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Coffee vs Fuego

From the August 2018 issue.

More than 1.7 million people and 5098 coffee producers are affected by Guatemala’s worst volcanic eruption in 45 years.

In the days leading up to Sunday, 3 June, team members from the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) and Guatemala’s National Coffee Association (Anacafé) were preparing for the last round of Guatemala’s Cup of Excellence (COE) competition. The international round would be commencing the next day, 4 June, and more than a dozen judges were making their way to Guatemala City to evaluate the 40 final coffee samples from farmers all over the country.

At 12:00pm, however, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes dramatically erupted, shooting ash, gases and smoke thousands of meters into the atmosphere and emitting lava and pyroclastic flows down its slopes. Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) continued to erupt into the afternoon, with pyroclastic flows extending up to 40 kilometres from the crater and ash raining down on much of the country, including in Guatemala City where the COE event was to start in fewer than 24 hours.

The team called an emergency meeting to evaluate the situation. With air traffic inhibited and the international airport shut down, flights en route to Guatemala City were rerouted to surrounding countries.

“The rest of the judges were scheduled to arrive at different times throughout Sunday,” explains Ana Lucrecia Glaesel, Marketing Manager at Anacafé. “When the volcano erupted, we actually had people flying over, so our main focus was to get them to Guatemala City in the safest way possible.”

Although Glaesel says most of the COE farms were out of the worst reaches of the eruption, 5098 coffee families and 9420 hectares of coffee land were affected in some way, ranging from minimal leaf defoliation to complete plantation devastation. The affected production is equivalent to 1.3 per cent of the 2018/19 harvest’s exportable coffee.

Guatemala is divided into eight distinct coffee-growing regions, with the majority following a mountain range through the country’s central and eastern departments. Fuego sits on the border of the Acatenango and Antigua coffee-growing regions, which are located in Chimaltenango and Sacatépequez respectively, two of the departments with the greatest devastation. Ash and smoke extended much further toward the coast and the Mexican border, affecting farmers in the Atitlán, San Marcos, Cobán, and part of Huehuetenango coffee-growing regions. Because of the wind’s direction that day, most communities in the eastern departments were out of the eruption’s path, with farmers in the Fraijanes and New Oriente coffee-growing regions escaping damage.

“The communities that were really affected are on the fringe of the volcano’s [base],” says Alejandro Molina, Sustainability and Market Access Manager at Anacafé. “It’s not actually the lava that does the most damage. The main problem was the pyroclastic flows – clouds of ash and dust that come down the mountain like an avalanche 600 kilometres per hour, burning everything in their path.”

As of print, the eruption had affected more than 1.7 million people, evacuated 12,823, left 3613 homeless and taken the lives of at least 110, according to the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration. Nearly 200 people were still missing when the Guatemala’s disaster management agency suspended search efforts after two weeks.

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