The Rio Azul cooperative is in Jacaltenango, a municipality of Huehuetenango along the border with Mexico. It is a five-hour ride from Quetzaltenango, where we stayed the night before. Most of the journey is over highways and good and fairly wide roads. But once we were some 25 minutes from the border with Mexico, we turned and started climbing narrow, dusty and uneven roads. An hour and half later, we arrived at the Rio Azul cooperative. The cooperative—which means Blue River in English—is named for the river that flows below it, with its limestone bottom and crystalline waters. During March, April and May the color of the summer sky is reflected in the water giving it a blue color. That's why the river, and also the cooperative, have this name.
We are at nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, an altitude at which a strictly hard bean quality coffee can be grown. The cooperative grows principally the varieties Bourbon, Typical, and Caturra, which are highly valued in the gourmet coffee market. The offices of the cooperative, where there are three full-time employees, are in a corner of the warehouse. In its 39 years of existence, Rio Azul has had some high points and some low points. Three years ago they were in a complete crisis. The cooperative had many inactive members, the quality of their coffee was poor because the cooperative didn't know the best agricultural practices for coffee, and their debts were practically impossible to pay. With financing from Oxfam, the association CRECER launched a project aimed at providing training for the cooperative's members and improving sanitary conditions. Little by little, Rio Azul got back on its feet and it now has 170 members. But, as cooperative manager Ramon Delgado Sanchez says, "We emerged from the crisis and then came Stan."
The biggest problem facing the association was the American Leaf Spot. Don Angel Mendoza, a technical expert in coffee who works for CRECER, explained the phenomenon.
"During Stan there was intense rain. Not really strong, but constant and this saturated the earth. The coffee plants couldn't drain, the moisture stayed and this brought on the American Leaf spot, a fungal illness. It started to appear at the point where the coffee cherry sprouts and on the leaves. Later the coffee plant started to lose leaves and the fruit fell."
Nearly 30 percent of the cooperative's harvest was lost.
With funds from Oxfam, the cooperative could distribute a total of 9,000 new coffee plants among its members and 50,000 pounds of organic fertilizer, in addition to hiring three temporary technical experts to advise the farmers on how to recuperate their land. With Oxfam's help, the patio where they sun dry the coffee could also be repaired. A smooth patio increased the yield of the salvaged harvest because it cut down on broken beans. The aid also covered part of the organic certification, which was at risk because of a lack of funds.
"If it weren't for the help of this project, it would have been difficult for us to continue," Ramon Delgado said. "You always have to keep going. The members were desperate. It would have been difficult to start up again without any help. We could suffer the effects of this until next year. We would have continued moving forward without this project, but it would have been more difficult."