasted coffee sold abroad.