After taking a lancha across the insanely picturesque Lake Atitlan we arrived on the shores of Santiago Atitlan. Unlike Panajachel, Santiago is a fairly large indigenous town that– except for the shoreline which is full of trinket vendors and scattered with hotels– remains more or less culturally intact. At the docks we were greeted by Teodorio and Rodolfo from CCDA and taken to their big old truck that they use for coffee collection. I climbed up and stood near the cab next to a friendly kid named Henry. When the crew was completely loaded up we lumbered up the steep hill and started out for the CCDA processing plant or “beneficio”.

This was my third trip to visit the farmers of Comite Campesino del Altiplano (roughly “The Farmer Committee of the Highlands”) and each time I have been floored by the beauty of their surroundings. The beneficio sits perched on a mountain top encircled by two large volcanoes and mountains. Especially awesome is the evocative butte called “El Elefante Dormido” (The Sleeping Elephant)– a squat and lush mountain that looks as if it will stand up and walk off at any moment. It is clear that if you are going to do the hard work of fermenting, washing, and drying coffee, this would be a pretty nice place to do it.

The entire operation is impressive– CCDA takes a lot of pride in their system and it shows in the quality of their coffee. However, what sets CCDA apart from many other coffee producing organizations is there overall program. They have been working for over 30 years fighting for human rights, campesino rights, and land reform in Guatemala. CCDA works for the independence and autonomy of their farmers through food security and diversification of income so that farmers are bot dependent on one crop and have a variety of food on their table. They also have been pressuring the Guatemalan government to follow through the land reform and respect for farmers’ rights that is outlined in their constitution. Every year I have visited them they have more going on– they seem to be constantly in motion. Rodolfo showed us a seed project to protect, collect, and distribute native non-GMO seeds to farmers. They also unveiled a mushroom growing project to use both for consumption and for selling local markets. And we also saw a household garden project to introduce variety into household diets which shares emphasis on aesthetics with the food being grown in a “mandala” motif.

When we arrived in the CCDA office after lunch, we spoke with the coordinator of the organization– Leocadio Juaracan. Leo’s passion for his work is palpable and he got us fired up quickly with an update on CCDA’s work. In particular, he spoke out against the Guatemalan government’s use of “the war on drugs” as a pretext to repression against farmers and other popular organizations. He also singled out the government’s crack down on communities who are fighting multinational mining companies.

Leocadio’s take on fair trade comes down that line. He respectfully asked how letting multinationals take the wheel of “Fair Trade” can be fair in any way. He asked how that can be a model for the advancement of small farmers when the history of multinational corporations is to exploit small farmers and independent organizations. Leo stressed the importance of building “solidarity trade networks” that CCDA calls “fair trade plus”– a fair trade that is between people, communities, and organizations with the same political goals. They are the first group that we work with to join the new Small Producer Symbol (SPP) certification that is owned and operated by farmers and we both see this seal as a great opportunity to build a better “fair trade”.

Pulling out of CCDA and watching the sunset over the volcano I am completely inspired by the dedication and hard work of our partners. A lot of time we throw this word around– “partners”– but in this case it feels very real and vital. Leocadio and I discussed strengthening our connection and forming a stronger network in the US to get CCDA’s message out there. We hope to also use this to push and educate people about the SPP label. I’m looking forward to getting back and starting to make this happen.