Coffee vs Fuego

In the days leading up to Sunday, 3 June, team members from the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) and Guatemala’s National Coffee Association (Anacafé) were preparing for the last round of Guatemala’s Cup of Excellence (COE) competition. The international round would be commencing the next day, 4 June, and more than a dozen judges were making their way to Guatemala City to evaluate the 40 final coffee samples from farmers all over the country. At 12:00pm, however, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes dramatically erupted, shooting ash, gases and smoke thousands of meters into the atmosphere and emitting lava and pyroclastic flows down its slopes. Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) continued to erupt into the afternoon, with pyroclastic flows extending up to 40 kilometres from the crater and ash raining down on much of the country, including in Guatemala City where the COE event was to start in fewer than 24 hours. The team called an emergency meeting to evaluate the situation. With air traffic inhibited and the international airport shut down, flights en route to Guatemala City were rerouted to surrounding countries. “The rest of the judges were scheduled to arrive at different times throughout Sunday,” explains Ana Lucrecia Glaesel, Marketing Manager at Anacafé. “When the volcano erupted, we actually had people flying over, so our main focus was to get them to Guatemala City in the safest way possible.” Although Glaesel says most of the COE farms were out of the worst reaches of the eruption, 5098 coffee families and 9420 hectares of coffee land were affected in some way, ranging from minimal leaf defoliation to complete plantation devastation. The affected production is equivalent to 1.3 per cent of the 2018/19 harvest’s exportable coffee. Guatemala is divided into eight distinct coffee-growing regions, with the majority following a mountain range through the country’s central and eastern departments. Fuego sits on the border of the Acatenango and Antigua coffee-growing regions, which are located in Chimaltenango and Sacatépequez respectively, two of the departments with the greatest devastation. Ash and smoke extended much further toward the coast and the Mexican border, affecting farmers in the Atitlán, San Marcos, Cobán, and part of Huehuetenango coffee-growing regions. Because of the wind’s direction that day, most communities in the eastern departments were out of the eruption’s path, with farmers in the Fraijanes and New Oriente coffee-growing regions escaping damage. “The communities that were really affected are on the fringe of the volcano’s [base],” says Alejandro Molina, Sustainability and Market Access Manager at Anacafé. “It’s not actually the lava that does the most damage. The main problem was the pyroclastic flows – clouds of ash and dust that come down the mountain like an avalanche 600 kilometres per hour, burning everything in their path.” As of print, the eruption had affected more than 1.7 million people, evacuated 12,823, left 3613 homeless and taken the lives of at least 110, according to the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration. Nearly 200 people were still missing when the Guatemala’s disaster management agency suspended search efforts after two weeks. A way of life
Since coffee growing was introduced to Guatemala in the early 1850s, coffee and the country’s 37 volcanoes have been coexisting relatively harmoniously. According to Anacafé, 125,000 families are dedicated to producing coffee, creating 500,000 jobs every year and representing the number-two agricultural export behind sugar. The local coffee industry produces on average 3.5 million 60-kilogram bags a year – all while three volcanoes smoke, rumble and occasionally erupt. The other 34 volcanoes are either dormant or extinct. “Active volcanoes are very much a part of Guatemalans’ day-to-day lives,” says COE Head Judge John Thompson, who had arrived to Guatemala City weeks earlier for the national round of the competition. “Every morning I would look over the landscape and see a plume of smoke coming out of Fuego.” These volcanoes actually contribute to some of the exceptional coffee that comes out of Guatemala. In fact, five of the eight coffee-growing regions are volcanic. Antigua Coffee, for instance, is one of Guatemala’s oldest and better-known coffee-growing regions. It is an enclosed valley formed by three volcanoes, Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. The basin of the valley, which is where most of the region’s coffee grows, is already at about 1500 metres. Some farmers cultivate up the sides of volcanoes up to 1700 metres. “The unusual topography of our country, which was created by mountains and volcanoes, is part of what actually makes Guatemalan coffee so unique,” explains Glaesel. “The topography has created more than 300 different microclimates that contribute to quality and cup profile, [as does] the altitude of these volcanoes.” The volcanic soil is also rich in nutrients and minerals, and is high in volcanic pumice, which retains moisture well. Molina adds that the “macro- and micro-nutrients are definitely correlated to cup quality, but it’s a combination of all these characteristics that make Guatemalan coffee unique”. A tough call
Despite the devastation going on 40 kilometres away, the COE team decided to continue with the event. “It was a very difficult situation for us,” Glaesel admits. “At the time, we didn’t know the magnitude of the eruption and we had to think about our producers, who were counting on their coffee to be selected.” The sampled coffee had already been harvested prior to the competition, so months of work had gone into preparing for this event, which actually commenced in April with the national round of the competition. Guatemalan farmers submitted 176 samples into the competition this year, which were narrowed down to 40 in the national round. Among those, the top 34 coffees made it into the COE auction on 17 July, where top coffees sold for premium prices and the vast majority of proceeds went back to the farmers. “The Cup of Excellence competition has such a positive economic impact on our coffee farmers,” Molina adds. “So although it was a very difficult decision, we chose to move forward because of the benefits it brings to the farming community here in Guatemala. We knew we had to continue to move forward in a positive light, respecting the victims in the catastrophe, but also finding ways to help get farmers back on their feet.” Another immediate decision that came out of the emergency meeting was to launch fundraising efforts through Anacafé’s charitable arm Funcafé. “We kept moving with the competition, but we made an extra effort to come together as an association to help the people affected by the eruption,” Glaesel says. They also turned the Anacafé headquarters and seven regional offices into collection centres for donations of supplies and other goods. Within two days, they were able to make the first delivery to the municipality of Alotenango. “Thanks to the contribution of producers, employees, customers, suppliers, friends of the coffee industry and the work of the staff of both organisations, 10.8 tonnes of food, 91 bags of clothing and 1160 blankets were delivered [to affected communities], as well as supplies, medicines, and hygiene and cleaning products,” Molina says. Those initial efforts benefitted more than 700 families, but he says Anacafé and Funcafé’s greater goal is to eventually help the more than 5098 coffee families that were impacted. Anacafé is simultaneously working on renovation plans for affected plantations, from simply cleaning and fertilising to stumping and completely replanting, depending on the degree of damage. Areas of low impact, which Anacafé estimates to be 1048 hectares, may be remedied with fertilisers and fungicides “to try to stimulate growth of the plants and hopefully recover this harvest”, Molina explains. “Right now, the plants are physiologically stressed. Similar to humans, the plants are weak right now so their defense mechanisms are down and they’re more vulnerable to disease.” For areas of medium and high impact, estimated to be 7836 hectares, farmers will likely have to prune or stump their coffee trees. “This will obviously affect the current harvest, but the plants will come back,” he says. For the estimated 536 hectares of coffee land completely destroyed, Anacafé is collecting funds and donations of coffee trees to help farmers rebuild. “There’s always a groundswell with disaster relief, to want to do something immediately,” Thompson points out, “but there’s always an ongoing need.” Fortunately many other organisations have stepped up to help. World Vision is working with the Guatemalan government to assess damage and needs, coordinate with local and national disaster management authorities and deliver humanitarian aid. The global nonprofit has distributed 30,000 boxes of medical supplies and 1000 hygiene kits to shelters in some of the hardest-hit areas. From the United States, which is the leading importer of Guatemalan coffee, USAID’s Office of US Foreign Assistance is providing $300,000 in humanitarian assistance to impacted communities, focused on emergency supplies, technical assistance to local responders and longer-term support to help people begin to rebuild their lives. Even the third-place COE winner has stepped in to help, donating 50 per cent of his auction winnings to Funcafé’s fundraiser for Fuego victims – an unexpected validation of ACE and Anacafé’s decision to continue with the competition. For more information on current relief efforts and how to help or donate, visit Funcafé's campaign with the Give Joy 2 One Foundation.

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