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Volunteers

Guest post: Farmer resilience

This post was written by Emmy, DLG Community Engagement intern.

If I had to describe coffee growers here in Guatemala, they are diligent farmers that are determined when faced with challenges. Growing coffee is a big investment, as it takes several years before a coffee plant reaches maturity and produces fruit. From there, it requires careful nurturing to ensure a high quality product.

Coffee plant with roya

As a sensitive crop, coffee is vulnerable to weather and climate variations, which are becoming more frequent and intense with global climate change. One of the resulting problems that has swept Central America is the roya fungus, rust colored spots that appear on the coffee leaves and can destroy the plant. The fungus first appeared in Central America in the 1970s but has become more aggressive in the last few years. The fungus cannot survive below about 10°C or above 1,300 meters. Climate change means that higher altitudes are becoming warmer, and thus the disease is affecting more and more plants. As such, there’s been a global shortage of coffee. Coffee is Guatemala’s top export, so roya has been especially detrimental for Guatemalans.

Coffee field destroyed by roya

Last year’s roya estimates put Guatemala’s overall infection rate at 70 percent, and the government declared it a national emergency. Some of the communities that DLG works with lost 80 percent of their plants. For many families coffee is their only source of income. As a result, malnutrition and lack of income for school fees are major concerns. De la Gente is working with cooperatives to help communities recover from destroyed plants due to roya and take preventative measures to reduce future losses with peer-to-peer farmer training. With the support of individuals in the cooperatives and the staff at DLG, farmers are determined to remain optimistic and face roya head on. You can learn more about DLG’s Combat Roya Program and check out their short video to learn more and how you can contribute. One way to do so is from the advice of a British coffee importer, who reminds coffee drinkers that “people need to look for brands that support the producers”; and that’s exactly what De la Gente does.

Timoteo conducting a peer-to-peer farmer training

Renton, A. (2014, March 30). Latin America: How climate change will wipe out coffee crops – and farmers. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/30/latin-america-climate-change-coffee-crops-rust-fungus-threat-hemileaia-vastatrix

Stone, C. (2014, May 31). Fungus, climate change threatening big part of global coffee supply. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140531-coffee-rust-columbia-brazil-cost-problems/

Guest post: More than just coffee

Group de-shelling peanuts

Over the years the farmers of San Miguel Escobar have learned the importance of diversifying their incomes, and growing not only coffee, but a variety of crops.  Last week we (the volunteers) took a break from working in coffee and helped Mercedes and his family in their peanut butter business. The young entrepreneurs behind the business are Mercedes’ daughters, Lidia and Lilian. Lilian is 23 years old and recently completed a business administration degree, and Lidia is 18 years old and is in university.

Peanuts

Mercedes’ family has grown peanuts for years, but a few years ago they realized that there was a growing market for peanut butter. Part of the experience of being a volunteer with De la Gente is not just helping the farmers in their work, but learning from them all about agriculture. He explained that the peanuts grow underground (as the peanut is not actually a nut, but a legume, originally domesticated in the Andes) for five months before they harvest the whole plant from the ground. The family then brings the harvested peanuts to their house and leaves them to dry for one to two weeks. They are then ready to be de-shelled. This is all done by hand and requires a phenomenal amount of work, as we experienced. We got through about 15 pounds in three hours, and he has several hundred pounds of peanuts to work through! We are now expert workers and learned that the trick is to pinch the top of the shell to make for easier opening.

Peanut butter

To make the peanut butter, his daughters roast the peanuts over a comal, or a traditional hot cooking plate and then take off the cascara, or skin and then grind the peanuts by hand. The result is a thick, all-natural peanut butter. There are no additives or added salt, sugar, or oil. Just pure deliciousness. Currently, Lidia and Lilian sell their peanut butter at their home and in the DLG office. At Q20 a jar it is a steal - so if you’re near Antigua, stop by the office and try some!

It was great to learn first hand from Mercedes all the hard work that goes into cultivating the peanuts and the process of making peanut butter.

Pickersgill, B. (2007). Domestication of plants in the Americas: Insights from mendelian and molecular genetics. doi:10.1093/aob/mcm193

Guest post: Truly sustainable coffee

This post was written by Emmy, an intern with DLG studying natural resources and sustainable development.

Peach tree

There are multiple aspects that make De La Gente Coffee fantastic. As a treehugger I was happy to learn that DLG coffee is sustainable – socially, economically, and environmentally. Besides being delicious coffee that is sold via direct trade, ensuring that the farmers receive 100% of the profits, DLG co-op farmers are contributing to more eco-friendly practices by producing shade grown coffee, which has many ecological benefits.

Loading firewood from the coffee fields

On a recent coffee tour through DLG’s community tourism program I was able to see one of the farmers in the cooperative’s coffee plants shaded by a variety of trees. Andres, the farmer, explained that trees, like avocado trees, can be used to provide shade while also serving a second purpose of supplying edible fruits or supplemental income for the family. During the thinning season, the branches of the trees can be used for firewood. Fallen leaves from trees also turn into organic matter and increase soil fertility. This agroforestry system provides other benefits as well. Trees in coffee fields act as a biological corridor and provide habitat for many species, especially for migratory birds that can also fend off pests. A variety of trees on coffee fields also increases pollinators like bees that are essential for coffee growing. Moreover, trees help reduce soil erosion particularly in mountainous areas, like here in San Miguel Escobar on Volcán Agua, where many of the farmers in the San Miguel Cooperative have their coffee fields. Shade grown coffee soils have also shown to store higher levels of carbon, which is beneficial for both soil health and thus plant health, as well as sequestering carbon dioxide (in addition to in the trees) to help mitigate climate change. Studies show that these soils also have better infiltration rates, meaning there’s less soil runoff and better water quality.

Shaded coffee

All in all, trees for shade grown coffee provide ecosystem services for farmers and help contribute to environmental conservation.

Rice, R & Bedoya, M. (2010). The ecological benefits of shade-grown coffee. Retrieved from http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/coffee/bird_friendly/ecological-benefits-of-shade-grown-coffee.cfm

Why you should start volunteering

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Hi everyone! My name is Victoria and I’m working as a volunteer here at De la Gente through Maximo Nivel. If you were thinking about volunteering, let me tell you why you absolutely need to just jump into it.

Where I’m from, an extra diploma is needed before heading to university. In the province of Quebec (Canada), a student graduates from high school at the age of 17, but can only apply to university at the age of 19 when he or she possesses a CEGEP diploma. To get this diploma, every student is required to produce a project or a research paper on a topic of their choice. Instead of staying home and dream about countries like Guatemala or Costa Rica, I decided to jump right on this opportunity and go do some field work. It was a simple choice to go to coffee plantations for me. I take part in the world wide morning routine of sipping a hot cup coffee before starting my day. I work in a coffee shop. I need afternoon coffees to function. I love talking about my love for coffee with friends and customers. Basically, my world spins around coffee.

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I started my trip in Costa Rica, living the Highlands where coffee fields are found everywhere. I was living with a small scale farmer that only sold his coffee to tourists that happens to walk into his house. I then headed to Antigua to work with De la Gente where I was welcomed with open arms. Even if I’m only spending two weeks, I really feel everyone is grateful of the work I’m doing. The farmers are happy to teach us about their techniques, the history of their town, their families… Their hospitality and generosity makes us feel so welcomed that we forget the fact that we are foreigner.

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Working here has been every humbling and challenging. I’m lucky that with my natural French speaking mind I can get by in Spanish, but being place in situations where you are confronted with a leak of understanding is tricky and scary. However, it helps you develop your ability of communicating and being aware of your environment. I have learned something unique from every single farmer I met while working here. If you are thinking about volunteering, I highly recommend you to just do it. 

Volunteer Guest Post: What Goes Into A Cup Of Coffee?

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I don't know about you, but I have always enjoyed a warm cup of coffee in the morning while reading, getting ready for work, or watching my favorite show. The taste is bittersweet as well as the memories. I never could have imagined how much work went into that delightful cup of coffee. My name is Jessica, I am from Michigan, and I am a volunteer at De La Gente. 

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I have learned so much while volunteering at De La Gente. A lot of times, we think that volunteering means that we are helping someone who is in need. What I have been learning is that we are all in need of something. One person may need money, another person may need friendship, and another may need a taste of reality. I have put a lot of hours into helping small-scale farmers here in San Miguel Escobar, and I feel like they have helped me more than I have helped them. I may have helped them attain more money, but the things that they have taught me and the relationships I have made are priceless. I have also had the opportunity to meet various other volunteers and people from around the world.

Work Hands

Volunteering has shaped my sense of the world and myself. It was an opportunity that I was blessed to have and I will always rejoice in. I have been working with De La Gente for the past five weeks. In the first week, I got to pick coffee with the local farmers and sort the green coffee. In weeks after, I sorted and picked coffee as well but each experience was unique. One time, a farmer named Lesbia showed me how to roast coffee over the fire and then sort it by hand. Another time, I got to ride in the back of a pick-up truck on Volcano Agua to pick coffee. I was also able to help lay bricks to build additional walls in the house of one of the farmers. Each project I was able to work on is unforgettable.

Roya Fungus

I am a Biology major and I learned a lot of interesting things about the coffee plants and how to care for them from the farmers. It was so cool to learn about the things that make the coffee a higher quality as well. In my freetime, I have been researching about a coffee fungus called roya. It has had a major impact on coffee plantations all around the world. It is very rare that a coffee plantation in Central America has not been impacted by this fungus. Roya infects the leaves of the coffee plant when wind or water carry its spores from plant to plant. The biggest outbreak is seen during the wet season, because the fungus needs constant moisture to spread through the leaf. It enters through the stomata on the underside of the leaf and then spreads throughout the leaf causing the leaf to fall and die prematurely. The resulting lack of leaves creates a lower level of photosynthesis for the plant which in turn causes less fruit(coffee) to be produced. This is a major problem on all of the farms here in Guatemala, and it is expensive to treat. There is an effort being made to produce fungus resistant breeds of coffee plants, but in the meantime expensive fungicides are being used for treatment. Coffee is already a tricky thing to produce, and the roya fungus is not making it any easier.

Green Coffee Beans

It is amazing how much work and skill goes into making a delicious cup of coffee. The coffee trees need shade and altitude, you have to pick the berries when they are red, they need to be dried for the proper amount of time, and then they must be sorted and roasted properly. Nothing makes me appreciate a cup of coffee more than this, especially after meeting the generous, friendly farmers and their families who do this work! I have heard from the farmers how much the organization De La Gente has increased the value of their coffee. Now they can sell it green or roasted instead of in berry form. It changes their work load and standard of living dramatically! I could not have had a better experience here in Guatemala!