Felipe Miza Castro - Coffee Farmer
Member of Manos Campesinos Co-operative, Guatemala
© Lottie Davies
Felipe Miza Castro, 48, lives with his wife Marbila de Miza, 41, daughter Cindy, 18, and sons Maynor, 16, and Felipe, 5, in the small town of St Lucas Toliman in the Sololá department of southwest Guatemala.
The town is located in the foothills of the Tolimans and Atitlan volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlan. At an altitude of 1,600 metres, the climate is kind, with warm days and pleasantly cool nights.
Felipe is one of 58 coffee farmers in the local co-operative, Asociación Ijatz, which means ‘seeds’. It also includes 28 women members who have set up a food business catering to local businesses, religious festivals and social events. The co-op is one of eleven farmers’ organisations that belong to the ACOPS co-operative which in turn is affiliated to Manos Campesinas (‘workers’ hands’), the umbrella organisation for 1,300 farmers from eight co-ops located in the states of San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu and Sololá.
Felipe’s farm is a six-kilometre uphill trek away, though he often pays a few pence to jump in the back of a pick-up truck, a common form of local transport. Most farmers make the tough two-kilometre trip on foot as their farms aren’t approachable by road. At 2,000 metres, the mountain air is cooler and fresher than in town. The soil is volcanic ash, rich in organic matter, making the perfect altitude, climate and soil conditions for producing excellent coffee.
Felipe bought his land in 1982 and planted it with coffee trees. Like the other co-op members, his farm is around 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) in size with 3,000 coffee trees covering 90% of his land. The coffee is shade grown to protect the beans from the sun, and Felipe is bit-by-bit converting to organic production. Each tree yields around 10 pounds of coffee cherries. He also grows corn and beans to feed his family, but doesn’t have enough land to grow more vegetables. The family typically supplement tortillas and beans with vegetables from the local market, and eat fish or chicken a couple of times a week, particularly on Sundays.
Coffee growing has become an increasingly precarious livelihood since prices began to slump in 1997. By October 2001 the price of arabica coffee on the New York Exchange had tumbled to 45 cents a pound - the lowest level for 30 years and the lowest ever in real terms.
The main cause of the slump is global oversupply, exacerbated by increased production on the large plantations in Brazil and government-backed expansion in Vietnam. Coffee provides 90% of Felipe’s income but he doesn’t have the option of expanding production to earn more money. Four wealthy families own about 70% of land around the town, including most of the good farmland, and it is financially out of the question for poor small-scale farmers like him to buy more land.
And diversification away from coffee is not an easy option either: he could grow a cash crop like citrus that could provide a reasonable income, but would have to be sure there was a reliable market before taking the gamble of ripping out his coffee trees, most of which are more than 20 years old. The major obstacle would be surviving the intervening three- to four-year conversion period. He is convinced that the best way to safeguard his family’s future is by securing long-term partnerships with the Fairtrade, organic, and shade grown coffee markets. As Felipe points out: “The fall in coffee prices has made it really difficult to look after my family and educate my children. One of my main aims is to convert my plots of land to organic coffee, to compete in the markets on quality instead of quantity; I’m working hard on this.”
Felipe says: ‘The price we get for our coffee from the local trader is unfair; the trader makes more money than we do. It’s not enough to live on – it doesn’t even cover the cost of producing it. Without Fairtrade sales it would be very hard for us to survive and I would have to take my children out of school’.
Small-scale coffee farmers in the region were isolated from the markets for many years prior to the creation of the Manos Campesinos co-operative in 1997. The farmers were forced to sell their coffee to coyotes (middlemen) at unsustainably low prices and were left with very little money to show for their efforts. Manos Campesinos helps its members by identifying new market opportunities and managing the processing and export procedures. It also gives technical assistance to increase the yield and quality of the crop, provides support for organic conversion and training in diversification, and acquires low interest loans to fund these activities. Around 60% of members’ coffee is now exported, all to European and North American Fairtrade markets, for which sales have grown from just one container for the 1997/98 crop to 16 containers for the 2002/03 season.
At the moment, Felipe and his fellow co-op members pay to transport their ripe red coffee cherries for processing at a nearby mill. There, the cherries are soaked, de-pulped, fermented, washed, and dried in the shade. They are then transported to Guatemala City where Manos Campesinas organises the final processing stage before the green coffee beans are packed and warehoused, ready for export or sale to the national market.
Felipe receives more than twice as much for his beans when selling to Fairtrade buyers and his co-op receives the additional Fairtrade premium of five cents a pound which it has invested in buying a plot of land. They hope Fairtrade sales will help them raise the $18,000 needed to build a coffee mill on the land so that they can process their own coffee. This would almost double the value of their coffee and, vitally, provide many new jobs for local people. ‘Fairtrade’, says Felipe, ‘is giving us the opportunity to survive and help other people in our communities.’ An invaluable by-product of the mill would be the cherry husks that farmers would use to improve the organic compost used to fertilize their land.
Talking about Fairtrade, Felipe said: ‘We hope our friends in Fairtrade can make the people in Europe more aware of the problems we coffee farmers are facing; they have the chance of a good life, and we need their support in buying our products so that we too can have the chance of a better life. Every time they buy our Guatemalan coffee they get a top quality product and they can also give a hand to people in developing countries, not only Central America, but South America, Africa and Asia as well. Fairtrade coffee may cost them a few more pennies, but we are not beggars, they are paying the true, fair price for a quality product.’
For several years Felipe has been intercropping his coffee trees with avocados, bananas, lemons, and oranges, which he sells at local markets to get extra income and also to lessen his reliance on coffee, particularly now that the price is so low. The scheme has been such a success – his eight lemon trees alone bring in $100 a year – that neighbouring farmers are copying his idea with his help and encouragement. Felipe isn’t concerned they will take away his market – he’s confident they can get together and transport the fruit to the cities where there will be no trouble selling them.
Children start school at the age of six and continue, in theory, until graduation at 18. Although there are no fees, many parents struggle to pay for books and other expenses, so most children leave school at 13 to work in the fields to contribute to their family’s income.
Felipe, as the third of eight brothers, was in the same position until good fortune came his way. He was a community-minded boy, volunteering with a US Peace Corps food programme to help the poorest local families, when one of the young Americans recognised Felipe’s potential and offered to support him while he finished school. In return, Felipe eagerly agreed to a life-changing experience – he would pay off the debt by working on the American’s farm in Minnesota. He returned two years later with a wealth of new experiences behind him, and as one of just a handful of fluent English speakers in the town. He also had enough money in his pocket from a year working for a US forestry programme to buy his coffee farm.
Fairtrade helped Felipe keep his daughter Cindy in school until graduation. She gained a teaching qualification but because of low school enrolment hasn’t been able to find a job. She is now working in a drug store to pay for a computer training course to improve her job prospects. His son Maynor dreams of going to college to study computer technology. Felipe knows this will be tough financially, but says: ‘I want to send my son to university. If we work hard and sell more coffee to Fairtrade I think I can do it’.
Felipe continued to be involved in community projects, one of which was to set up an environmental programme. The town had a growing problem from discarded waste of all types that was beginning to affect children’s health. Felipe set up schemes to turn organic waste into compost and to recycle paper and various metals. They were sold at the local market and after 18 months the scheme was running at a profit.
Manos Campesinas Co-operative
Participation in Fairtrade has allowed co-op members to bypass intermediaries, to stay on their land, and to continue to maintain the quality of their coffee.
Additional revenue from Fairtrade sales has enabled the cooperative to:
- Install a wet mill and dry processing plants
- Purchase land to build a storage facility for coffee
- Repair processing equipment
- Ensure that the cooperative members' 2,800 children remain in school
- Install electricity, drainage, and drinking water supply lines
"Fairtrade farmers have enough income to keep working in the fields and feed and clothe their families. You can see the difference with non-Fairtrade farmers: they have to abandon their production, they cannot maintain their coffee trees, and there is significant migration to Mexico City. The major benefit of Fairtrade here is the virtual elimination of migration.”
Jeronimo Bollen, Manager of Manos Campesinas co-operative
Coffee plantation workers
Although life is a struggle for small farmers like Felipe, the already tough plight of landless coffee plantation workers has been made even worse by the coffee crisis. In Felipe’s area, wealthy local families own several large coffee estates and used to be big local employers. Many of their workers had been with them for up to 20 years and lived on the farms. The average family needs to earn $2.50 a day for a relatively good life. For all but the fittest, this means working from 6am to 5pm, six days a week. Older, slower, or sick workers depend on their children helping them hit the picking targets.
But over the last six years more and more workers have been laid off and kicked off the plantations as the owners decided that prices are too low to make it worth harvesting their crop. Now the workers count themselves lucky if they can get one day’s work a week.
One group of former employees has been luckier than most and at least have somewhere to live. The plantation owner sold them a plot of unproductive land where they have built wooden, tin-roofed houses. The government has connected them to water and electricity supplies in exchange for them providing the labour to dig trenches and lay pipes and cables.
Many have not been so fortunate. At least half of Guatemala’s 500,000 coffee labourers have been thrown out of work, and often out of their homes as well. Some large-scale farmers on the nearby coast have given up entirely on coffee, cutting down their coffee trees and replanting with sugar cane. This will at least provide work for some of the desperate workers; others have migrated within Guatemala or to Mexico to find work, or have made the usually illegal and often hazardous trip to the US.
March 2004: Update from TransFair USA
Look for the FAIRTRADE Mark on products. It’s your guarantee that disavantaged farmers and workers in the developing world are getting a better deal.