Visiting Mataquescuintla, Guatemala | Randolfo Pacheco, Miguel Rodriguez & the Escobal Mine
Brendan recently returned from a trip to Guatemala visiting Randolfo Pacheco and Miguel Rodriguez, two coffee producers we started working with in 2018. We began sourcing coffees in the Mataquescuintla region in collaboration with a few other Canadian Coffee Roasters, Bows and Arrows and Drum Roaster, last year for two reasons—
To support an group of coffee producers with great potential who simply lack access to a market and the economic security that brings.
To lend our voices as Canadians against harmful foreign mining projects that originate with Canadian companies and often go unheard of in our own country. According to 2016 figures, National Resources Canada found Canadian mining asset wealth in Central and South America alone to account for $69.6 billion and Canadian companies have been at the centre of many improper conduct claims.
This is part of our broader purchasing philosophy to connect with growers who do not have access to the specialty market and/or sustainable prices and to show the human value behind each cup — that beyond a point score or varietal or altitude there are lives lived, often in struggle and strength.
First Stop, Randolfo Pacheco at Laguna Escondida
We started our visit with Randolfo “El Sapo” Pacheco, seeing both Randolfo’s new plot at 1900masl and the one we purchased from last year called Laguna Escondida. Translating as Hidden Lagoon in English, his grandparents named it as such because the ground was very soft and prone to sinkholes and slides, so they feared there was a a lake or lagoon underneath it that would swallow up the farm.
Randolfo mostly grows a varietal known locally as Pache San Ramon, which is common in this area, as well as some Catuai. Pache is a natural mutation of Typica that was first discovered in 1949 very close to Mataquescuintla in the neighbouring department of Santa Rosa, making this a natural cultivar of Guatemala. The cup qualities for these coffees can be very good, possessing juicy fruit flavours of raspberry, banana, orange and lime. Laguna Escondida sits between 1700-1800masl has about 15000 trees and is a beautiful spot interplanted with pine and gravalea and banana trees.
Randolfo is 33 and runs these farms he’s inherited from his family with the help of 15 workers. He’s super close with them and works alongside them daily, from picking cherries to moving cherries down to the mill and maintaining the farm in general. His two parcels are at least 40 years old, with several trees that are over 20 years old.
Randolfo is so passionate about coffee that he’s sacrificed a lot simply to keep going. Before the photo taken in Laguna Escondida (big smile with the tree) I asked him the name of the tree. The next day, he told me he’d been thinking about it and he had no name for the tree but that he was so happy in that moment because it wasn’t long ago that he had sold his television to buy more seedlings for that farm, and he did it because he loves coffee and just wants to make the farm succeed.
Struggles to Succeed
Randolfo has sacrificed a lot, for his whole life he’s had no other option than selling on the “tradicional” market. This basically means selling his coffee in cherry or “uva” to large buyers who pass through the hills picking up cherry that they then flip to large international companies. He and the rest of the community receiv the equivalent of ~0.80USD/lb in this type of system at the current prices.
The pay for this is so low that it’s caused him to accrue large debts just to keep up basic maintenance of the farm, and even then he has slipped. For example, due to the high cost of mulch and fertilizer, Randolfo relied on his goats for an organic source of fertilizer. However, due to his debts, he had to sell his goats and now has to buy all his fertilizers, organic or not. This cost, plus the cost for pickers — he pays much higher than the average rate out of respect for his pickers — means that he’s basically been “regalando” or giving away his coffee every year. We’re happy to be buying more of his coffee, but the sad reality is that due to his volume and his processing situation he has already sold some of his coffee for this bottom barrel price rather than lose it. He is not alone in his situation, and explained that many people either immigrate or abandon their farms and in some cases it may be even more extreme than that.
To help Randolfo out this year, we sent him pre-financing to ensure that he could afford to get through the harvest with his pickers well paid. This amounted to buying 20 bags of coffee in advance at over double the market price. This is only a small step but it gave him so confidence that he could invest in the farm and also pay his pickers well.
Randolfo is thrilled to have a direct connection and to know his coffee is well-received, we shared many of people’s comments about his coffee with him and it made him very happy. He’s approaching the new year dedicated to quality and to improving and learning. We brewed Randolfo’s coffee with him and it was the first time he’s had the chance to try his own coffee. He was thrilled and was so excited to learn how to prepare coffee that we left him an Aeropress and Porlex with a recipe so he could keep himself caffeinated. We’ll be checking to make sure he does!
Randolfo & the Escobal Mine Resistance
Though all members of the Resistance take turns every 12 days at the resistance point, Randolfo is an active member here, often showing up when he’s not scheduled. The resistance point is a camp on the side of the highway leaving town towards the mine, and here they wait to ensure that not only are no materials illegally entering the mine while it’s closed. They also stop trucks that are carrying lumber as there is an active illegal lumber market that contributes to deforestation in the area. All of this is done in conjunction with the local police, and the resistance doesn’t engage in violence only takes down information and photo documents anything that appears suspicious.
Second Stop, Don Miguel Rodriguez at El Roblar & Quebrada Onda
Next we visited Don Miguel Rodriguez. At 53 years old, he’s been involved in coffee growing since he was 8 years old and tagged along in the farms of his grandparents. As a third generation farmer, he estimates that his family has been cultivating coffee for near 100 years.
Don Miguel has four parcels but the two main ones he operates are El Roblar and Quebrada Onda, from where we purchased last year. At El Roblar, he grows mostly Pache while at the other he grows mainly Catuai. He’s actually not totally sure what the varietals are at Quebrada Onda because there is a lot of misinformation regarding varietal when seeds are passed along, but based on cup quality and appearance these trees are likely Catuai, though may also be caturra. Quebrada Onda was planted about ten years ago and accounts for about 3 hectares at an altitude of 1750-1820masl. Interplanted with pine and gravalea as well, it’s well shaded and fresh.
Don Miguel has 16 employees who work with him, they actually come from Huehuetenango but he pays half of their passage there and has built housing for them on his land beside his house. He also pays them well because as he told us everyone deserves a good enough pay to be able to care for themselves and their family. He pays the same rate as Randolfo which is higher than typical by 33-50%.
Struggles to Succeed
Don Miguel has worked his entire life in coffee and for most of his life has suffered from very low prices and lack of market access. However, he explained that the last five years has been the worst as coffee prices hit historical lows and costs continued to rise. He himself illegally immigrated to the US, living there between 2002 and 2005. He currently has a son that is living illegally in the States as well and sending money back to the family, which is a large part of what has kept them afloat in these uncertain times.
Of course, the same price scenario that Randolfo faces applies to Miguel. Don Miguel said to us several times, “I’ve always heard that Guatemala has some of the best coffee in the world but what does that help us if we sell for nothing.” We’re hoping to buy the majority of Miguel’s Quebrada Onda lot this year, upping our purchase from last year and offering a little bit more certainty to his situation.
Despite his struggles, Don Miguel remains positives and happy. As he says, “all life is a school, good and bad.”
Don Miguel Rodriguez & the Escobal Mine Resistance
Don Miguel is one of the four main people in the junta leading the resistance and as such has been involved in this struggle for 8 years. In 2013, during a peaceful protest in front of the mine he was illegally detained on public space and held in the infamous Max security Boquerón prison in Santa Rosa. Thankfully the resistance was able to agitate for his quick release as he had no formal charge against them they tried to suggest him for illicit association. Currently he is involved in making sure everyone in the group is up to date with the impending consultation process ordered by the Minister of Natural Resources. He is confident that The Escobal Mine will be rejected by the consultation process.
Updates on the Escobal Mine
The story behind this mine is a long one, and for a quick primer you should take a look at Randolfo’s coffee page.
In the summer of 2018, the Guatemala Constitutional Court voted to uphold the suspension of the mining license of the Escobal mine which had come about through the peaceful resistance of the Mataquescuintla group. This meant that the court agreed with the resistance’s argument that, as per the International Labor Organization’s (a UN agency) Bill 169 known as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, any such project must first be approved through consultation with local indigenous communities who have a spiritual, cultural, or territorial claim to the land in question.
The wide majority of people living in Jalapa and Santa Rosa identify as Xinca, an indigenous group separate from Mayan or Aztecs and considered locally to have arrived there thousands of years ago from South America. Not only must they be consulted under ILO 69 due to their identification as Xinca, there are also religious monuments used for ritual purposes that exist in the direct area where the Escobal mine is being exploited. Despite their identity and claim to this territory, no such consultation took place prior to the opening of the mine. The only consultations that have happened to date have been done through the Catholic Church and the local resistance groups in conjunction with the indigenous support group CALAS who have held local plebiscites that have resulted in near unanimous rejection of the project by surrounding communities.
The mine has been shuttered for over a year now, and has been losing millions of dollars in profit per quarter due to its suspension. As a result, Tahoe Resources sold their interest in the mine to Pan American Silver, the second largest primary silver producer in the world.
Pan American is powerful and wealthy, and they’ve taken the risk on purchasing the mine believing it will be reopened following consultations. Even if they lose millions per quarter, the profits if it is to be reopened will far outpace that. It becomes a waiting game. In the meantime, people in the aldea of La Cuchilla we spoke to say that there is loud noise in the evenings, suggesting the mine my be illegally operating despite its suspension. This is why the resistance is present where they are, as they don’t want activity to go on.
The mine has also encircled large swaths of territory around it by paying off locals for their property. They’ve also put up huge stretches of impassable fences that are guarded by armed security kilometres up the mountain from the mine. This is also in contravention of Xinca tradition as land is to be considered communal in that even when it is owned by someone, space for free passage is left on that land. The consultations are still undetermined and while the resistance feels confident the results will be in their favour, there is still trepidation that simply undergoing consultation will be enough for them to reopen the mine, regardless of result.
In acting as land defenders the way they are, the Mataquescuintla producers are taking their lives into their own hands. In Guatemala, there is a “culture of impunity” as far as environmental activism goes. Members of this group have been shot, beaten, killed or arrested for their peaceful protesting to this project and still they carry on. We honour the commitment they are making to protect not only their own livelihood but those of their children and broader community as well, all at great personal risk.
Spending time in this region also brought awareness to the reality and struggles of migration — so many people I met have either crossed illegally to the States or have loved ones en route or there right now. In Mataquescuintla especially, where’s there’s really very little specialty market access for coffee producers (aside for a select few). It’s expected by locals that many more people will migrate this year with no assurances for the price of their coffee or the future of their efforts. Our hope is that by building our relationships here we can inspire confidence for the future and also attract other buyers to work with these producers.
For those of you who have purchased or will purchase Don Miguel or Randolfo’s coffee, we hope you’ll think of them and tell their story with pride. We don’t have the answer to the complexities of the situation in Mataquescuintla and realize this approach likely makes some people uncomfortable. We aren’t here to preach or guilt, but rather bring a human face to the people being affected by these projects — people we care about and don’t wish to see harmed.
We thank you for supporting these farmers this past season — their coffees were some of our best received Guatemala coffees ever and that’s on quality alone. Your love for this coffee was shared with them and it was very meaningful for them. We hope we can reciprocate their attitude of strength in numbers on this end of the supply chain.
As they say in Guatemala (and in most of Latin America) “andamos en la lucha”
— Brendan Adams
Further Reading: The Guardian, The Guardian, LA Times, National Observer, York University - The Canada Brand: Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America, Under Seige - Peaceful Resistance to Tahoe Resources and the Militarization of Guatemala.