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Repurposing Old Coffee Plantations In Guatemala

Guatemalan farmers have had to endure a lot these past few years. They saw their coffee production costs go up, while the price they received for their coffee beans went down. Climate change has made their situation worse, with warming temperatures and less rainfall producing less yields. FECCEG has repurposed an old coffee plantation into a research centre to help farmers in their fight against climate change.

FECCEG stands for La Federación Comercializadora de Café Especial de Guatemala. This organisation tries to improve the living conditions of the country’s small-scale coffee farmers. We visited them in El Vergel (which means ‘the orchard’ in Spanish), a natural rainforest environment. Up until 20 years ago, El Vergel hosted a coffee plantation, which had stopped making profits. FECCEG’s founding member and director Juan Francisco Gonzàlez purchased these areas a couple of years ago. It is now a training centre for the agriculturalists and farmers of the FECCEG. 

Repurposing old plantations as fertiliser laboratories

Here at El Vergel, they are researching how to optimise fertilisers and develop new climate-robust coffee plants. Adam, an environmental engineer at El Vergel, is responsible for the development of new fertilisers and also grows coffee himself.  

As we stand under a shelter on the central farm, we see three big piles of natural fertilisers, each with a different composition. Adam explains that the FECCEG sends the various fertilisers to a laboratory to be analysed. “The goal is to provide the most nutritious composition of fertiliser for each specific type of cultivated land, so as to use as little fertiliser as possible. We also try out the fertilisers here on our coffee plants, inviting farmers to go check out the effects on their own coffee plantations. This makes them more convinced to get started with new types of natural fertilisers themselves,” says Adam. 

Adam’s colleague Alex is working at the Federation on a dissertation for her Environmental Sciences training programme. She’s examining the fermentation processes that are used for the fertilisers. She shows us her test set-up: a tank filled with a liquid mixture consisting of sugar, micro-organisms and wheat. The tank is left alone for 16 days while air is pumped into it, making the microorganisms multiply. 

She adds fermented liquid containing microorganisms to the fertiliser with different mineral compositions. The cooperatives provide small versions of the fermentation installation (aka ‘biofabricas’), so they can produce their own fertilisers. This liquid fertiliser is effective against coffee rust, and can remedy 60% of the infected leaves.

Repurposing farmers’ houses for ecotourism

A little bit further on the domain of El Vergel, we can see five houses on stilts. “These were designed by Chilean architects and made with sustainable residual materials, such as pallets and fallen leaves”, González says. The design was based on the needs of a coffee farmer in Guatemala: the dwellings have to be earthquake-resistant and provide more indoor privacy than usual in farmer’s houses, as farmers often live in small spaces with their families.”

Gonzàlez points at one of the houses. “That one was paid by a French buyer - I gave him a free bag of beans and, once he sold it on the French market, he gave me the profits he got from it. With that money, we were able to build this house.” Forty coffee farmers built the five houses together, and they can now rest on their capability to build new houses again. “These houses here are not just for the farmers – they are intended for ecotourism,” goes on Gonzàlez, “by the end of this year we’ll start informing tourists about coffee cultivation and the problems that come with it, in order to create awareness amongst the consumers.”

The Federation’s efforts and sense of innovation are admirable, but the organisation remains a small fish in a big coffee pond.

Read more about How Coffee Farmers Are Tackling Global Warming In Guatemala.

Marieke travelled to Guatemala at the invitation of Fairtrade Belgium and Delhaize.

The author originally wrote this piece for Belgian outlet Eos Wetenschap. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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