An old idea has been freshly brewed in Guatemala: the cooperative. With private funding from Europe, indigenous small-scale coffee farmers are defying the most adverse conditions in a country that’s been plagued by a bloody civil war.
By forming a cooperative, small farmers in Guatemala have managed to become one of the country’s biggest coffee exporters. Coffee has a long but brutal history for the Guatemalan Maya, as their land was stolen, and they were forced to work on plantations of big German landowners. But around 30 years ago, the small businesses organized as a cooperative. Now, they export their coffee all over the world. The cooperative’s manager is Swiss Ulrich Gurtner. His goal has always been to boost the farmers’ economic independence and thus the social emancipation of the Maya people. So far, 24,000 smallholders have joined the Fedecocagua cooperative. Selling the farmers’ coffee directly on the stock market cuts out the need for intermediaries, who can be exploitative. It also frees the farmers of development aid dependency. But the situation in Guatemala remains difficult. Three percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land, and the oligarchy still dominates the country’s politics. This is partly why Guatemala hasn’t yet fully dealt with the atrocities of the long civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 people, most of them Maya. Although a peace agreement was signed in 1996, Ulrich Gurtner believes the war against the indigenous peoples is not yet over.
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