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Starbucks and CI's Eco-Imperialism in Chiapas

Mexican coffee growers slam environmentalists' multinational ties 8/22/04

Jaltenango, Mexico, Aug 22, 2004 (EFE via COMTEX) --
By Manuel de la Cruz.

Four coffee cooperatives in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas have complained that U.S. environmental group Conservation International is trying to gain control of their harvests to sell to companies like Starbucks and Coffee Company International.

Sixto Cruz, a spokesman for cooperative Triunfo Verde, told that the situation is one more act of "trade imperialism or 'Yankee coyote-ism,'" which is further impoverishing some 28,000 families who grow coffee in the central region of Chiapas.

Cruz believes the organic coffee grown in Chiapas is of higher quality than the beans from Vietnam or even Colombia, two of the world's largest producers.

Organic coffee growing enabled this area to dodge the negative effects of the coffee crisis that began in the late 1980s and has knocked market prices down to less than the cost of production.

Five years ago, U.S. non-governmental organization Conservation International (CI) appeared on the scene, offering organic coffee contracts to the Chiapas growers at better-than-market rates.

The deal included selling the beans to Agroindustrias de Mexico (AMSA), whose end customers turned out to be multinational coffee companies like Starbucks and Coffee Company International.

Although many growers in the Chiapas communities accepted the contracts, they later regretted their decision when they found out the multinationals were behind the environmental group.

Several organic cooperatives, including Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas (CESMACH), Triunfo Verde, coffee group Angel Albinos and a regional association of growers called Productores Agroecologicos, all part of coordinating group El Triunfo, decided in 2003 to oppose CI and its partners.

CI spokesman Santiago Arg~ello said Chiapas was not the exception but part of a project throughout Mexico and Central America to expand the use of coffee production techniques without fertilizers or chemicals.

Although at first exports doubled with the environmentalists' help, from 385 to 822 tons, CI began to make demands and attempt to "control the market," said Triunfo Verde spokesman Reinaldo Lopez.

The demands increased and, in addition, CI began to charge the growers to verify the quality of their crops and insisted that they reinvest part of their profits in a "Green Fund."

For Sixto Cruz, the demands were one more imposition on small growers by huge companies, who use the cooperatives' coffee beans but give no credit to their brand names.

Another grower, Higinio Robledo, says the growers should "not let themselves be intimidated" and should protect their harvests to guarantee quality and ensure that their product remains competitive.

The cooperatives' great challenge is finding customers - most of which are in Europe and other industrialized countries - willing to pay more to invest in these communities' development.

These mountain coffee growers want to avoid the fate of their counterparts in Soconusco, also in Chiapas, where 30,000 producers had to move out of the area because of the coffee crisis.

According to Democratic Farmers Union (UDS) leader Herminio Verdugo Mu[oz, there are almost 464,000 people involved in coffee growing in Mexico; they cultivate 674,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of mountainous land in 411 municipalities.

But 349 of those municipalities lack basic services, including drinking water, electricity, education and health care.

Not only have services to the countryside diminished but many of these municipalities have not been able to eradicate the pests that further undermine the productivity of their crops.

mdc/ds/cd

Copyright (c) 2004. Agencia EFE S.A.