Story and photo by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register
(From the May 17, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Father David Baronti, the Spokane Diocese missionary priest who serves in Guatemala, stands on the “road” he pioneered that gives coffee workers better access to their plantation. They must first travel by car for about two hours. After that, they must hike over steep trails for another two hours to get to the coffee project site. Once there, the workers generally stay a week at a time. The harvested beans must then be hand-carried out to the “road” and taken to the city for processing the organically grown coffee. The coffee project is one of the newest economic development projects in the Spokane mission area of Guatemala. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)
Life in the highlands of northern Guatemala has changed meaningfully in the past 50 years. A prime objective of the early “Padres de Spokane” was to bring the sacraments of Catholic faith to the Mayan people of the mountains. But faith without life-supporting work was not sustainable. So the scope of activities widened into other areas.
Along with religious instruction, the missionaries started schools, and brought medical care, new methods of communication via a radio station, and economic development. Those programs continue today, but in more advanced stages.
Economic development began with a focus upon agriculture to help meet the most immediate need of food for a very poor and undernourished people. Even though the mountains were high and extremely steep, the Spokane evangelists encouraged the natives to plant corn. Corn, in the form of tortillas, remains the most basic food of the people today.
Agricultural options have increased substantially over past 50 years, however. Thanks to Spokane-based support, many families have also completed courses of instruction in a wide variety of agricultural endeavors. They are now raising other vegetables, along with trees that yield apples, avocados, and other edible fruits suitable for the 7,000-10,000 feet high elevation of the mission area.
More recently, families have begun to extend their personal agricultural efforts into economic activities that provide them with an income. More than 60 families are currently raising chickens – and some are selling eggs!
One of the newest entrepreneurial projects consists of raising cows, sheep, and pigs. Normally, for poor families that live in a one-room, dirt-floored house, owning a cow would be unthinkable. However, one of the newer mission-area programs enables families to obtain funds for economically viable projects. Fifty-six mission families – families who could not otherwise afford the initial cost – are now raising a bull for fattening and ultimate sale.
Another new project is the growing of coffee beans. The remote site, a little more than 10 acres, is located far down the mountain-sides, where the climate is more moderate than the highlands. To get to the site, laborers must travel two hours by car over a winding road, and then hike over more mountains for another two hours. The workers usually stay for a week, once they get to the location.
The coffee project has been under development for nearly three years. This past year, the site yielded 6,055 pounds of coffee berries that had to be hand-carried out to where there is road access. They were then taken to the city, roasted, and packaged under the name of “Cafe de Adela.” The roasting and drying process reduces the final weight to only about 14 percent of the original berry weight.
This year the coffee project yielded 840 pounds of “organically grown” coffee. Adela Tambriz, the Family-To-Family operations manager in the highlands, brought 140 one-pound bags with her when she and Natalia de Leon visited Spokane in April. Some of the coffee was given to U.S. sponsors as a “thank you” for helping fund the training programs in the Spokane mission.
(Jerry Monks is a member of the Guatemala Mission commission.)