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Meet the Folks Who Work Hard for Your "Cup of Joe"
It's February, and you know what that means, don't you? No, February does not just signify Valentine's Day and Mardi Gras; for most Guatemalans, February is coffee-picking season. Many indigenous peoples from all parts of the country look forward to this time of year as a chance to make some extra money for their families. Coffee is one of Guatemala's main exports, and a huge source of income for the country as a whole. Unfortunately, most of that money never reaches the workers in the fields.

A young boy admist the coffee beans and a hard day's work
One Saturday, our new friend Luis Phillipe, from the Godchild Project, took us to a coffee finca (plantation) to give us a taste of what life is like on the finca. Luis' family lives and works on this finca, one of the largest around. When we visited, the finca was bursting with activity. Parents, grandparents and children were all there to help with the harvesting of the coffee beans. Of course, some of the younger children could only watch and wait for the day when they, too, would be big enough to help.

Don't try this at home!
We ran into Luis' mother, Maria, who along with her husband has been working on this finca for the past thirteen years to support their family of eight. When we found her, she was waiting to have her coffee weighed after a hard day's work.

"We get twenty-five quetzals (about $3.50 U.S.) for every 100 lbs. of coffee beans we pick. Today wasn't such a good day, there are not many ripe beans left on the trees right now," Maria explained. She shrugged. "On a good day I can pick 150 lbs., if I start at seven a.m. Some days, we will only pick 25 lbs., though, and then we don't earn much (less than $1)."

Searching for the unripe
Only the mature red beans can be weighed for payment, so after picking for many hours, the workers will sort through the picked beans and toss out any green (unripe) beans that were picked by accident. After they are weighed, the mature beans are placed in machines that remove the pulp around the hard inner core. The beans are then soaked (to remove the bitterness) and dried in the sun. Next, they are shipped all over the world to places like Europe and, even closer to home, to your local coffee shops and grocery stores where they are roasted and sold.

All of the workers are indigenous peoples from various different regions of the country. "The jefes (managers) are arrogant and exploit the workers...they order them around, telling them to work faster," Luis explained. "The managers are also Guatemalan, but they have become rude as they were given power and more money." I remembered the many family members of our friends in Todos Santos (where Shawn and I were living) who had left to find work on fincas along the coast. Were they being treated poorly, too?

Hard core
Workers also can get sick from exposure to the harsh chemicals used to spray the coffee plants. Skin problems and rashes are common among them, and some have even reported becoming sterile as a result of their exposure. The plants are sprayed quite heavily with herbicides and pesticides four times a year. "They try to leave at least one month after spraying before picking season begins because the chemicals can make people sick," Luis told us. Unfortunately, the problems still persist. "Sometimes the chemicals are so bad, it makes people feel intoxicated," Maria said as she held her head in her hands. "Their vision gets blurred and they get headaches and feel nauseous."

Despite these hard working conditions, some families actually look forward to the coffee-picking season. In addition to the money they earn, the families also enjoy the chance to spend some time together in a beautiful, lush environment. I myself was overwhelmed at how beautiful it was. Lush, green gravilea trees are planted amongst the rows of coffee trees to provide shade and to help the coffee grow. The deep roots of the large trees help bring up nutrients for the coffee plants, and their tall branches and wide leaves provide a pleasant shade.

Still, the next time I take a break at the local coffee shop, I'll be thinking of all the hard work that goes into making my cafe mocha. And all I have to do is sit and sip...


Kavitha - Meting Rigoberta - 5'2", But Better Than Michael Jordan!
Team - What About the US? - The "Extermination" and "Termination" of a People
Shawn - Shots in the Night - Life in Todos Santos
Shawn - Close Quarters in Todos Santos
...Kid's Version
Abeja - You CAN teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Maia - Quetzal - The Flight to Freedom

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