Give a gift that gives back this holiday season with Oxfam Unwrapped.

Coffee cooperatives still rebuilding after Stan

By Tjarda Muller
A damaged corn field in rural Guatemala.

It has been a year and a half since Hurricane Stan destroyed the town of Panabaj in Guatemala, and left hundreds of families without the means to earn a living. The pain that the storm caused is still palpable. Land and coffee plants lost in landslides will reduce the earnings of small coffee producers for at least three or four years. That's how long it takes for new coffee plants to grow, flower, and bear fruit for the first time. Oxfam America released $100,000 from its emergency fund to help 10 coffee cooperatives rebuild. With the end of this project nearing, Oxfam America staff traveled to Guatemala to visit some of the cooperatives, and talk to the people who participated in the projects.

Recovering the coffee crop is not a quick endeavor. In the majority of cases it will be three or four years until the harvest is at its normal level. And cleaning up the destroyed plots of land also takes time. It is an additional task that the coffee growers had to undertake in the moments when they weren't tending to the crops spared by the storm.

The first cooperative we visited was ASUVIM, in the province of Quetzaltenango, where we spoke with the president of the cooperative, Daniel Balux. The principle problem this cooperative faced was that nearly 30 percent of its harvest was affected by black bean, a deformation of the coffee bean that cannot be seen when the coffee is harvested, but only once it is dried. It changes the color and the taste of the coffee, disqualifying it from the gourmet and fair trade markets.

Can you tell us about the black bean problem?

Actually, we detected it here at the mill. We saw that we had black beans, but we didn't think it was so extensive, we thought it was just the first beans. But as we continued with the harvest it was the same. It was the whole harvest. The coffee looked good as parchment coffee but if we look at them all—the ones with a different color, they are black beans. We can't say that our members brought in bad coffee, because the cherries looked good, they didn't even look a little rotten or anything like that. The coffee was good. You can't say to the people, look, bring us better coffee or chose it better—[but] of course when they cup this coffee the cuppers will say it is green coffee, coffee that didn't reach its full maturity. So the aid for the black bean was something necessary [to compensate for the low price]. So, what did we do after all this? Well, thanks to the help that came from you, at least the members got their normal price. At least we could say to them, 'Look, the coffee was shipped at this price, but we are going to help you a little bit and we are going to pay you this much.' The people saw that at least there was an effort behind all this."

In addition to this monetary compensation that was given to the members, what other actions did ASUVIM take to overcome the crisis?

Here 60 percent of what people earn comes from coffee. If there are problems with the coffee, there are problems in the families. Either there is little schooling, or people are unable to complete projects they had planned or there isn't much food. Here in ASUVIM we also helped out with corn. We gave each member 800 pounds of corn. Part of it we donated, the other part the members had to buy. Each family of six consumes about 1,600 pounds of corn per year. [They lost 80 percent of the harvest.] What happened with the 20 percent that they were left with? They ate it in January, maybe into February, but by March they had to buy corn. Then the problem is that when there is high demand for corn, the price rises. So we helped them with this, with 800 pounds. We think it's 50 percent of the corn they eat, we could now say that at least they had corn to eat.

The other damage we suffered as an organization is related to the landslide here next to the patio where we sun dry the coffee. With the rain, little by little, we were losing more of it. So we were faced with an emergency. Either we did something or our patio would collapse. And the more time that passed, the worse it was. So we received aid from Oxfam America because the construction is big. But it was necessary because if we lose the patio, it'd be an additional expense.. We are still constructing, but we are making the wall. We aren't doing something that is simply going to fall apart next year and then we would have to invest in it all over again. We want to invest, to spend and if that means chipping in ourselves, we do it.