The final leg of our journey involves some smiling children, a dusty and noisy dry mill ringed by razor wire and guarded by men with guns, and a little petty theft as well.
The road to Acatenango and La Guarderia de Las Nubes (The Daycare in the Clouds) was winding, scenic and tragic all in one. We were treated with gorgeous views of cloud-topped volcanoes and green fields receding into the distance; but also as we traveled through small villages we witnessed scenes of destitution and poverty. The current near-record high prices of coffee notwithstanding, when adjusting for inflation coffee workers today make less than their predecessors did a century ago. People are still struggling to feed their families and to keep their children in school. Often coffee farming is not enough to help a community thrive.
This is where organizations such as Coffee Kids come in. Working with local groups to create health, education, microcredit and food security programs for people in coffee-growing communities, Coffee Kids aims to assist coffee farmers and their families to reduce their dependence on the volatile coffee market and to become more self-sufficient. In Acatenango, Coffee Kids has partnered with ADESPA (Association for Sustainable Development of Paraxaj) to support the latter’s adult literacy and health awareness programs, as well as additional funds for handicraft (beaded belts, shoes and skirts) and bakery products. These programs have been contributing to the local economy of Paraxaj while also, through the Nursery and Kindergarten projects, allowing the children of farmers and workers a safe, fun, and educational place to learn and play while their parents work.
On this day the kids had prepared some sweet presentations for us. We were treated to traditional songs and dances in traditional dress, as well as more contemporary offerings. You can check out Coffee Kids’ flickr here for some great pictures. Also check out a short video of Michael Phillips explaining our day with the kids.
Our next stop was a large dry mill called Serben. The first thing I noticed was the 15 foot high walls topped with razor wire and a heavy steel gate guarded by gun-toting men. The reason? I’ll get to that in a few moments. Right now I want to talk about the facility. The Serben dry mill was our first chance to see what happens after coffee has been harvested, sorted and washed and dried. This is the final step in the process before the coffee is sent to ports and loaded onto shipping containers and sent off to roasters around the world. At a dry mill the coffee is finally stripped of the outer shell (called the parchment – which helps preserve the seed for a longer period), sorted by bean size, density, and colour. Then it is put into new burlap (or jute) bags and readied for shipment. The facility itself is enormous, and loud, and dusty as hell. The staff recommended that we wear masks to prevent our lungs from becoming saturated with burlap and parchment dust. We probably should have worn earplugs as well. All around us machines were vibrating and gyrating, separating the beans according to their sizes and density. In other, even larger rooms bags of coffee were piled twenty feet high, waiting to either be milled or shipped. Off in one corner was a very expensive and impressive piece of equipment called an optical sorter. This thing uses a high speed camera to view beans for defects based on colour differences as they are sent through one by one; if any exceed the user-set threshold for defects, a tiny and super-quick jet of compressed air shoots the defective bean into a separate bin. The rest are fit for export. Not every dry mill has an optical sorter because of cost and technical limitations, but they can be an essential last line of defense in regards to quality control.
Speaking of “last line of defense”. Those men with automatic weapons were making me nervous. Suddenly I heard a commotion just outside the reinforced steel gates. Was it gunfire? Stay tuned, suckers!