A story of empowerment emerging out of a narrative of tragedy
As mentioned in The Coffee Connection, the coffee story is "tangled, tragic, and/or empowering, depending on which narrative you tell or decide to listen to. Its importance transcends cultures, borders, and demographics whether it is viewed as a beverage, political tactic, culture, livelihood, or market. It’s all the above and so much more, which is exactly what makes it a dynamic lens through which to tell an array of narratives." With that said, let us reveal a story of empowerment that emerges out of a narrative of tragedy.
The coffee plant was first brought to Guatemala by Jesuit priests in the 18th century to be used as an ornamental plant. It wasn’t until a century later in 1868 that Guatemala would first cultivate coffee specifically for export. Upon recognizing its economic potential, dictator Justo Rufino Barrios made this crop the backbone of his political agenda in the 1870s to convert Guatemala into the coffee-exporting powerhouse that it became. His racism seeped into his economic development strategies by displacing indigenous communities, lumping their land togher to create large coffee plantations, and subsequently forcing the indigenous people to work on these plantations, the very land that was taken from them. Unfortunately, this was not a new phenomenon for the indigenous people who had experienced being ripped from their communal lands and providing free labor since the Spaniards’ arrival in 1524. Coffee simply became the new justification for their discrimination and cause of further impoverishment. Barrios practically made the Mayan population property of the state, passing laws and decrees that regulated their movement and labor so that during his twelve year dictatorship, coffee rose to be the number one commodity and made up 90% of the country’s exports.
Throughout the 1900s, the coffee industry in Guatemala experienced volatility as the country endured a string of dictators, a revolution and ten years of a “Democratic Spring,” a CIA-backed coup orchestrated by infuriated US capitalists with business ties to Guatemala, a 36-year long Civil War, proven genocide, and the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. Along the way, coffee began to define and impact the Maya Tz’utujil town of San Juan la Laguna, where its history is much different when compared to national narrative. The coffee plant was brought to the town in the 1950s by the local community themselves but only for local consumption, because it was not an economically viable crop. The livelihoods of the San Juan community depended on the men’s seasonal migration to the Pacific coast where they worked as agricultural day laborers harvesting primarily cotton and coffee for large plantation owners.
In November of 1979, a group of men and women in San Juan joined together to form Cooperative La Voz to create more economic opportunities for its members and the larger community. The cooperative initially operated a convenience store and corn mill, both of which were sabotaged by the Guatemalan Army in their first years of operation. At the time the cooperative formed, a Civil War (1960-1996) being fought between the Guatemalan Army and various insurgent groups was ravaging the country. During the course of the war, the Guatemalan government issued a decree prohibiting citizens from meeting and organizing in groups in order to stifle insurgent forces. Therefore, the members of the cooperative ran the risk of being associated with the insurgent movement. However, they were able to endure the war until it officially ended when the Peace Accords were signed in 1996.
Throughout the 80s, the international price of coffee began rising, and as the cooperative members witnessed the growth of this industry, they began to focus on commercializing and marketing the local coffee production for export. Eventually, the cooperative constructed the wet mill and processing area in 1990 so that members could have a communal location for large-scale production. Little by little, the necessity to migrate to the coast diminished, which serves as one of the tangible ways in which coffee has dramatically shifted the economy and social dynamic of the town. Domingo Guzman Ujpan, one of the original founders of Cooperative La Voz recounts the way that coffee greatly impacted this small town: “Before, we migrated to the coast to pick cotton. You couldn’t live off coffee. But then the price began to increase, so we planted more, and every year the price went up, up, up. Currently, no one from San Juan migrates to the coast to work.” Since its founding, Cooperative La Voz has grown from its original 22 members to now working with 162 associate families who produce 100% organic coffee, the majority exported to the United States.
Following the end of the Civil War and signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, Lake Atitlan became one of the biggest tourist destinations in Central America, which provided the cooperative with another mode of economic development at La Voz. In 2006, they opened the doors to its coffee shop located at the cooperative and officially began offering a Coffee Tour to teach visitors not only about coffee-production, but also their history as a cooperative. However, educating coffee consumers about the history of coffee and its impact in coffee growing communities like San Juan still has room for much needed growth.
Last year, the price at which coffee was sold in the international market reached a record low, greatly affecting communities that harvest coffee. However, the revenue for this commodity, the second most sought-after in the world according to Business Insider increased. The National Coffee Association's 2016 National Coffee Drinking Trends report, indicated that coffee drinkers, specifically millennials, are willing to pay more for their coffee if they know things like how it was produced, by whom, and if it was done so in an environmentally-friendly way. However, that same report indicated that 28% of consumers don't know how and by whom their coffee was produced. In efforts to be part of the awareness-raising, we want to bring conscientious coffee buyers, roasters, drinkers, and beyond to Guatemala to learn not only about the production and processing, but also the stories of impact from tragedy to empowerment.
That is why we have chosen to bring visitors to Cooperative La Voz and the larger coffee growing community of San Juan La Laguna. We look forward to welcoming, educating, and connecting you to the community of San Juan and beyond!