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Guatemalan Coffee a Complex Blend

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March 21, 2010

Guatemalan Coffee a Complex Blend

Threats, exile a bitter part of coffee farmers' work

by Ben Sichel

Guatemalan coffee farmer Leocadio Juracan says the attacks against him are political acts. Photo: James Rodriguez/www.mimundo.org

HALIFAX—They call him “the Hurricane.”

Guatemalan coffee farmer Leocadio Juracan (his family name is close to the Spanish word for hurricane) has had a special relationship with many Nova Scotians—though most don’t even know it.

His coffee-farming co-operative—part of the Comite Campesino Del Altiplano (CCDA), or Highland Peasant Farmers’ Committee—has been delighting Nova Scotian palates with its fair trade, shade-grown organic coffee for close to nine years, through a partnership with Just Us! Coffee roasters in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Juracan is touring Nova Scotia this weekend, speaking to audiences in Wolfville, Halifax, Tatamagouche and Antigonish. The agenda focuses on more than just light versus dark roasts.

According to Kathryn Anderson, Maritimes Co-ordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence (BTS) Solidarity Network—a long-time partner of the CCDA—the organization currently faces “perhaps the greatest threat to its existence since its founding” in 1982.

In May 2008, Juracan explained, after signing an agreement with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on a framework for rural development, the CCDA’s car was shot at six times while driving down a rural road. The car’s passengers thankfully escaped injury.

"CCDA coffee is about more than fair trade prices for local producers," said Jackie McVicar, Co-ordinator of BTS Guatemala and former BTS intern with the CCDA. McVicar believes the CCDA’s vehicle was targeted. "CCDA coffee implies political advocacy and ongoing work in the struggle for labour justice and access to land for thousands of Guatemalan peasants. This work is happening at both the grassroots and national level," she said.

Authorities chalked up the shooting to "common crime," an assessment that may seem reasonable in a country with one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. But since then, the organization has suffered through two robberies in which a total of $40,000 worth of coffee was stolen. Its leaders have received threats of murder and violence by letter and by phone. A “climate of terror” surrounds the CCDA, said Juracan.

“The robbery and threats the CCDA received reflect an attempt to destabilize the organization and delegitimize the work they are doing,” said McVicar. “CCDA coffee isn't just about better wages. It's about changing structures of oppression."

In February, the threats started to target Juracan’s children. He decided to leave Guatemala, at least until the danger subsided. With the help of Canadian allies, he discreetly left the country with his family, and they found their way to Vancouver.

“If [the threats] had been just toward me,” Juracan said, “I would have kept on.”

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The coffee grown by the CCDA—known as “Café Justicia” and sold to roasters around the world—provides capital for development projects and a fair wage for the farmers, said Juracan.

He listed home construction, a rural hospital, health promotion, training for midwives, teacher pay supplements and educational scholarships as the CCDA’s ongoing projects.

But these “alternative” economic models are threatening to some, explained Juracan.

“Guatemala is not a poor country,” he said. “There is a sector of society that is extremely rich, that has appropriated the wealth of the country and excluded the majority of the population.”

This oligarchy has a vested interest in business as usual, said Juracan. He dismissed the theory that threats and attacks against the CCDA are the work of common criminals, noting they always take place immediately after the group takes a public political position: criticizing the government for lack of action on land reform, for example, an issue for which resolution is decades overdue; or condemning the murder of unionists. “We connect [the attacks against us] to political acts,” he said.

Residual violence from Guatemala’s 36-year civil war may exacerbate the current violence. The conflict, which divided communities and in which more than 250,000 were killed—most of them by military and government-backed paramilitary groups—left a legacy of violence that has been hard for the country to shake. It is perfectly plausible, according to Juracan, that his attackers would have connections to wartime paramilitary groups.

****

Juracan and his family planned to return to Guatemala after two or three months, hoping the security situation would improve. Unfortunately, in the few weeks since they arrived in Canada, there is no encouraging news.

"There is more news of harassment and intimidation, hooded men roaming the community, gunshots at night,” said the campesino.

During his time in Canada, Juracan said he would like to generate conditions for a return to his home country. Many CCDA members continue to work hard in Guatemala for political change, and Juracan plans to strengthen solidarity between the CCDA and concerned Canadians.

Still, said Juracan, he would rather his stay be as short as possible. Being forced out of his country for doing his work is a difficult pill to swallow.

Tomorrow, March 22 at 7pm, Jurican will speak at Immaculata Hall 202, Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. CCDA coffee is available in Nova Scotia as Just Us! Coffee’s "Breaking the Silence Blend."

Ben Sichel is a writer and teacher in Halifax. He recently took a group of students on an educational trip to Guatemala. An original version of this article was published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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Comments

No Smiles Permitted

The corporacrats want you to smile... until you've bought whatever crap they're selling. Then they don't care whether you live or die.

Thanks for this Ben. I'm interested in coffee beyond the degree of interest that would be shown by the regular coffee drinker. And I'm interested in politics.

I would love to one day have my own coffee shop here in Toronto, even though they are popping up all the time all over the place. Toronto's a big city, so I think it can handle all the independents that are here and that are arriving. And I would certainly want to support the fair trade, organic movement if I ever get to have my own shop. I would want to support that both because it's good for the environment and because it's good for the coffee growers. So this article is of great interest to me.

I'm fond of telling people that what I like about the coffee shop business is that it's about smiles all around. (I'm a security guard right now. Boy do I hate it. And in 10 years time, I've had one raise - of 35 cents.) The customers are smiling when they are getting their coffee and enjoying a minute or two of downtime. And the people working in the coffee shop are smiling because they know that they are not selling people crap (useless insurance, products that kill, etc) and because they will know many of their customers who have become friends. At least that's how it should be.

Alas, Howard Zinn made the point that no one can stand still on a moving train. We can choose to ignore politics, and most do, but politics doesn't ignore anyone. Politics involves two things: 1. the rulers and 2. the ruled. You are one or the other. You are not outside of politics, even if you choose to be outside of caring.

Readers who appreciated this post by Ben Sichel might be interested in checking out the Just Coffee Coop website: http://www.justcoffee.coop/. I had a glance to see whether there is any mention of Leocadio Juracan and his travails there. I didn't see anything about that specifically. But there was an article, or blog post, about Guatemala and politics. That's at this address: http://www.justcoffee.coop/node/9421

Thank you for covering this

Thank you for covering this story, Ben. Having moved to Canada from Guatemala City years ago, I still remember the civil war & its impact on its working class. Although I'm glad that the CCDA is still working hard, Jucaran's story is not an isolated one and may not be the last. But it is important to shed light on these events, so others know who's behind their morning cup of coffee.

Drinking coffee

I was drinking a cup of breaking the silence coffee this morning and by chance clicked on your article. I am grateful for your article which exposes the dire risks that people are taking to grow fair-trade coffee. And also, it shows that it is not just our choice of the products we buy that change the working/living conditions of the growers, but the structures that are threatened by economic viability. My prayers for Leocadio Juracan, his family, and his livelihood.

Just Us

I know this is less about taste and more about ethics but:

Like many Halifax coffee drinkers I love the idea of Just Us! but am totally underwhelmed by the execution. Maybe it's a problem with the volume of coffee they're roasting now or maybe their buyers have limited experience and unrefined palates but they cannot properly roast coffee. A worker's co-op is great! Fair trade and organic are great! Locally owned is great! But the coffee is mediocre and not worth the price. There are other ethical coffee roasters in Canada (and Halifax) who have a better quality product and charge the same or less than $11 per 3/4 of a pound.

I really hope the succeed and I think they bring a great deal of awareness to consumers, but please, please hire an experienced roaster to oversee the process.

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