Asociación Unión de Pequeños Caficultores (UPC) is a group of farmers spread over a large mountainous area around the town of La Democracia, Huehuetenango. The region provides ideal conditions for coffee production, even if many plants are situated at inclines that boggle the mind when considering the work that must be done to take care of them. Houses are widely dispersed, typically within the fields and coffee is the main, and typically only, crop and income source. Due to low land prices in this part of the country, some producers own farms as large as 100 cuerdas (a traditional unit of land area in Huehuetenango equivalent to 441 sq. m).
UPC was formed in 1998 and now has over 160 members, almost half of whom are women, which is an impressive figure considering Guatemala's male-dominated coffee sector. This situation is a result of large-scale migration, mainly by men, to the U.S., as jobs are hard to find in Huehue. As a consequence, many families are run by female heads of household.
The co-op is very well organized with a well-developed business model, several full-time paid positions and several international export contracts. Their sales are in the hundreds of thousands of pounds per year with part of the crop being organic certified (14% in 2018). Other products include Certified Rainforest Alliance coffees.
Perhaps the most remote and rough areas in Guatemala, the Huehue highlands have proven to constantly deliver great flavor and character. Elevation is felt immediately as one reaches the city of Huehuetenango. A high range of mountains, nourished by warm winds that blow from the vast Tehuantepec Plains in Mexico, allow for great coffee to be nurtured without frost at these elevated altitudes.
The cooperative’s stated mission is to “promote and foster the social development of small coffee farmers, through projects launched for education, training, production, processing, and marketing of coffee” and their vision is that “the small coffee farmers achieve better living standards and contribute to the development of the associated communities.” The co-op offers funding facilities for the production of coffee and a micro-credit program for its members, as well as provides advisory services and technical assistance trainings on coffee cultivation and processing.
Many farmers own their own depulpers and have patios in their gardens – some of which are quite sophisticated with water fed fermentation tanks and washing canals. Each farmer wet mills their own coffee and then sells it to the cooperative which dry-mills, stores and sells the product. The profits are used to cover wages and pay for various small-scale community development projects.
What is special about UPC is a very active women’s group whose coffee is sold separately. The women’s co-op was founded in 2000 and now has 62 members who dedicate themselves to all the steps from picking, processing, roasting, packing, right through to the exportation of the coffee. Many work their own land either purchased through a microloan, or inherited from the family, while their husbands usually also work in agriculture (e.g. beans/maize) but not in coffee. The women’s co-op is led by Orfa who also delivers training for the group, focusing on human rights, increasing self-esteem and connecting women with access to services and legal help.
Jacinto Gabriel Ruiz is a confident if quiet leader, whose vision has driven UPC's growth and success over the past 10 years. He has been involved in the coffee industry since 1995 and joined UPC in 2008, straight away taking up the role of cooperative's manager. Jacinto says that he is able to be a good leader for UPC's members due to his more than 20 years of experience in coffee.
Orfa Constanza Cojon is the founder and leader of the women’s group within UPC. It took her years to get to the point where she wanted to be – in terms of the co-op and her family life. Since she believes that gender equality and anti-discrimination start at home, in her family all tasks are divided equally amongst the girls and boys regardless of gender.
Alongside her work as coffee producer, Orfa delivers women’s rights trainings. She helps other members break the silence, educates them against domestic violence and trains on accessing areas outside of la Democracia, so they can be more independent. For her work as a female leader at UPC Orfa won a medal from the government.