The Treasure of Cruz Alta

05 Mar 2013

About a century ago, just seven families lived in Tecauxinas, a tiny village on the slopes of the Montaña de Camapara. The mountain, which stands at an altitude of close on 1,900 meters at the point where Honduras borders with Guatemala and El Salvador, is covered with forests of pine, holm oak and other tall trees, as well as fruit trees and medicinal herbs. In the old days, when the village was little more than a cluster of houses, its inhabitants were seasonal workers of the indigenous Lenca ethnic group, who spent a few months there every year, then moved on to pick coffee near the border.

Now everything has changed and Tecauxinas (some people say it meant “sugarcane” in the old local language, others say it means “land of the wise”) has changed its name to the more Christian Cruz Alta. The village has grown in size and is now immersed in lush forest. Here the berries of the coffee plant, bright red and violet in color, sprout and are ready to be harvested in December.

Fertile seeds
What happened? Tired of working in other people’s fields, the villagers, the grandparents and great-grandparents of the Presidium producers, stole arabigo (now known as Typica) and Bourbon seeds and took them to Tecauxinas to grow in the shade of fruit and timber trees. Partly helped by the chequeque, a small bird that still feeds on the berries of old coffee varieties and spreads their seeds on the ground, the locals extended the area of cultivation.
In Cruz Alta, we met José Elías Pérez Sánchez, a proud coffee grower and member of Cocatecal (Cooperativa Cafetalera Tecauxinas Limitada), a cooperative founded in 2005, which currently boasts 33 members. In early 2011, these producers set up the Camapara Mountain Coffee Presidium, coordinated by José Elías. Based on the fruitful experience Slow Food has enjoyed at Huehuetenango, in Guatemala, since 2002, the Presidium currently produces around 10,000 kilos of coffee a year.

The need for a narrative
As we sip infused coffee from terracotta cups, José Elías tells us the story of his generation’s resurgence in Cruz Alta. “The cooperative came into being when, worn out by difficulties, we realized that we couldn’t manage on our own any more. We were making huge sacrifices and selling the fresh coffee beans to the coyotes, the local middlemen. We were practically giving away the coffee and they were selling it at premium prices in the city. But then we realized how valuable our coffee and our labor are.”

Once the cooperative had been established, it began organizing training and assistance programs for coffee growers and collaborating with local and national agencies such as the Instituto Hondureño del Café, the Honduran Coffee Institute. Since 2007 the producers have marketed their harvest together and now, working with Slow Food, they understand that the market, already glutted with nondescript coffee, demands a specific origin, very high quality and a narrative for the product and the place it comes from. The Presidium producers are now going down this road and taking their coffee, hence their future, into their own hands. “When Slow Food came along, we were about to replace local varieties with hybrids,” confides José Elías, “but now we’ve realized that would have been a wrong decision and now we want to go back to planting Bourbón.”

All this will happen with the help of Slow Food which, in 2012, co-funded the creation of a nursery where the Presidium producers can cultivate seedlings of the traditional coffee varieties and, when they grow to the right size, plant them. In about three years, the coffee growers can expect an abundant harvest. Together with technical know-how and a proud and lucid vision of the market, it will be a fundamental asset for Cruz Alta and its inhabitants.
We have finished our coffee. The harvest is just two months away and it is time for José Elías to return to the cafetal. But before leaving, he adds, “You know, we used to keep only the worst coffee for us and our families, the poorest quality. Now we keep the best coffee for home”. The sun is rising over ancient Tecauxinas.

To find out more
The Slow Food Presidia are a project organized by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.

The Coffee Network
Since 2002, Slow Food has been helping groups of small-scale coffee producers to improve their product and find an aware market that prizes quality and is willing to pay a fair price. These efforts have led to the setting up of five coffee Presidia (Huehuetenango in Guatemala, Camapara Mountain in Honduras, Sierra Cafetalera in the Dominican Republic, Harenna Forest in Ethiopia and ancient Robusta coffee varieties in the Luweero district of Uganda) and the formation of a group of over 20 communities inside the Terra Madre network.

Article first published in the Slow Food Almanac

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