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Hydroelectric Powered Community Producing Coffee in the Mountains of Guatemala

Hydroelectric Powered Community Producing Coffee in the Mountains of Guatemala

Imagine you live in Guatemala and you have just paid off a 12 year mortgage to the government. Now you and your 116 fellow community members are the proud new collective owners of an old coffee plantation where you took up residence after the end of the 36-year civil war. The farm has seen better days, and now the fields are overgrown, the machinery has fallen into disrepair, and the only source of electricity is a small hydroelectric-powered system that requires some tender loving care.

Fixing up this land and the large production facilities would sound like an overwhelming task to most of us, but the families who moved to La Suiza saw it as an opportunity to build a new life for themselves as smallholder coffee farmers. Some had worked in coffee previously, but most had worked in other agricultural areas and would have to learn how to cultivate coffee. They built houses, reclaimed the old coffee plants and planted new ones, and fixed up the production facilities and hydroelectric system as best they could.

The centerpiece of the community’s infrastructure is a water-based system that powers both an electrical generator and coffee processing machinery. High above the center of town is a dam that was formed by building a wall around what was formerly a small pool beneath a waterfall. During the dry season water fills the pool during the day, and at night the water is released into a series of channels and pipes that lead down to the center of the community. There, a small water-powered turbine provides enough energy to power two light bulbs per house and charge cell phones for a few hours each night. During the rainy season (December - April), the heavy rainfall provides power for the turbine 24/7, meaning electricity is more reliably available, though never guaranteed.

The waterfall fills the natural pool until the dam is opened and the water enters the system of canals and generates energy for the town.

In addition to the modest electricity generated, the hyrdo system powers the heavy machinery of the beneficio, or coffee processing facilities. Farmers first bring their coffee fruit to the beneficio húmedo, or wet mill, where large pulperos (pulping machines) remove the fruit from the inner beans. The beans then land in tanks where they are washed, fermented, and finally sent to dry on large cement patios next to the mill. When the beneficio is running, the belts that connect the machinery to the power source emit quite a roar, and it’s hard to be heard over the din of it all.

On the other side of the patios is the beneficio seco, or dry mill. The dry mill is also water-powered, and has a large drying oven (used to dry coffee when the patios are full) consisting of a large rotating drum and wood-fired ovens that pump hot air through the drum. It also has a trilla (milling machine) which removes the last skin from the pergamino (parchment) coffee, though this machine had not functioned for many years prior to the community’s arrival.

Water also powers another key to daily life, which is corn grinding. Each morning women line up at 5:30 am with baskets of water-soaked corn kernels on their heads, waiting their turn to grind their corn in a water-powered grinder that the community shares. They will use the corn meal produced to make many of their daily staple foods such as tortillas, tamales and doblados.

The entire system is laid out over many hectares of land and is dependent on the rain patterns and on maintaining the aging infrastructure. During our last couple of visits to La Suiza we enjoyed taking a tour of the lands and beneficio to see how this sustainable energy sources provides the necessary power for this coffee community.  It’s impressive to see the men and women of La Suiza keep alive what may have been cutting edge technology 100 years ago, but whose original manufacturers have long since ceased to exist. 

You can support the farmers of La Suiza by making a donation to our cooperative assistance program. 100% of all donations are used to fund program activities which support cooperatives by offering assistance and training to ensure their plants are healthy and their coffee is of the highest quality. Additionally you can head over to our Online Store and pick up a bag of coffee - a delicious coffee with flavors of cashew, caramel, and dark chocolate processed with environmentally friendly and sustainable energy.

The dam wall