The community of La Suiza was formed after the end of the Guatemalan civil war, when a group of displaced people discovered an incredible find nestled into the mountains of the San Marcos department (western Guatemala, not far from the Mexican border). A group of families and individuals came together and, with the support of government financing, purchased an old German coffee plantation called La Suiza and began to construct a new life together.
While owning their own land was a dream come true for community members, life at La Suiza has not been easy. It takes more than an hour to get the nearest town, over poorly-maintained roads with little public transport, which makes doctors, pharmacies, markets, and jobs hard to access (fortunately, the government does provide teachers who travel to La Suiza’s school every day). It also means that there are few resources and services, whether public or private, for families to take advantage of.
This remoteness has forced the community to work together and take advantage of the resources they do have. The plantation came with a small hydroelectric system complete with a dam, channels, and a turbine that supplies intermittent electricity for community members. It also came with a complete set of hydro-powered coffee processing machinery, by the looks of it dating back to the original founders and in varying states of disrepair, which the cooperative has been working hard to repair and maintain.
Life in the community revolves around coffee, which has brought its own set of challenges. Volatile coffee prices in the last 15 years have meant that incomes fluctuate from year to year, and in the last 5 years roya (coffee leaf rust) has reduced production and damaged many coffee plants. The community has received some support from government trainers in recent years, but many families or their children have been forced to migrate to other part of Guatemala, Mexico, or the US in search of work to support themselves.
In January 2016 we paid a visit to the cooperative accompanied by Les Stoneham of Deeper Roots Coffee, a DLG board member who is an experienced coffee professional as well as strong advocate of our work with cooperatives of small producers. The plan was to meet with the cooperative board of directors, check out their land and facilities, meet with the women’s group, and generally get to know the community better.
We arrived after a 6.5 hour drive, five of us crammed in the cabin of the DLG pick-up, the last section a bumpy ascent into the beautiful San Marcos mountains. Upon arrival we all piled out and went for a short walk to stretch our legs and explore the area. La Suiza is located in a tropical highlands area, with abundant flora and fauna. Walking along foot paths that snaked through waist-high plants up the side of the nearest hill, we reached a ridgeline with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains and forests.
Upon our arrival back to town we passed by the local swimming hole and kids eagerly invited us to join them for a swim, but we had to get back to the cooperative office for our scheduled meeting. Sitting down with cooperative leaders we introduced ourselves and gave them the chance to tell us their story in their own words. We believe that a key part of a more inclusive coffee industry is bringing together producers and roasters to discuss and share their roles within the coffee industry, and this was particularly noteworthy as it was the first time that a foreign coffee roaster had visited La Suiza.
As La Suiza has limited access to electricity, especially during the dry season, it was early to bed after dinner once it got dark and the lights of the town went out. Maximo, the current president of the cooperative, hosted us in his family’s house and his wife and daughters prepared all of our meals for us during our stay. He expressed his satisfaction that we had made the long trip, and we explained that one of our core values is building close relationships with our partner cooperatives, their leaders, and their members. Getting to spend this special time with families means we get a deeper look into what life really is like for coffee farmers and their families and understand first-hand some of the challenges they face.
Early to bed meant early to rise, and the next day we headed out early on a tour of the beneficio seco (dry mill), beneficio humedo (wet mill), and storage area, followed by a long hike through the coffee fields. Due to the mountainous terrain and large expanse of land, some farmers walk as far as 1.5 hours to get to their plots of land. La Suiza is also prone to experiencing a variety of microclimates, which add an extra challenge to coffee farming, as parts of the community suffer from different diseases and funguses, and coffee fruit ripens at different times depending on each section’s conditions.
After the hike we had a bit of time to rest and re-hydrate before we headed off to a birthday party for one of the kids in the town. We weren’t sure what we were getting into but we headed off with Maximo’s girls. It seemed as if the whole community had turned up and the family had a variety of guests give speeches and sing songs for the young birthday boy. As we left the party kids were lining up for coffee and tamales.
An evening sitting around the dining room table chatting with Maximo and his family rounded out our stay in La Suiza. The next morning we rose early to start the trip back to Antigua before the sun got too hot. While packing up our belongings Maximo and another cooperative member brought a whole branch of bananas to take back with us as an (edible) memento of our trip.
This visit, while short, was a great opportunity for us to strengthen our relationship with La Suiza and get to know their members and their current situation. We made new friends and got a much better sense of the realities of life in La Suiza, which will allow us to identify their key needs and how we can best work toward the shared goal of economic opportunity through coffee.
Stay tuned and check back to see a photo blog of what a walk through the coffee fields of La Suiza looks like and how they use hydropower to create electricity for their off the grid community.