Since Guatemala’s civil war ended in December 1996, the CCDA has combined land fund credits included in the peace accords with profits from coffee sales and support from solidarity groups to obtain land for its members. Wherever possible, the CCDA assists members to organize cooperatives on their new land.
The CCDA’s Café Justicia is produced on these cooperatives, and on small plots farmed by individual CCDA members. The first to produce Café Justicia was the El Paraíso Cooperative in the municipality of San Antonio Polapó, Sololá province (about 15 kilometres east of Lake Atitlán).
The Cooperative was started in 1998 by approximately 100 families from five neighbouring Cakchiquel Maya communities. The cooperative’s land comprises 300 hectares that stretch from the Madre Vieja river valley at about 1600 metres, to a mountain plateau at just over 2000 metres.
Vegetables for market and domestic consumption are grown in the river valley, where irrigation is easily accessible, while the slopes are planted with coffee grown under a canopy of bananas, avocados and larger shade trees. Access to the cooperative is via a precarious mountain trail 1 hour’s hike from the village of Chitilul – itself an hour’s hike from the nearest road.
El Paraíso coffee plantation was carved out of natural forest during the early 1940s by an immigrant from Spain. The Spaniard’s family lived and worked on the farm until the early 1980s, when they abandoned their home due to increasing levels of violence in the region. While they no longer lived at El Paraíso, the Spaniard’s son and grandchildren continued to work the coffee, hiring Cakchiquel Maya from the neighbouring village of Chitilul to care for the plants and harvest the beans.
The people of Chitilul consider the former owners of El Paraíso to be among the few “good” plantation owners in the region in that they usually paid the legal minimum wage. And when the army came to massacre the villagers in 1982, the owners of El Paraíso provided them with refuge on the plantation.
In the mid-1990s, when the family decided to sell the plantation, they offered it first to their workers. The villagers alone could not afford the land, so they turned to the Campesino Committee of the Highlands for support. The Campesino Committee of the Highlands The CCDA was founded in 1982 as an organization that works to defend the rights of workers on large coffee, sugar and cotton plantations, to recover lands taken from the Mayan communities over the past centuries, and to promote and recover Mayan culture and spirituality. Today about 100 communities in 8 Guatemalan provinces belong to the CCDA, but the organization is strongest in the Madre Vieja valley of Sololá.
When the people of Chitilul approached the CCDA for support, the organization worked out a deal that combined the resources of five member communities with a grant from the local Catholic parish and a loan from a new rotating land credit fund created by the 1996 peace accords between the Guatemalan government and left-wing rebels.
Today El Paraíso is a legally constituted cooperative with membership in the CCDA. The CCDA has since acquired 8 more land parcels for its members that have also begun to produce high quality coffee for export to Canada.
Currently El Paraíso produces about 60,000 lbs. of coffee per year. Many of the beans are sold by the cooperative on the domestic market or to intermediaries. The cooperative’s best organic beans are purchased by the CCDA to be marketed internationally and within Guatemala as “Café Justicia” (Hoo-Stee-Cee-A) – a Fair-Trade Plus coffee brand. Café Justicia is imported to Canada by the BC Central America Solidarity Alliance (BC CASA) which serves as the distributor of the CCDA’s Cafe Justicia in Canada..
The CCDA pays cooperative members a living price for their coffee and uses the surplus to support development projects in villages that are not yet able to export their coffee as Café Justicia. El Paraíso produces Yellow Bourbon, Arabico, Catue, Catimoro, Pache and Caturra varieties of Arabica coffee. The coffee has been graded in Guatemala as Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) Altura.
It is processed to the parchment level on the plantation using the wet processing method and cement drying patios. To avoid polluting the river with organic waste, the cooperative has built a series of “sinks” in its drainage canal where the husked cherries are trapped and later used as organic fertilizer. The parchment coffee is then taken to a larger coffee mill belonging to the Federation of Guatemalan Coffee Cooperatives to be transformed into “oro,” packaged and shipped to Canada.
In 2002 the El Paraíso Cooperative registered with Mayacert, an organic certifying agency whose credentials are recognised by Quality Assurance International and the USFDA. About a quarter of the 2008/09 crop of Café Justicia will be certified as organic, the rest is considered transitional, meaning that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are applied, but not all traces of these chemicals have yet been eradicated from the soil.
Until recently Café Justicía was carried to Canada by BC CASA delegations returning from Guatemala. This severely limited the quantities of coffee that could be imported. However, sales in Canada have now risen to the point that the CCDA can afford to send larger quantities of coffee in containers by ship to the Ports of Vancouver and Toronto.