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Black Tea?
But We’re in Guatemala!

BY MAJA WALLENGREN

Like little islands of green patches, the tea plantation slowly starts to take shape in front of the visitor's eye, rising out of the clouds of mist high in the Guatemalan mountains on the border between Antigua and the Lago Atitlan region. Dressed in brightly colored yellow and red clothing, the tea pickers at Finca Los Andes are making their final round in the late afternoon sun before turning over the young and tender leaves for curing.

There are few sights as pretty as a tea plantation. And with what appears to be every shade of green spread out in the terrace-built plantations in a neat and perfectly circular pattern, the last golden light of the day only extends the magic of the contrasts between the lush and tidy tea bushes and the mountain slopes behind.

Moving on to the processing plant where the freshly picked, tender and young tea leaves are being cured in the early evening hours to later be made into black tea, one cannot avoid being overwhelmed by the freshness of the aroma. "Strong and flavorful, you can almost taste it, doesn't it smell just delicious," asks James Hazard, president of Los Andes. Oh yes. Anyone who has visited a tea plantation and witnessed the curing process would agree with that.

However, we are not in South-East Asia, China or Africa. We are in fact in Guatemala, at perhaps the only tea and coffee estate in the entire Latin American region. Although Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay are famous for their mate, a tea-like drink, and although there is some tea production in Brazil, no other country in Latin America, home to about 65% of the world’s entire coffee production, is known for growing tea.

Guatemala is no different from its neighbors, coffee is the main cash crop, providing close to half of all the country’s employment, and estates such as Los Andes have seen annual national tea production dwindle rapidly over the past decade. As labor costs have risen, regional tea consumption has remained low; the economic incentive for sustaining a continued tea production has similarly disappeared. "We are not tea consuming countries and we are just juggling along here. In Central America, we are still competitive because of the logistics advantages, but we have seen production gone from 250 tons 10 years ago to just 90 tons today, which is a sad development but an economic reality," said Hazard during a visit by the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.

"Since 1997 we have gone from 75 people down to just 35 man (in the tea plantation) because the international market is so depressed by overproduction of high-quality tea in countries which have a much lower cost of production than we can manage here. In India, Sri Lanka and Africa the cost of production is at levels of about $1 a day, compared to here where we pay $3.5 per day," he said.

At Los Andes, total tea production has, in recent years, stabilized at about 45 tons of dry black tea, while Hazard buys leaves for processing from three small farms in the region which don’t have own curing facilities. "From the other farms we get another 45 tons, so the total production comes to 90 tons all together and most of it is sold here in the Central American market. We export between 15% to 20% of the production to brokers in the U.S. and in London, and all the reminder is sold at the local Central American market," he said.

As the competitive edge is knife-sharp, with the only economic advantage being the proximity to the local regional market, quality is kept high and staff at Los Andes ensures that the tea leaves remain at their best. "We are up to a good black tea standard but we also always make sure that the leaves arrive well, and every 12-15 days the workers are sent out to pick the new fresh leaves.

"The leaves should come fresh, tender and unharmed from the field. This is very important, because if the leaf is broken or torn it will begin a preliminary fermentation process prior to the curing," said Hazard. With strict quality control imposed, leaf samples are taken from each basket, and a daily leaf count is enforced. "On an average day 82% average pass as acceptable, which is very good. If 28% or more doesn't pass then it becomes unacceptable, but this is not very often," said Hazard.

Coffee Estate Still Providing Main Harvest
With 3,500 bags of parchment coffee annually, coffee still remains the core business for Los Andes, occupying about 180 hectares of the farm, and mostly using the local Guatemalan-developed Pache variety. While some small areas are used for experimental cropping, the vast majority of the production is grown on the hilly slopes under partial shade.

As international prices remain close to historically low levels, striving for maintaining a production of high-quality beans remains a struggle with average cost of production at close to 90 cents per pound. So in order to survive, Hazard has, during the past two years, launched a vigorous effort to introduce new and creative initiatives such as selling coffee via the internet, increasing focus into milking the highest premiums possible for the best grade beans, and increasing efficiency through higher productivity.

"Now we have started selling coffee via the internet, and we are striving after increasing the production of SHB (strictly hard beans) which we mostly sell in the German market. We have to optimize the premium of the best qualities. We are also trying to make production more efficient in order to have higher yields, the average really should be 30 quintals per manzana (33 bags per hectare)," said Hazard.

A quintal is a traditional 100-pound bag, roughly 46 kilogram green coffee, which is still used in most of Central America, while a manzana is an antique Latin American land measure which roughly equals 0.7 hectare, or 1.7 acre.

Further down the road, Hazard also wants to make the overall production at Los Andes more ecological, in order to both enhance the possibility for selling small quantities of the harvest to the better-priced organic and environmentally friendly market, but as much due to a firm believe in the concept of conservation.

"Now we are in the process of changing the pulping machines to ecological ones, first of all for the sake of conviction that this is the right thing to do, we are very committed to conservation," he said.

The Hazard family and Finca Los Andes are also very committed to social development. For the past three years they have, in addition to the school for primary and secondary grade students, which has existed at the farm for 17 years, opened a pre-school facility. "Normally the children start in school at seven years of age, but here in the pre-school it’s very mixed. The youngest is only three years old and the oldest is 12 years, because sometimes we have people coming from the outside who doesn't know any basics at all," said Hazard´s daughter Olga who oversees the social projects at Los Andes.

"We started with 20 students and now we are seeing 65 to 70 children in the school. We want it to be compulsory, but it's not yet reach this point, since the parents haven't got used to the concept... We still lack discipline, but every year more and more parents come and enroll their children in the school," said Olga.

With economic support from Funrural, the social arm of Guatemala’s National Coffee Association (Anacafe), Los Andes has been able to build a small library at the school. Funrural also provided other assistance such as materials.

"It really is an excellent opportunity to get involved because the only thing which really can change a country is education. Now we have the school with a permanent teacher and a health promoter, each with an assistant, as well as a workers union," said Hazard.

The social crisis in producing countries is sadly likely to persist for some time as over production continues to depress world markets and massive stocks remain in importing countries. But some joy may be taken in the opportunities that remain for workers at a sustainable farm such as Los Andes.

Maja Wallengren started writing about coffee seven years ago when she lived in South-East Asia and has continued to specialize in coffee during her travels as a reporter in East Africa and Latin America.

Born and educated in Denmark, Maja Wallengren is fluent in six languages and today lives in Latin America where she covers the coffee industries in Mexico and Central America for OsterDowJones Commodity News. She writes for leading publications and is regularly invited as a speaker to conferences hosted by the coffee industries across Latin America, the U.S., Asia and Europe.


Tea & Coffee - October/November 2002
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