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Bags of beans: visiting a coffee farm

By Brian Rogers | 1 Comment » January 18th, 2008

After a bumpy start we arrived at a coffee farm in the highlands of northern Guatemala. The friendly workers at Nueva Alianza gave us the low down on the seven step process that turns a sweet red berry into that familiar brown bean. Ever wonder what goes into your morning cup of Joe? Find out in today’s gallery.

It had been a frustrating morning, to say the least. After a late start and a bus ride that took twice as long as we were told it would, we were now sitting on the side of the road somewhere in Reu, under a rapidly receding spit of shade. We were told that we would be able to find a ride to Nueva Alianza, a coffee plantation up the road, which we wouldn’t have believed were we not sitting with three locals also waiting for this phantom ride to the finca (plantation).

Then, up pulled a maroon pickup truck, and with a few hand gestures and a smile, it became clear that someone in our party knew them, and we were in luck. Once in the flatbed, the truck took off and the busy intersection’s diesel belching trucks fade into the distance. A steady trickle of uniformed middle school students passed, heading home for the afternoon, followed by a dramatic series of sights and smells that completely erased the sour taste of the morning. It began with the crisp green and yellow of sugar cane fields, then the smell of jasmine flowers lining the road, and, as we ascended into cooler climes, a patch of rubber trees, in perfect rows, each accompanied by its own sap-catching pot tied to its trunk like a fanny pack. After a half hour or so of winding up and down stone paved mountain roads we finally entered coffee territory, the shiny plants half shaded under the broad limbs of larger trees.

Nueva Alianza is a vibrant place today—buildings are painted vivid reds and blues, and the main house is a bustling eco-tourism hotel—but the farm has only recently emerged from a decade and a half of turmoil and uncertainty. The land was once owned by a single lord who doled out meager wages to the peasants working his land. For five generations this arrangement persisted, until the late 1990s when the international price of coffee dropped precipitously and the owner stopped paying his workers. For 18 months the families received no payment for their work and some of them went to other towns in the area to look for work.

Finally, with help from several peasants rights organizations here in Guatemala, the workers occupied the farm’s main house, forcing a long and tedious negotiation process with the bank that had repossessed the land. After several years, the forty families officially formed a corporation that took ownership of the land and took out a 12 year loan, and they have been working creatively ever since to make the farm profitable.

In order to do this, they have started several new projects, including macadamia nut harvesting, a spring water bottling facility, and a bio-diesel plant to reduce their fuel dependency. The former owners house has been converted into a rustic hotel and through various Central American eco-tour companies, volunteers come to participate in the farm’s projects.

All of the hard work has definitely paid off for the community—in the form of a rural productivity award worth about $10,000 dollars last year—but their twelve year loan still looms overhead as the true test of whether Nueva Alianza can be self sustaining in the long run. The community has managed to pay off a third of their debt, but most of their profits have been reinvested back into projects.

The success of Nueva Alianza, however, is a rarity. Many coffee farmer had similar difficulties during the nineties, but were unable to recover their land. “Its truly a dream come true to own a piece of productive land and reap the benefits that it provides,” said Javier Jimenez, who came of age during the turmoil of the nineties and is now in charge of the community’s legal matters. With a slight smile he adds, “If not for all this I’d be over there immigrating to the U.S. like everyone else.”

This entry was posted on Friday, January 18th, 2008 and is filed under food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Bags of beans: visiting a coffee farm”

  1. Guatemalan Coffee: Nueva Alianza : Brewed Coffee Says:

    [...] Brian Rogers stumbled upon the little town of Nueva Alianza…. In their travel blog, they featured this town, their history, and the good coffee that they produce. This incited me to do more research on Nueva Alianza coffee. As it turns out, there is more to this coffee than the beans themselves. [...]

About LongJaunt Equal parts lighthearted jaunt and in-depth journey, this intimately documented trip around the world has one goal: to bring you along for the ride.

Thushan Amarasiriwardena

, former Senior Multimedia Producer at The Boston Globe, has always loved telling a great story. Combining his eye for visual story telling and his technical background in computer science at North Carolina State University, Thushan has reported on business, sports and travel for The Globe. You can find his site here.

Michael Kurtz

, graduated with a degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His thesis research focused on the intersection of race and music in Northeastern Brazil. He worked previously as A&R and Production Coordinator for Putumayo World Music, an international music record label based in New York City. You can find his site here.

Brian Rogers

graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and has traveled extensively in Latin America.

Alicia Conway

is LongJaunt's home base chief and a Technical Producer for The Boston Globe. She joined and contributed with the team out in England, Kenya, Tanzania, The Netherlands and Thailand.