Still shell-shocked by hurricane Stan, Guatemalan coffee farmers try to recover

By Andrea Perera

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When the hurricane hit last October, Carlos Ajznel was sleeping, having the kind of nightmare you get when something bad is about to happen.

The sound of the rain woke him up. He nudged his wife, asking if she heard it too. Pregnant and tired, she told him to go back to sleep.

"When I woke up again, I opened the door and mud was everywhere. All the kids were screaming," Carlos recalled in February. "We ran from the house, with mud up to our waists."

As the Ajznels sprinted for shelter, the rain poured. Boulders tumbled. Mudslides cut through the earth. Hurricane Stan unloaded on Guatemala, reworking the landscape, and leaving some of its deepest scars on the country's small-scale coffee farms.

Many farmers, like Ajznel, lost their homes and the means to support their families. Coffee trees were infected by fungus, or buried under mud and rocks. Individual coffee farmers said the storm wiped out between 25 and 100 percent of their coffee production.

Five months after the storm, Oxfam America staffers traveled to Guatemala to assess the damage and determine what it would take to rebuild the lives of small-scale coffee farmers.

"Looking at the devastation, you realized what used to be there, that it was someone's income. Then you thought about what it would take to bring it all back," said Seth Petchers, Oxfam America's coffee program manager.

Homes buried, families displaced

Guatemala's volcanoes and rolling hills provided a perfect funnel for the rain and mud from the hurricane. Much of what was dislodged finally settled on coffee farming communities, located in the high elevations that produce quality beans.

Members of an Oxfam partner cooperative in La Unidad, a village at the base of a mountain in the Tajumulco region, found their community split down the middle by the hurricane. Two concrete bridges that had connected the village collapsed during the storm, taking some riverside homes with them.

"When it started to rain and the river swelled, we left our house knowing that something was going to happen," said Lidia Perez Chavez, 22, a member of the APECAFORM cooperative. "We only took the children and the clothes we were wearing. Afterward, we had lots of trouble. We could only eat once a day because we had so little firewood."

In San Lucas Tolimàn, a community near Lake Atitlan, Don Antonio Chavajay Ixtamer estimated that 80 percent of his land was affected. Walking through his property, he pointed to newly formed ravines, uprooted shade trees, and coffee trees buried under mud, boulders, and silt.

Ixtamer, who is the president of a coffee coop called La Voz, said he intends to replant. But it will take at least four years for the new trees to bear fruit. And while he and his family are doing the recovery work on their own land, they'll lose out on the supplemental income they would have earned doing off-season work in the city or on someone else's farm.

But at least Ixtamer has some coffee trees left to harvest. Some farmers lost everything and were forced to flee to Mexico and the United States.

Building it back

What will it take to recover? Farmers say they need to replace what was lost—and prepare for future disasters.

Oxfam America will use a $100,000 grant to help partners repair damaged land, provide technical assistance for rehabilitation projects, repair equipment, and offset the dues some coops can't pay because of reduced profits after the hurricane.

The relief work will be coordinated through partner organizations Manos Campesinas and CRECER, which will hire appropriate staff, help farmers plant coffee saplings, make and spread organic fertilizer, build drainage barriers, treat water, and repair coffee mills.

It will mean a lot of work during the next few months. But for many small-scale coffee farmers, there's simply no alternative.

"We need to replant," said Don Juan Tacaxoy Botan, president of ANMSI coop. "We don't have any other option."