You Can't Eat Coffee: Addressing Coffee 'Food Deserts' in Rural Guatemala

Coffee is an incredible plant. It is a shade tolerant bush that lives for many years, producing a small red fruit whose seed is roasted, brewed, and enjoyed all over the world. Guatemala produces over 200 million kilos of coffee for export each year, and it is a major cash crop in most of the rural highlands of the country. Aside from that, Guatemala also suffers from chronic malnutrition. According to the World Food Programme, one in five children in Guatemala experiences stunting due to malnutrition. A while back, I began to wonder if there was some connection between the rise of coffee production and malnutrition in Guatemala.


Greetings!

This is Shad here, checking in with some exciting news.  After spending over 8 years here in Tzununa, working and learning with the community, we are super excited to be able to roll out our new service project, which allows us to give something back to the amazing community of Tzununa. Read on to learn more about how Atitlan Organics is using rare, native avocado varieties to address coffee ‘food deserts’ and enhance food security for small coffee farmers.

 

You Can't Eat Coffee!

I often comment during farm tours how rare it is that farmers these days actually eat the food they produce. Industrial farmers clearly aren't harvesting soybeans and making their own tofu. But also, more and more subsistence farmers are leaving subsistence crops in favor of cash crops that have an international demand and ready buyers for wholesale producers. Coffee, Cacao, Palm Oil, Sugar Cane, and other tropical commodity crops are replacing traditional food crops in subsistence farmer land holdings. When the crops fail or prices nosedive, the farmer is often left with an inedible crop and no income to boot.  

 

 Atitlan Organics Service Initiative, community service, volunteer, international development, food security, food sovereignty, heirloom, avocado, preservation, reforestation, ecosystem restoration, conservation, Atitlan Organics, Tzununa, permaculture, organic, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 

Here in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, most small farmers grow coffee. About 4 years ago, a disease named coffee rust moved through and infected lots of coffee plants. The yields and the price both plummeted. We knew farmers who actually let the coffee rot on the bush because it cost more to harvest it than what theywould be paid for the product. In these cases, the farmer receives no income and is left with a crop that he cannot eat or use to support the family. Prior to the coffee economy, the farmer would have had a mixed field of edible crops that he could at least use to feed his family if the market went bad.

 

In response to this, Atitlan Organics has recently launched a service project that addresses coffee food deserts via the introduction of selected, local, rare avocado varieties, which provide shade for the coffee and a high value, high nutrition, edible crop. For more info, check out our new webpage about the Service Initiative.

 

There is this idea in permaculture called "Stacking Functions," which basically challenges us to think about how we can achieve multiple yields or functions within one single activity. The Atitlan Organics Service Project is a perfect example of how the single act of coffee field diversification results in a number of benefits both social/economic and natural/environmental. Here are some of the key impacts this project has:

 

 Atitlan Organics Service Initiative, community service, volunteer, international development, food security, food sovereignty, heirloom, avocado, preservation, reforestation, ecosystem restoration, conservation, food desert. Atitlan Organics, Tzununa, permaculture, organic, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
  • Long Term Food Security

  • Soil and Water Conservation

  • Preservation of Rare Avocado Varieties

  • Ecosystem Restoration

  • Local Economic Development

 

 

The project starts by identifying local coffee farmers who are interested in diversifying their coffee fields with the introduction of native avocado and other food species. The selected family meets with the Atitlan Organics Local Designers team to make a design for the site that meets the families needs. The main planting is of rare avocado varieties that exist only here in Lake Atitlan, which have been identified by local farmers as being disease resistant, excellent producers, and most importantly, delicious. These varieties are preserved via grafting, which is done by a team of local nursery workers who provide the project with all the plants needed to implement the design. The other plants involved are pigeon peas, comfrey, turmeric, and tree tomato, all of which are edible and/or medicinal crops which support the growth of the coffee understory.

The second part of the project is open to international volunteer and travel groups. Participants from around the world are welcome to come and spend a week working alongside local mayan farmers and our local permaculture design team to leave a long lasting positive impact on the valley. This is one small way to give back, planting fruit trees in coffee fields, which addresses many different areas of concern via small, tangible actions in service of health and abundance.

 

 Atitlan Organics Service Initiative, community service, volunteer, international development, food security, food sovereignty, food desert, heirloom, avocado, preservation, reforestation, ecosystem restoration, conservation, Atitlan Organics, Tzununa, permaculture, organic, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

This experience is a great way to bring a service element to group travel, giving something back to the place that receives you as a guest and visitor. If you are interested in bringing a group to participate in the Atitlan Organics Service Project, or know someone who may be, let’s chat! 


Studying Permaculture and natural building in Central America offers amazing opportunities to learn from indigenous cultures, rich natural patterns, and enormous diversity. Permaculture in Central America is representative of the edge effect or Edge Valuing Principle of Design. As one of the world’s centres of biodiversity, Central America attracts people from all over the world interested in learning through nature. Permaculture practices can be seen in action via the surviving indigenous traditions that are common in Central America. Studying permaculture in Central America offers designers great opportunities to learn from diverse groups of people in incredibly diverse natural settings.