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Voices of Coffee Growers in Chiapas

When the Coffee Crisis Hits Home
Laura Carlsen and Edith Cervantes | February 2004

Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

The Americas Program is launching a new series of briefings called Voices from the Countryside that aims to provide a forum for the often unheard voices of the rural population throughout the Americas. Through interviews and testimonies, farmers and peasants describe the effects of top-down economic policies on their daily lives. Their stories show the human struggles and suffering behind many of the issues we analyze in our other articles. This first installment brings us the voices of small coffee growers in Chiapas, Mexico. Your comments are welcome at <>.

Coffee is not native to Mexico, yet since it arrived on Mexican shores in 1796, it has evolved into a central aspect of social, economic, and cultural life. Today 320,000 growers produce coffee in twelve states of the republic. From bush to brew, the coffee industry employs over three million people. Nearly 6% of the economically active population of Mexico depends on the crop for their livelihoods, and in the countryside the figure rises to a quarter of the population.

The current crisis in international coffee prices has hit rural Mexico hardest where people are poorest and living conditions most precarious. Of Mexico's coffee-growing townships, 84% register high or very high levels of poverty. In contrast to the large plantation farming common in other parts of the world, in Mexico most coffee growers are smallholders and 65% are indigenous.

Prices to Mexican producers have plummeted over the past few years and hit historic lows in 2002. Mexican coffee growers cannot break even in today's market, but the lack of other options keeps them trapped in a downward spiral. Failure to solve the current crisis could not only destroy the livelihoods of thousands of growers, but also lead to massive out-migration, cultural disruption, and serious environmental threats to some of the nation's most valuable and vulnerable regions.

The current price to the producer ranges between 28 cents/lb to unorganised growers and 41 cents/lb for members of growers' cooperatives. Costs of production vary but average around $1.00/lb.

At the same time, the crisis in producer prices has created a buyers´ market that offers spectacular profits to large intermediaries, particularly transnational roasters and branders. Transnational corporations have expanded their presence in the Mexican market as buyers, processors and retailers. Since Mexico exports 85% of its coffee, the sector is highly dependent on the vagaries of the international market and the interests of transnational actors.

Several factors have converged to distort the market: oversupply, a lack of product differentiation on the global trading level, defective and low quality coffee in the market and high concentration among roasting and branding companies.

The crisis in international prices has also affected the Mexican crop and its perspectives for future production. In the past two seasons, many small growers could not afford to harvest their coffee beans. The National Coalition of Coffee Organizations (CNOC) reports that an estimated 20% of last season's crop was left to rot in the fields last year.

Producers have few defences in the present global context. Since 1989 when the government dismantled the national production-processing-marketing board (Mexican Coffee Institute-Inmecafe), they have had to struggle to take over former state functions. Faced with huge deficits in all areas of basic infrastructure--transportation, processing facilities, financing, and market information--most growers must still sell their unprocessed coffee at below cost to any intermediary who has a vehicle and offers ready cash.

But some have been able to build up strong grassroots growers' cooperatives that can collectively negotiate higher prices, develop new markets and directly export their product. The cycle of crises since 1989 has compelled small growers to seek alternatives and opened the way to the creation of independent peasant cooperatives and small-producers groups. Under adverse conditions, many of these have consolidated their organizations over the years and taken on the difficult tasks of collectively processing and direct-marketing their members´ coffee. Their efforts result in producer prices often 20% above the going market price.

These organizations have made important inroads in solidarity and fair trade markets by establishing direct links between consumers and producers. They have increased the quality of their coffees to access gourmet and specialty markets worldwide. Mexico leads the world in the production of organic coffee. The grassroots growers´ organizations pioneered organic production in the country and continue to convert to organic to save money on costly chemical inputs, avoid short and long-term environmental damage and take advantage of the premium paid for these coffees.

By combining coffee cultivation with basic foods production and protection of some of the earth's richest biodiversity areas, peasant growers' organizations have marked a path toward socially and environmentally sustainable coffee production in Mexico. Their experiences offer elements for modifying the global model based on principles of equitable trade relations and conservation of cultural and biological diversity.

Chiapas Coffee Growers Speak Out

Manuel Gómez Ruiz, a small grower from San Miguel, El Bosque in the northern part of Chiapas belongs to the Majomut Cooperative. He describes the advantages of being organized and how the chain of coyotes (intermediary buyers) erodes the price to isolated producers.
The price of coffee has been going down a lot, but the price that the cooperative pays is always better than the price that the coyote gives you. We've been struggling to sell our coffee on the fair trade market but we haven't been able to. But at least in the Cooperative we get a better price than if we sell to the coyote. That's why we stay in the organization&

"There is a coyote that goes house to house in the community. Then he can sell the coffee to the bigger coyote in the municipal seat. The one in the municipal sea then sells in Bochil, to the regional coyote. And the one in Bochil sells it to the other coyote that's a business in Tuxtla Gutiérrez (state capital). That's where the coffee is processed. The business is a representative of an even bigger business that exports the coffee. The producer ends up with very little for his work.

"I got ten quintals of green coffee from my coffee farm of one hectare (2.47 acres). I received around 3,500 pesos for it (a little over $360). We did it all with family labor, we didn't hire anyone to help in the harvest. The hectare takes about ninety work days. My only consolation is that our money doesn't go to a coyote. But the price is still lower all the time and covers less and less of the family's needs& The only possibility we have now is to grow organic coffee, because the price doesn't get hammered like the conventional price does. It's been many years now that I haven't used chemicals anyway&"

Pedro Guzman Lopez is a small coffee grower from Majosik, Chiapas . He does not belong to a cooperative:
This year the coyote paid seven pesos a kilo. I sold four bags (60k) at seven pesos--1,680 pesos for my whole harvest of a hectare of coffee. Money from coffee was scarce; I could only buy a little food. I bought a little corn and beans, but I didn't have anything for clothes. No money left to save, to spend on food later when the family needed it. All my family's work in the coffee plot amounted to almost nothing.

"I had to borrow money since the coffee didn't pay. I borrowed 2,000 pesos at 5% monthly. I borrowed the money in May because the coffee money ran out and I didn't have anything for food. I'll pay the loan next coffee harvest. If the coffee price goes down, I don't know what I'll do about the debt.

"Two of my children went off to look for work in Mexico City . They're 15 and 16 years old. Maybe they found work, but they haven't sent any money. Last year they didn't have to leave to look for work outside Majosik; they stayed here and helped with the coffee. Until they saw that the coffee price was too low to afford food so they decided to go& He notes that twenty boys have left in the past three months and says the girls are leaving to work outside the community too; they go to Jovel (San Cristóbal de Las Casas) to work as servants. At least they can come back to visit their families once in a while, he says, the boys--who knows if they'll ever come back."

Lucia Giron Guzman is Pedro's wife. She tells her story:
I work in the coffee plot with my husband and children, the whole family works. Right now I'm coming back from cleaning the fields. We had to do the job with just the two little boys, my husband, and me because the other boys went to look for work in Mexico City . It's more work for us, but we don't have any alternative. I hope the price goes up. If it goes down two or three pesos, I don't know what we'll do. It's a pity all that work that doesn't get paid if the price goes down. At harvest, we get up at two or three in the morning to reach the field and pick the coffee by 6.

"Now I don't have anything left from the coffee-- I can't buy a new dress or clothes or shoes or corn. I have to look for work: clearing cornfields, weeding the coffee or carrying wood. I have to earn something to buy a little food for the family. I earn the same as my husband, 15 pesos ($1.60) a day."

For many members of the Majomut Cooperative, organic coffee growing has meant not only financial salvation but a new (or rediscovered) ethos of ecological farming:
We had lost our respect for nature--instead of feeding and caring for the earth, we used to poison her. If we had kept on like that we would be much poorer now, with unproductive fields, under the illusion that only by spreading chemicals could we increase productivity&.with no future for our children."

- Rosario Gutiérrez Villarreal, 48 years, from Ejido Vicente Guerrero.

To do the organic program we had to look back, to rescue the ways of our grandparents who worked the coffee& Government extension workers (Inmecafe) said that we could only increase production with fertilizers, but we use compost without contaminating the earth. The composts and the living terraces are made with local materials, we don't have to spend money to improve production.

When the organic program began, we exchanged plants between communities to diversify the coffee lands& There are many kinds of different plants in the coffee plot because they are well arranged. First are the trees that serve to shade the coffee, then there's the coffee with other plants, and below that the herbs. There are the living hedges that serve to prevent erosion. We get food and medicine and sometimes wood from the trees, the plants and the herbs. That's the way my grandparents did it, and that's the way we still do it. Everything in the coffee plot serves to conserve the coffee or to fulfil our needs.

- Juan Luna Pérez, 40 years, works in Polhó, Chenalhó.

When I die my children will continue on the path of organic agriculture. Making the compost (that's like food for the earth) planting living walls so the soil isn't lost doing the work, cultivating organic coffee. Caring for the earth, without putting poison on it. This is the plot I inherited from my grandparents, from my father. It is the land my children will receive from me.

- Pablo Vázquez from Naranjatik, Chenalhó.

Edith Cervantes conducted the interviews. Cervantes is an agronomist and adviser to the Majomut Cooperative in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas