We are back from our origin trip and cannot wait to share information about the coffee growers we met in Guatemala and Honduras. This case study focuses on La Voz Cooperativa, a Guatemalan co-op which was almost destroyed by corruption ten years ago, but has been rebuilding year by year. A&E Coffee & Tea used to buy coffee from La Voz years ago, when it was well established. We moved away as quality dropped. Unbeknownst to us, it was due to a terrible corruption scandal. We visited La Voz Cooperativa near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and met with Andres and Erwin there.
After a delightful boat ride from Panajachel and an overpriced Tuk Tuk ride, we rounded the corner to arrive at La Voz. Andres has been the co-op manager for 9 years. He took over after the previous manager swindled the co-op out of money. The partners (farmers) were understandably very distrustful of Andres based on their previous experience, and he has worked hard to rebuild their trust. La Voz had to borrow money to rebuild, and they are still paying off the debt. This history makes it hard for Andres to invest capital back into the co-op, so they are still in need of many infrastructure updates.
Firmly rooted in organic practices
Quality is important to La Voz Cooperativa, but organic seems to be more important. They firmly believe, base on Mayan heritage, that man comes from the ground and by treating the land with respect, they are treating people with respect. They are certified organic by a German certifying agent, who performs physical tests on each plot yearly. It seems that they collectively believe in organic methods and supply organic compost to the partners at reduced rates. La Voz makes compost from coffee cherries. Based on their findings, there are big drawbacks to chemical fertilizer. Once trees get used to chemical fertilizer, they require it to continue thriving. Although chemical fertilizer is less expensive than organic fertilizers, it becomes addictive to the trees. The other obvious drawback to chemical fertilizer is the run off that flows down to the lake. The farmers at this co-op who spoke English mentioned global warming often, and through their own perspectives.
Microlots at La Voz
La Voz does not separate micro-lots as a practice. However, as they have gotten back on their feet with Andres at the helm, they are getting more notice from international green buyers. They did work with Counter Culture on a micro-lot program. It required a lot of additional labor, for which they were paid. It seems like they hesitate to go down that road, even though it highlights the quality of their high-grown beans and they get paid for the labor. It may be that they lack confidence in negotiating and still fear being cheated. As I see it, highlighting some microlots is a great way to get attention in the US specialty market without any additional infrastructure costs. It takes more labor, but that is one thing they have or can access.
La Voz is selling to the importers, Olam and InterAmerican , this year and hopes to continue those relationships next year. This was a good yielding crop with high quality, so they are happy with this year’s outcome. Heiffer International also visited and is interested in getting involved, which is another indication Andres has rebuilt a reputable co-op. All these projects can bring much needed attention to the co-op, and hopefully allow them to invest more heavily in coffee growing and processing.
Projects at La Voz
One specific project La Voz is working on is tiling their washing hold tanks and channels. They have money earmarked from another US coffee roaster, but not enough to start the project. I asked about building raised drying beds and got resistance due to the cost. La Voz does not have a capital investment fund due to the previous manager’s theft. It is hard to improve the quality of the coffee with limited capital. I also asked if they cup their coffee. They do cup, but they do not do it often. They have to send their coffee to ANACAFE to have it graded, which creates another level of cost and possible corruption. Erwin, the partner who took us on a tour of the mountain, grows his own coffee and roasts some of it for his own use. He was familiar with the taste of his own beans, but it is likely that most of the farmers are not.
As of now, La Voz only wet processes their beans, so they are still pretty far behind the progressive co-ops in Guatemala. I don’t think they even realize how good and prized Guatemalan coffee is in the specialty coffee world. Hopefully in time, they will build trust and companionship again and succeed in the industry. We are looking forward to receiving samples from La Voz when their crop is ready!