Robbing coffee from the poor?

by Amber Hildebrandt, CBCNews.ca

Guatemala is no small player in the world of coffee. But you wouldn’t know it from the cup of Joe plopped on your table at most restaurants.

As I discovered on my recent trip to the Central American country, insipid watery brews abound. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was to blame?

A cup of weak coffee at a restaurant in Antigua. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

Most of Guatemala’s best coffee gets exported, with most going to discerning drinkers in the United States. (A large chunk ends up getting sold at Starbucks for several bucks a cup.)

Anacafe, the Guatemalan coffee bean growers association, reported last year that more than 3.7 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee beans were exported in the 2006-2007 growing season.

About 400,000 bags of lower-quality coffee was kept for local production.

The fact that locals get little opportunity to enjoy their superb coffee quickly became evident to my travel companion (a former Starbucks barista) and I as we travelled the country.

Every morning, we went out on our bleary-eyed search for the perfect cup. Soon enough we gave up on café quality, desperate for anything that resembled anything other than instant. Exceptions to the rule (thankfully) were found in touristy sites, such as restaurants run by foreigners or on the coffee plantations.

At one coffee plantation we toured near the colonial town of Antigua, white blossoms had just begun to appear on the shade-grown coffee bean trees.

Workers, meanwhile, scrubbed away at the machinery dirtied by the last harvest. In the warehouses, large canvas bags of green beans were piled high to the ceiling.

Tempted, I asked my guide if I could buy one. He laughed.

Despite having a hankering to steal away some green beans for myself, I couldn't escape the irony of ‘coffee, coffee everywhere and not a drop to spare’ for the local population. It does beg the question: how fair is it that we're hogging all the good stuff?

Don't the locals deserve to enjoy some of their high-quality coffee?