San Juancito At first I was confused driving out of the serpentine mountains and hillsides on which Tegucigalpa is perched, but then I realized that we were on the same highway we had traveled a year ago to Valle de los Angeles, a small, pretty colonial spot specializing in pupusas and tourists. We took a left, avoiding the town, and kept rising in the mountains until we stopped in a even more beautiful area where San Juancito, an old hard rock gold mining town, is working a comeback after its mining scars and after Hurricane Mitch as a coffee center.
A lot of this story of resilience and recovery revolves around the coffee cooperative whose operations are now in an old mining office in the center of this small village. We met there with Tatiana Lara and her son, Mario, who detailed the operations of COMISAJUL, Cooperativa Mixta San Juancito Limitada. Before Hurricane Mitch, COMISAJUL was exporting 15 shipping containers worth of coffee out of San Juancito and its mountains. That’s a lot of coffee! A container holds 350 quintals or sacks of coffee. Each quintal holds 100 pounds, so one container is 35000 pounds of coffee more than most medium sized towns might drink in an entire year. At their heyday before the storm they were moving almost a half-million pounds of coffee per year (525000). Now they are producing 8 containers worth of coffee or 280000 pounds, a bit more than half of where they were hardly a decade ago.
Mario loaded all of us in the bed and extended cab of a Volkswagon 4×4, and we bumped and crawled up the mountains until we came to Finca 1, the first of the 4 farming areas of the cooperative. They had built a very efficient and ecologically sound operation there to wash the cherries and separate out the green beans. They made compost and fertilizer from the residue and put the beans out to dry. Once the beans are down to 30% humidity, they would transport them to lower, hotter elevations to finish the curing of the beans down to 12% humidity, ready for shipping and roasting. COMISAJUL sells all of its coffee to Europe in Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. About one-third of what their 453 members produce is FLO certified organic coffee.
This is my third trip to various coffee coops in Honduras. In the process I’ve learned a lot, ended up with more questions than when I began, and, finally, now that we are running Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans, we are in the market on our own account, putting our own skin in the business of finding improvements on the fair trade model. What Dona Caffe or Queen Coffee, as Senora Lara is called in Honduras and I were trying to figure out is a way to do direct trade, cutting out the middle brokers and others to see if we could do better for the producers, purveyors, and consumers. The more we all talked the more we seemed to have not only an interest in great coffee in common, but deep and abiding concerns about FLO and the way fair trade is developing. COMISAJUL and Senora Lara are active in organizing an alliance of Central American producers that would take the next step and directly link with us and others through direct trade.
While driving away from one of the coffee fincas, Mario had stopped near the abandoned American mining headquarters, its old school, and small village of houses. The large building, he said had been the first US embassy in Honduras. I’ll have to check on that. There was a bronze plaque set on the grounds that gave the elevation. It read almost a mile high which would make great coffee and about reach the level of our excitement.