When does a road turn into a pile of rocks?

75% of roads in Guatemala are not quite roads.

Today was our last bumpy ride in the big green van. We’ll miss the van (and our heroic driver), but not the bumps…

Now we are preparing for our presentation to CRS tomorrow morning.

On the home stretch!

As is often the case, we discovered our real project (hidden inside our initial assignment) just 24 hrs. ago, so wish us luck!

Tomorrow night we will be celebrating so thank you for following us on this adventure – Adios Amigos!

A Country of Contrasts

Today we were back in the big green van for another “2.5 hour” (read: 5+ hour) drive on roads destroyed by landslides to the Western side of Guatemala. It’s quite a bit different from Zacapa, it feels much more like the jungle we were expecting coming into the trip.

The road into the plantation.

We are visiting a banana/coffee multicropping plantation called Finca Santa Elena, which has been family owned since 1936. The plantation consists of 74 hectares of fertile land, which reminds Chris of the Garden of Eden. We met Abel, who happens to know a lot about growing bananas in Guatemala (a first in our interviews, and much appreciated).

This plantation uses some of its banana crop to produce dehydrated bananas (which Holly thinks taste like Fig Newtons). We are investigating the market opportunity for such a project and it might be a little dicey…

Bananas in the solar dehydrater. Anton: "It's like a banana sauna..."

We’ve had two great meals courtesy of the co-owner/manager of the plantation, Rene, and are getting as much information from Emilio as possible before we leave. Today we got his perspective on the violence in the region, and we were inspired by his commitment to the co-op’s future.

Tomorrow it’s back to Guatemala City for our final meeting before we present to CRS on Thursday!

Bad News, Good News

Bad News: All of the bananas in CENMA (the central wholesale distribution center in Guatemala City) are from Honduras.  They are stronger, cleaner, and cheaper.  We only found one person who bought bananas from Olopa (the main town near the co-op), and he only bought them when he ran out of Honduran bananas.  Three points.

Our Competition: Honduran Bananas

Good News: Walmart in Guatemala City sells criollo bananas!  And judging by the amount left, they are in high demand . . .

An everyday low price of Q. 1.95 / lb for criollo bananas.

Researching other banana products Walmart sells

In addition to the CENMA and Walmart, we also visited the Terminal (the huge central market in Guatemala City) and the Mercado Central.  After learning the price at which bananas are bought and sold at these stages we have developed a stronger understanding of the latter part of the banana value chain.  The value chain we drew on a table cloth during dinner:

Buenas noches, amigos.


Postcards from Honduras

We ended our week with a presentation to the staff of Cooperativa Todos Hermanos to discuss our preliminary findings.

Team Notre Dame-Guatemala with Co-op and CRS staff

For our day off, we hopped across the border to Honduras to visit the Mayan ruins in Copan.

Taking a break while walking along the Mayan ruins


The Mayans also had a dancing Tigger

We feasted on a delicious dinner while listening to live music in a bohemian setting.

Copan is very student-budget friendly.

On the way back, we stopped by Esquipulas to visit the Cristo Negro.

Basilica de Esquipulas

Bananas, as far as the eye can see.

Today some of us went to a large multinational corporation’s banana plantation and confirmed our suspicion that export-quality is a long way away from the farmers on the mountain.

The road into the plantation

Some differences:

Conveyor belts – nobody has to carry bananas farther than fifty meters, as compared to the farmers carrying them up a mountain on their backs.

Fertlizer – the MNC fertilizes constantly, often complemented by aerial fumigation. None of the farmers we spoke to fertilized their bananas.

Irrigation – the MNC has primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary canals that carry 4 cubic meters of water per second to the banana plants. The pumps burn through 15,000 gallons of diesel per day. The farmers rely on the rain.

The river the MNC uses as a water source

Many of the farmers only produce enough bananas for personal consumption. This plantation grows millions of pounds per year, and the company has several in Guatemala alone. Their crops are sent to Asia, Europe, and North America.

Today taught us just how powerful economies of scale can be.

Conveniently located next door, there was a UNESCO world heritage site Mayan ruin, so we took a little detour. It was awesome.

Quiringua Acropolis

The other half of us went into a town called Olopa in order to interview banana intermediaries (the men who buy and transport the bananas to market).  We met with three different movers.  The first man was the original banana mover in town and had taught the second intermediary (his brother) about the business.  We learned the prices at which bananas are bought and sold among middle men before being sold to consumers at market.  We now have a clearer picture of the value chain and just what goes into getting a banana from a small farm to a market in Guatemala City.  Tonight we will have the opportunity to present our initial findings to the co-op team and CRS.  We are looking forward to getting their feedback!

Anton and Jia enjoying the view of Olopa from the church.

Bananas getting ready to make the trip to Guatemala City

Choiceless Decisions

Today we learned a great deal about the way coffee and other crops are traded from the farmer’s mountainside plot to the local market. The presence of “intermediaries” (people with trucks and cash) allows the flow of goods, but at a substantial price. They are one of the most powerful brokers of debt in the area, and many farmers are forced to borrow against their future crop to survive.

Memorable quotes from today’s journey:

“We are diving into the co-operative with both feet; we hope that we don’t drown. We trust them.”

“We are basically working for them (the intermediaries)…If the rich man on the hill were to give me a car, I would take it and become an intermediary myself.”

When asked if they trust the intermediaries, they responded: “We have no other option. I have to trust them. What else are we supposed to do?”

When asked what gives them strength and hope, the campesinos replied: “The Monsenor. He shares his spirituality and encourages us to live in faith. He lives in our poverty with us. He is the only one who has walked in our shoes.”

At the end of our discussion, we were asked: “So you have just asked me many questions, and I have given you much information. How can you use this, how can your country help us?”

All of our time spent with the farmers in their homes and in their fields have added depth to our analysis and kept us aware of the hope and the responsibility that the co-operative represents in the families’ lives.

We have never appreciated a cup of coffee more than we do today.


Faces From Other Places

“Faces from other places are the most beautiful thing. We might not be able to travel to you, but you have come to us and we are grateful. We are always expecting your visit.” – Member of the Cooperativa Todos Hermanos

From left: Luis, our CRS contact, Marco, the best driver ever, and Emilio.

Holly: "I trust Marco (driver, middle) with my life."

We walked up a mountain today.

Jay: "I ran out of hair product this morning."

And then we met with a co-op member family.

Chris: "That's some good coffee. Where did you get it? Oh right over there OK."

They demonstrated their coffee mill – removing the pulp from the beans…

Eddie: "How does this work again?"

And showed us how to sort the beans by quality and size.

Dave: "Emilio. Are you trying to tell me that if I eat raw coffee cherries, my tongue will go numb?"

Group photo with El Jefe and his wife.

Kathleen: "Thank you for all the coffee! And the tortillas. and eggs. and beans. and bread. and sugar cane. and flowers. Oh, and of course 50 pounds of bananas."

Anton with half of our parting gift.

Anton: "Oh BOY this is heavy..."

Our hosts gave some of us a lift back.

Karla: "Yeah I see you Kathleen. Good Job."

Day 3 of Adventures in Zacapa – check plus.

Buenas Noches.


Guat’s up?


Four things we learned today from our first trek into the mountains of Guatemala to visit the campesinos (coffee and banana farmers):

  1. The reality on the ground is never what we expect.
  2. Everyone makes value judgements differently.
  3. Humility and pride bring hope.
  4. Don’t try to go four-wheeling in a two-wheeler 12 passenger van up a muddy mountainside in “where the heck are we” Guatemala.

Please enjoy the photo of us eating again. 

Fried chicken and coke on the side of the road - yes please.


Wait…. coffee now?

Hola Amigos.

We began this trip focused entirely on the cultivation and sale of bananas. Our assignment is to work with the farmers of the Cooperativa Todos Hermanos in Zacapa, Guatemala, who are successfully exporting coffee, but are looking for ways to diversify their family income and provide additional food security throughout the year. Some have begun to grow bananas, but without expertise or training, they are producing less than they might. Our hope is to discover ways in which organizational management, cultivation practices, and the marketing of their products can strengthen the existing co-operative.

Though up to this point, our project has seemed well defined, by the end of the afternoon we had discovered some complicating factors. We spent the day in the office of the Bishop of Zacapa y Chiquimula speaking with various members of the co-op administration including the founder, Monsenor Bofelli, his right-hand-woman, Blanca, and the manager and agricultural specialist, Emilio. Since the co-op’s primary crop is coffee, we spent a lot of time today learning about that part.

Emilio holding a coffee bag from the co-op's first export last year.

Some new terms:

Gold coffee: dried out beans with the husk still on. Smells like hay.

Dry-mill: State of the art German machine used to clean and sort the coffee.

“Unfaithful” competition: The members of the coffee-producing economy that have some illegal side-businesses.

After a long day of interviews and a dinner debrief, we ate some mangoes. The result was… sticky….

"This... is very beautiful." -Anton

Welcome Viva; Off to Zacapa!

Highlights for a Sunday on the Front Lines in Guatemala:

  • Mass at a local church
  • Hola Viva!!!
  • Ana Emilia, our translator, is helping us further understand Guatemalan culture, and more importantly – order food from menus we can’t read.
  • Four hour bumpy, curvy, hot road trip into the eastern part of the country – excellent team bonding time!!
  • Holly is trying to eat platanos at every meal – so far – check plus.
  • Anton was thrilled to see the pool at our new hotel – planning a late night swim as we write.
  • Jia is doing his laundry in the sink, with bath soap – enough said.
  • Dave is on a strictly no sun-screen policy – red nose – check plus.
  • Kathleen has been trying to read for the law classes she is missing this week – not easy with such entertaining teammates!
  • Eddie likes the platanos and black beans, but NOT together.
  • Karla is happy that we now have another spanish speaker (an “official” translator).
  • Chris is doing an amazing job of putting up with us!

(Sorry, picture uploader thingy is not working. Imagine a delectable dish of fried plantain here.)

Today we had great time with our CRS partners during the drive to Zacapa and we are gearing up for a week full of interviews.  Over dinner we divided into three focus teams built around our hypothesis.  Eddie, Anton, and Ana Emilia will be concentrating on cultivation.  Karla, Kathleen, and Jia will be looking at the co-op organization and relationships with external partners.  Dave, Holly, and Chris will be doing a market study and assessing options for processing.  Hasta Manana!