From the Highlands of Guatemala

(Hey! This is the first time anybody but me has made a blog entry. Guess we're growing up! Welcome Phoebe Sullivan to Team Dean's Beans. - Dean)

I’m dancing in a circle with seven indigenous Mayan Guatemalan children. We’re singing who knows what, swirling in the dark and the stars are right there above us. Playing outside at night is standard practice here. Streetlights, nightclubs, and 24-hour convenience stores haven’t made their way up the mountainsides to the Nahuala Coffee Cooperative where I’m staying, and no one is complaining.

Getting up to the mountain community where Dean’s Beans purchases coffee was certainly less elegant than the dance jamboree that the children coaxed me into. Stuffed into a tiny, wheezing mini-van with eleven fellow coffee lovers and roasters we found ourselves jostled and bumped in the humid confines of the van’s cracked plastic interior. One brave, or possibly misguided, group member kindly took the first stab at the “amputated” seat – akin to sitting on a misshapen toolbox – making it as bearable as possible by using a four-pack of toilet paper as padding

The bum-numbing ride was more than worth the dancing and playing with the sweet-natured, inquisitive Cooperative children, who, convinced that I was a tiger, ran in delighted terror as I chased them down on all fours with appropriate growling to boot. The adults looked on bemusedly, if not with a little fear in their eyes too. The next morning a gang of roosters started doing what they do best well before 5am, rendering the twelve of us travelers a bit testy until we stepped outside and laid eyes on the verdant mountaintops. We mostly stood around, gaping. Breaking us from our reverie, the jovial Cooperative board of directors ensured us yet another delicious meal (beans!) and after the requisite hour’s worth of introductions and presentations, we finally got to the part I’d been dreaming of for months. We filled water bottles, tracked down cameras, and retied the knots on our boots before heading out on a 2 hour tour of the vast tract of coffee plants nestled in tight shade-grown clusters throughout the forest surrounding the main compound.

This was the first day out of Guatemala’s cities and the first day at high altitude, basking in the sun and gliding beneath the thick shadows of towering banana trees that looked like leeks on steroids. The Secretary of the cooperative brought us back and I sat next to him. He explained that during the 30-year Civil War, guerillas were forced into the mountains, where government forces pursued them and burnt down large tracks of forest so that any and all places of refuge would be destroyed. Today, the Nahuala Cooperative, which means “Spirit of the River,” is intent on replanting trees and rejuvenating the local ecosystem once so brutalized by armed forces. I explained that as part of Dean’s Bean’s 2006 Carbon Neutral initiative we had already been working on a number of reforestation projects in the communities where we purchase coffee, and this fit was perfect. We committed to working together to heal their land. We shook hands at the end of the conversation, each of us grinning and visibly excited about the work to come.

Our next stop, at the Cooperative Santa Anita 2 hours from Nahuala by van, proved to be just as important and poignant. Hurricane Stan, which punished Guatemala in late 2005, received scant media coverage. The natural disaster market was already saturated – thanks to Katrina – and so the devastation wrought by Stan passed by almost unnoticed. The anguish was apparent in the faces of the Cooperative members who greeted us at their home base, an ex-plantation house filled with the sweet aroma of plantains sizzling in butter and cinnamon. With little ado, we piled into a spacious room, and listened as the Santa Anita board of directors detailed a tortured list of problems that had started plaguing the Cooperative in the wake of Stan – defaulted container deliveries, a loss of crops upwards of 25%, baby coffee plants uprooted up by the raging winds, group morale at a low. “We fought as guerillas in the civil war,” one man explained “and that’s how most of us met, in the mountains, and now, with all of these problems, we feel like we’re back in a time of war.”

Many of us were close to tears, acutely aware of how hard it must have been for these proud and resilient farmers to tell us that they couldn’t deliver all of the green beans they had contracted for, not wanting to reveal their fear that, like many other coffee roasters, we would walk out on them. Instead, our group leader Bill Harris, spoke reassuring the farmers, explaining to them that Fair Trade isn’t just about paying a higher price, but also about sustainable relationships, about building support through the good times and the bad. We were not planning to pack up and leave the farmers stranded with wilting coffee plants and no hope for the future. Bill stressed that they are our partners; and as partners with staying power, we don’t throw in the towel over some foul weather.

A few days later we found ourselves on the calm shores of Lake Atitlan, taking full advantage of hot showers and frosted margaritas and the Guatemalan version of Italian food. One of the very special parts of the trip was coming up and I couldn’t wait to get started. In the late 1980’s, Dean helped found a sustainable women’s health cooperative, led by an amazing woman, Maria del Carmen. We were looking for an update on the project, which integrates a micro-loan program into its business model as a way to both support local women searching to enhance their income, and to fund the important women’s pre-natal health intervention projects they manage.

We rode across the lake in a small speedboat on a Friday morning, arriving at San Juan la Laguna in the early hours. Bill leapt from the boat to hunt down the “banana bread” woman, a local who bakes up tiny loaves of bread to sell on a slanted stoop in the heart of San Juan; the rest of us, not quite as perky due to a much needed coffee fix, wandered bleary-eyed on the prowl for caffeine, hard to locate due to an a.m. power-outage. We ate bread, standing in small clusters waiting for Maria. Soon, we were escorted through a long series of small pathways by her sister and an assistant, and into an enclosed garden and patio. Maria and more than 20 indigenous women, each wearing the vibrant, finely woven clothing that represents their clan, were there waiting for us. There was much laughter, hugging, incoherent chit-chat spanning English, Spanish and native dialects, and then an hour and a half’s worth of introductions and praises to God for our safe journey, all of which flung us from our state of lethargy into rapt attention. The mothers in the group explained how the pre-natal care helped them deliver healthy, hearty babes, many of whom had joined the morning’s group. Maria explained how two-woman teams would go into their local communities and help women take better care of themselves and their loved ones, through the use of local herbs, plants and native knowledge. Today, the health care initiative works in five communities and has touched the lives of hundreds of families. It was amazing to see what these empowered women were able to create and sustain with some seed money, a viable financial action plan and a lot of heart.

I left Guatemala soon after my encounter with the women’s’ health cooperative. This trip, led by Bill Harris, President of Cooperative Coffees, was my first to Central America, and the lush, color-potent landscape populated by a beautiful and resilient people strengthened, nurtured and further grounded my commitment to the Fair Trade movement, to just trade relations, and to Dean’s Beans’ people centered development initiatives. And my fellow travelers were very compassionate; they only made me sit on the mutilated van seat once.

-Phoebe

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