“The Voice that Cries Out in the Desert.” A reference to the town’s patron saint, this is the poetic name chosen by a group of 20 indigenous Tzutujil, Kakchiquel and Quiche Mayan farmers in the district of San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala, for their newly-formed cooperative in 1977. Over thirty years later, what they created has grown into an organization representing 116 coffee producers, and about 600 family members. Located on the shores of Lake Atitlán 5,000 feet (1,585 meters) above sea level, their certified organic, Fair Trade, SHB beans are appreciated by many specialty coffee roasters.
These farms are a place of rare beauty, as many who have visited La Voz on origin trips can attest. The coop is nestled into the side of the mountain, which rises up dramatically from the valley to the sky. Winding paths are carved between the coffee plants and the farms are shaded by large trees overhead.
To reach this small cooperative, visitors must take a boat from Panajachel to San Pedro on Lake Atitlán. From San Pedro, you can walk to the coop, which takes about ten minutes and is a lovely walk through town. Visitors often note the difference between the village the cooperative serves and others in the region—better schools are in evidence, and there are additional revenue sources in apiculture and a women’s weaving cooperative.
The Chronicle was honored to speak with the cooperative’s current Manager, Andrés Isaías Cotuc, about the history, challenges, and hopes of La Voz.
How did La Voz get started?
The idea for the cooperative was conceived of by twenty people native to the municipality of San Juan La Laguna in the region of Solola. The first meeting was held in front of the town hall underneath a ceiba [cottonwood, the national tree of Guatemala] tree. The idea was proposed to form a cooperative or an association, and the majority voted for a cooperative. This led to the founding of the pre-cooperative in 1978, and the application to the National Institute of Cooperatives (INACOP). In 1979, the organization received legal recognition with status authorized and approved by INACOP, and it was then that the organization began to function formally. The name was derived from the patron saint of the town, Saint John the Baptist, according to his history and the preachings he made in the desert. Currently, the cooperative is comprised of 152 members, among them 93 men and 59 women.
How would you describe the management structure of the cooperative?
The ultimate authority resides with the assembly composed of all of the members, which elects its directors and legal representative every two years. We have a number of councils and committees, most with three members each: administrative council, oversight committee, credit committee, educational committee, marketing committee, and the coffee tours commission.
The history of the cooperative hasn’t been all rose-colored, as it has encountered various obstacles and problems, more so during a prior administration. Since I became the manager in 2008, the system we have put in place has focused on dialogue, participation and consensus. In many cases, obstacles and problems represent opportunities. Given the chance, individuals will take responsibility with a positive perspective and encourage participation among members.
An example of problems: Taking out credit for a contract in 2005 without sufficient documentation and backing internally, but which was legalized externally. Through dialogue and consensus we set a payment schedule and when members get behind, we cite them in meetings in order to come to agreements.
What are the advantages of belonging to a cooperative, as opposed to maintaining an individual farm?
If you belong to a cooperative that is organized by real cooperatives, I believe it has more advantages than disadvantages. But, if it’s only a theoretical structure of cooperative organization, there’s no difference between that and a private enterprise. It’s important to investigate the benefits that a cooperative offers and receives as part of a federation of cooperatives. The formation of alliances is a good and healthy thing for any organization.
How has La Voz allowed or helped these individual farmers to produce higher-quality coffee and earn better prices?
The work of the family is the foundation for producing quality. The quality of a product begins with work in the fields, and is supported by the wet-milling process that transforms cherry to parchment, as well as the dry milling that transforms parchment to green. La Voz has a central wet mill where coffee is taken from cherry to parchment, and all of the work is done by hand and naturally.
How does the cooperative represent its members to exporters, importers, or roasters? What type of marketing do you have in place to highlight the coop brand?
We represent our members as an organization of smallholder producers of certified organic coffee. We sell coffee through an exporting company well known in Guatemala: InterAmerican Coffee [formerly Elan Organic, before they were purchased]. The importer has been our point of contact for buyers like Counter Culture Coffee and Taylor Maid Farms.
Domestically, we promote our coffee through a program begun in 2008, called Coffee Tours, which consists of attending to visitors with a tour of coffee farms, explaining the processes from coffee farming to milling to roasting and grinding, finally ending with the tasting of coffees produced by smallholder members of the cooperative.
What are your greatest concerns for the future of the coffee industry? What are the bright spots that give you hope and encourage you to continue to grow coffee as a livelihood?
As the chief officer of the cooperative, my main worries are about leaf rust on farms as a result of climate change, the volatility of the coffee market and its effects on the contracts written in accordance with it, migration [of farmers] to other places, and the minifundio system [a system where people have so little land to farm that they’re not able to provide for themselves or escape poverty].
My faith for the future depends on training more smallholder farmers on how to produce quality coffee, and that quality will lead to higher prices with long-term clients who are aware of the work of smallholders, who represent the link in the commercial chain that receives the least although they work the most; and to create and generate more spaces for participation for more people in the cooperative system.
Photos courtesy Nicholas Herman