1. 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.
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
seat 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
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
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
MORE CHIAPAS COFFEE INFO
Resource Center of the Americas
By JULIE GROSSMAN
EL BOSQUE, MEXICO
Hours after sundown, Lucía Gonzáles Ruiz watches anxiously out the door of her dirt-floor house in this highland municipality of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She wonders why her husband, Lucio Gonzáles Ruiz, hasn’t returned home to El Bosque since leaving this morning on the three-hour bus ride to the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. His only task there, she explains, was to withdraw money from the bank for Mut Vitz, a coffee-growing cooperative the family helped form in 1997.
Lucía recalls the last time she waited up this late for him to come home. Police had arrested him the afternoon of August 2 and thrown him in jail for the night on spurious charges of starting a fight. The bail cost $120, a considerable sum for a family whose annual income is $800. The police also confiscated checks and documents the co-op needed to register with authorities as a business.
“I just want to know he’s safe,” Lucía says. Her husband finally arrives home in the middle of the night. Today’s holdup was not police harassment; it turns out, but bureaucracy at the bank.
Running a farmer co-op is not easy in Chiapas, where the government is waging a low-intensity war against an indigenous movement called the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Since the Zapatistas launched a 12-day armed campaign January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, rebel sympathizers among the state’s nearly 1 million indigenous inhabitants have faced unrelenting intimidation by police, paramilitary groups and federal troops.
Mut Vitz, which means “Bird Mountain” in the Mayan language Tzotzil, has made no secret of its affiliations. Putting Zapatista self-sufficiency tenets into practice, the co-op’s 780 farmers are part of a global “fair trade” movement that connects Third World producers to northern consumers, bypassing profiteering intermediaries. Mut Vitz leaders say foes of this self-sufficiency are behind a string of vicious attacks here, including seven murders this year. Regardless of their affiliations, farmers everywhere in Chiapas feel the impact of such large-scale attacks as the December 22, 1997, paramilitary massacre in the village of Acteal.
The violence heightens barriers to market access facing peasants throughout the Third World. The barriers range from language differences to unreasonable organic-certification costs to lagging consumer demand for fair-trade products. Last year Mut Vitz produced more than fair-trade importers could buy, forcing the co-op to sell for a pittance to local hustlers known as coyotes who gather beans for the corporate-dominated global industry.
To the Chiapas farmers, fair trade means something more than economic independence. “We are not only in the process of organizing to export coffee,” says Mut Vitz farmer Mariano Gonzáles Gonzáles. “We want to show consumers that indigenous people have dignity.”
Generating $18 billion in annual sales, coffee is the world’s second-largest legally traded commodity after oil. Each year the United States, the largest coffee importer, consumes about a fifth of the total. The bean is the most important agricultural export for dozens of Third World countries, including Mexico, the chief U.S. supplier.
Coffee has been a cash crop since colonial times, when serfs planted and harvested the bean on feudal estates. In Mexico, Porfirio Díaz’s 1876-1911 dictatorship transformed the industry, heaping financial incentives and technical assistance on international coffee entrepreneurs that allowed them to set up large plantations, some covering more than 1,200 acres. In Chiapas, the incentives attracted investment from French, U.S., German and Spanish interests. The foreign control meant that most profits left the country instead of spurring local development.
Peasants, pushed off the most fertile land, have tried to compete against the plantations. But their efforts invariably fail, owing to a lack of credit, processing infrastructure and access to stable international markets. The vast majority of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers live in desperate poverty.
Their lives revolve around a volatile world price set by a Wall Street commodity exchange. Since an international coffee pact collapsed in 1987, this price has hovered around $1 for a pound that retails for as much as $10. Compounding the exploitation are intermediaries who charge farmers exorbitant rates for financing, equipment and transportation.
The small-scale farmers sometimes end up with as little as $0.30 per pound, less than a third of what it costs to produce the coffee. Few make more than $600 a year (the annual cost of a daily latté in the United States), and most are trapped in an endless cycle of debt. In 350 of the 411 Mexican municipalities where coffee is cultivated, according to government figures, farmers live in extreme poverty. Chiapas, Mexico’s leading coffee producer, is the nation’s poorest state.
Here in El Bosque, a rugged 30 miles north of San Cristóbal, small-scale farmers had only one option for selling coffee until fair-trade co-ops formed. The coyotes would arrive at harvest time with pickup trucks and crooked scales, purchasing 140-pound bags the farmers had hauled to the roadside on their backs.
“The coyotes would always tell us our coffee was poor quality, even though we knew otherwise,” recalls Gonzáles Ruiz, the Mut Vitz member. “We knew that the coyotes were not paying us well, but we had no other place to sell it.”
The coyotes sell the beans to exporters who supply four food conglomerates that roast, package and market most of the world supply. The firms are Cincinnati-based Procter and Gamble (Folgers), New York-based Philip Morris (Maxwell House), Chicago-based Sara Lee (European brands) and the largest, Swiss-based Nestlé (Hills Brothers).
Of the price U.S. consumers pay for coffee, the small-scale farmers receive roughly 10 percent. About 30 percent goes to the coyotes and exporters, and 25 percent to retailers. The largest share, 35 percent, goes to the four corporations.
Throughout the Third World, the early 1980s saw an increasing number of small-scale coffee farmers organizing themselves into cooperatives. In most co-ops, the farmers continued working their own plots, usually less than 10 acres, but joined together to process the beans (remove the pulp, allow fermentation, and wash and dry them) and to market and export the yield.
Their success hinged on a new breed of international importer concerned about the economic plight of Third World farmers. The U.S. pioneer was Equal Exchange, based in Canton, Massachusetts, which formed in 1986.
In 1988, when the world price for unroasted beans dropped more than 50 percent to $0.60 per pound, the Dutch-based nonprofit Max Havelaar began certifying fair-trade coffee and licensing a retail logo so consumers could identify it. The organization agreed with the co-ops on a uniform coffee price that would remain constant no matter how low the market dropped. The floor price would cover production costs and provide a modest return for the co-ops. The co-ops had to run democratically and invest the return into production upgrades, quality improvements and development projects such as schools and health clinics. Certified importers, for their part, had to pay the floor price, provide the co-ops with credit and long-term contracts, and deliver the coffee directly from farmers to retailers, arranging for shipping, roasting, packaging and distribution.
By 1992, as the world coffee price plunged to $0.48 per pound, interest in fair-trade coffee was spreading fast across western Europe. In the mold of Max Havelaar, certifying agencies in other northern countries were taking root. TransFair USA, the U.S. certifier, formed in 1995.
The fair-trade movement leaped forward with the 1997 founding of the Fairtrade labeling Organizations. Based in Bonn, Germany, the FLO develops international licensing criteria, ironing out differences between Max Havelaar, TransFair USA and 15 other national initiatives. On the production end, the FLO runs a registry of 200 certified coffee co-ops, representing 500,000 farmers in 18 countries. The FLO monitors the co-ops at least every two years. (Besides coffee, the FLO sets criteria for tea, cocoa, honey, sugar, bananas and orange-juice concentrate. In the United States, coffee remains the only certified product.)
By 1999, the FLO was certifying some 25 million pounds of fair-trade coffee annually, still a tiny fraction of the 13 billion-pound worldwide yield, but rising fast. Today’s FLO-maintained floor price, $1.26 per pound, has kept farmers above water as market prices have dropped as low as $0.68 this year. When the market price exceeds the floor, certified importers must pay the going rate plus a $0.05-per-pound premium. The FLO also requires importers to pay the co-ops 60 percent of the cost prior to shipment.
One of the world’s most successful fair-trade cooperatives is just west of Chiapas in the state of Oaxaca. The 2,200-family Isthmus Region Indigenous Communities Union (UCIRI) has used its surplus to establish a farm supply center, health-care services, cooperative corn mills, an agricultural extension and training program, the region’s only secondary school and its only public bus line.
A few plantations claim to have joined the fair-trade cause, but there is no certification to verify how they treat their workers. The 1,000-acre Finca Irlanda, a German-owned coffee plantation in southern Chiapas, seems to provide workers decent wages, hours and safety protections. It employs some farmworkers permanently, instead of just for the harvest. And it provides amenities such as a children’s playground and a garden that produces employee food.
Some plantations “genuinely care for their workers, and some are paternalistic city-states run by benevolent dictators,” explains Bob Thomson, managing director of the Ottawa-based TransFair Canada. “There is no way of telling them apart at this point without actually visiting them unannounced and having sufficient local background and coffee experience to sift out truth from greenwashing.”
Even certification does not guarantee labor conditions. In a fair-trade co-op, the bigger farms often must hire harvest labor even though they lack decent housing, bathrooms, meals and child care. The hired hands often live in squalor.
Chiapas elders can remember a time when all farming was organic. Most coffee grew on shaded mountains and hills without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
In recent decades, corporate-backed plantations across Latin America have converted to high-yield varieties that grow in direct sunlight. Cutting down shade trees for this coffee has contributed to severe soil erosion, deforestation and destruction of habitat for migratory songbirds and other animals. And the high-tech crops depend on chemicals that contaminate soil and groundwater. In the 1970s, the U.S. Agency for International. Development pumped more than $80 million into this “modernization.”
Since 1990, when the Mexican government’s Coffee Institute was dismantled and world coffee prices were plummeting, most small-scale Chiapas farmers have not been able afford chemicals. Many have decided to pursue organic farming-composting, using natural enemies against unwanted insects, and fighting erosion by building terraces or planting tree rows known as “living fences”-simply because it’s cheaper than the high-tech method.
By 1998, Mexico had 111,000 acres under certified organic coffee cultivation, rivaling Peru, the hemisphere’s other leading organic producer. Certification means the coffee can carry an “organic” logo when retailed. The farmers usually receive an extra $0.15 per pound.
But while most fair-trade coffee farms are organic, only about 15 percent have completed an organic certification process. One reason is that it tends to limit them to a single national retail market. The segmentation owes largely to northern ministries of agriculture and consumer protection that prefer their own national certifying agency, such as Germany’s Naturland or the U.S. Organic Crop Improvement Association. Until recently, northern governments didn’t trust Third World certifying bodies.
Another hurdle to going organic has been the cost of certification. Including transportation, food and lodging for inspectors, the bill for a co-op the size of Mut Vitz can run more than $1,800. Many in the Chiapas coffee industry describe an “organic mafia” that dominated the certification process until a few years ago. Monika Firl, a technical adviser for Mut Vitz when the co-op formed, said the certification inspectors were unreasonable. “They wouldn’t stay in cheap hotels and eat tacos in the streets,” she says.
Organic certification also requires farmers to carry and store coffee in expensive burlap sacks instead of plastic bags, and it forces them to devote scarce resources to building cement patios and fences to keep chickens and other animals away from the drying beans.
Yet another obstacle is a three-year wait before a farm is certified as organic. The requirement is supposed to ensure that chemical residues in soils have broken down and deactivated, but it seems pointless on farms that haven’t been able to afford chemicals for years, if ever. “It guarantees a market for inspector services, but it doesn’t necessarily make the products any more organic,” Firl says. “Suddenly paperwork is more important than the work in the field.”
A step forward was the 1998 creation of Certimex, a Mexico-based agency that certifies coffee for the Naturland logo. The agency uses local inspectors and relaxes some of the unreasonable standards.
Even farmers who have jumped through all the hoops may fall short of organic standards. The Mexican government backs mass aerial sprayings of malathion to fight the Mediterranean fruit fly in citrus fields. Careless spraying has harmed coffee and shade trees. In Tziscao, a village near the Guatemalan border, members of a 30-family farm co-op called Lagos de Colores say an unidentified crop-duster sprayed a chemical that killed some of their coffee plants last year.
Plantations have an easier time with organic certification than do cooperatives of poor farmers. The bigger the business, the more likely it is to have telephones, computers, vehicles, roads and multilingual staff members. And decisions can be made more quickly by a single owner than by a co-op aiming for democracy among hundreds of members. A German organization certified Finca Irlanda, the southern Chiapas plantation, as organic in 1962.
Certified fair trade, similarly, requires considerable paperwork and deft communication with overseas agencies. Such organizing is usually beyond the means of small-scale Chiapas farmers, most of whom lack the communication and transportation infrastructure. Many can’t read or write, moreover, and many speak only their Mayan language fluently, not Spanish, let alone German or English.
For these reasons, many cooperatives rely on outside funding and technical assistance to secure fair-trade and organic certifications. In 1991, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexico City office financed the transition for Unión Majomut, a co-op of 1,500 farmers north of San Cristóbal that sells primarily to European importers.
Most Majomut farmers support the Zapatistas, and the co-op bars its members from belonging to paramilitary groups, the government-backed rightist bands that attack rebel supporters. But Majomut claims neutrality in the Chiapas conflict. Co-op technical adviser Víctor Pérez Grovas notes a FLO requirement that farmer co-ops admit members regardless of political and religious differences. (It’s unclear how the requirement affects certification.)
Mut Vitz, another FLO-certified co-op, identifies itself with the rebel movement. Its U.S. buyers include Peace Coffee, the St. Paul-based Cloudforest Initiatives and the Human Bean Company, based in Denver, Colorado.
Some in the fair-trade movement call it unwise to pitch the coffee primarily as a means for consumers to express solidarity. Pérez Grovas points to Café Sandino, the Nicaraguan coffee marketed in the 1980s as a way to support that nation’s 1979 revolution. He says the brand went belly up amid quality problems and waning consumer loyalty after the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. “Solidarity works only for a year or two,” he says. “After that, you need high-quality coffee.”
Human Bean director Kerry Appel counters that his company, founded in 1996, has flourished based on consumer preference for coffee that supports indigenous rights. “It tastes good to their palate and it feels good to their social consciousness,” he says.
Appel visited Mut Vitz regularly until August, when Mexican authorities revoked his business visa for the second time, saying his statements in support of indigenous rights had “violated the sovereignty of Mexico.”
Appel sees it differently. “If the Mexican government were not committing human rights violations, then I would not be speaking of murders and war,” he says. “I would really, really like to be telling our customers that there is democracy, liberty and justice in the area where our coffee is produced.”
Politically neutral or not, fair trade in Chiapas has received no government support. On the contrary, the low-intensity war against the Zapatistas spreads terror through farm cooperatives. With peace talks stalled since 1996, Mexico City has concentrated 70,000 army troops in the state. Paramilitaries have killed hundreds of farmers and forced thousands to abandon their crops and seek shelter in squalid refugee camps.
After the farmers flee, the soldiers and paramilitaries often steal or burn the crops. Such pillage followed the notorious attack in Acteal, 20 miles north of San Cristóbal, where paramilitaries slaughtered 45 unarmed indigenous people. The village produced coffee for Majomut.
The intimidation also takes subtle forms. Co-op leaders are arrested on specious charges. Troops and police stop farmers in their fields, demanding identification. Military vehicles roar past coffee villages. Farmers stumble upon soldiers sleeping under their coffee plants.
The army occupation makes it difficult to do the weeding, compost application and pruning necessary for an organic crop. More than 150 Majomut members had to drop out of the co-op’s certified-organic program last year because they feared soldiers stationed near their plots.
Conditions are similar on Mut Vitz farms. Co-op leaders describe the seven murders in the area this year as “assassinations.” The atmosphere resembles Guatemalan terror in the 1980s, when that nation’s military slaughtered coffee cooperative leaders.
Farmers hope the attacks will subside now that elections have ousted the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from control of both the federal and state governments. Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) took the presidential reins December 1, and Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía of an eight-party alliance took over as Chiapas governor a week later. An encouraging sign was the October 27 arrest of leaders of a feared paramilitary group called Peace and Justice. It remains to be seen whether the new rulers will ease the pressure on coffee farmers who sympathize with the Zapatistas.
Regardless of what the Mexican government does, the farmers will be more secure if more U.S. consumers choose fair trade. “It’s very important to us that consumers understand our work, how it feels to suffer beneath the sun as a campesino,” says Gonzáles Ruiz, the Mut Vitz farmer. “Knowing what our lives are like, they’ll purchase our coffee.”
more than 1000 members. The video was shot and digitally edited by two video makers who are members of the collective. Over a year in the making, The Strength of the Indigenous People of Mut Vitz traces the entire organic coffee production process: from seedling to transplant, from cultivation to the roasted bean. The video shows us the challenges that the collective faces in processing their coffee for market and their achievements using a Fair Trade model of distribution. (Tzotzil and Spanish, with English subtitles, 27 minutes, 2000)
The coffee cooperative Sociedad de Solidarid Social Mut Vitz (Society of Social Solidarity Mut Vitz) is a cooperative of indigenous Mayan small coffee producers from six municipalities in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico which was organized and legally registered in 1998. My name is Kerry Appel and I am the director of The Human Bean Company, a fair trade coffee company located in Denver, Colorado. I have been buying coffee from indigenous coffee cooperatives in Chiapas since 1996. ?I met the directors of Mut Vitz in 1998 and became the first to buy coffee from these coffee producers under fair trade terms. Until this purchase of coffee the producers who make up the coffee cooperative have historically had to sell their coffee to local coffee buyers, referred to as “coyotes”, people who pay the coffee producers a fraction of the world market coffee price. The formation of the coffee coop was an attempt by the coffee producers to escape this system of economic exploitation, to raise themselves from the poverty that they have endured as a result of this system, and to begin the process of the self-development of the infrastructure of their communities. ?Even though the coffee coop members live in the midst of military occupation by the Mexican Federal army and the paramilitary groups associated with the army and the state Public Service police, they managed to succeed in finding direct markets for their coffee in the United States and in Europe. The economic picture began to improve. In 1999 the future looked good for Mut Vitz.
The very first hours of the New Year of 2000 begin to change this view. At 5:00am on January 1sst, 2000, I was detained at an army roadblock while leaving an indigenous New Year’s cultural celebration and then expelled from Mexico and banned from returning. This was on top of having previously been denied a renewal of my business visa. This does not stop me from continuing my work on behalf of fair trade and human rights but it certainly makes it more difficult. ?On January 13th there began a series of murders and assaults and a campaign of dubious arrests of members of the Mut Vitz cooperative. Including the January expulsion of myself, here is a chronology of the campaign against Mut Vitz.
* January 1st, Kerry Appel, buyer of Mut Vitz coffee,detained
* January 3rd, Kerry Appel, expelled
* January 13th, Martin Sanchez Hernandez, from Chavajebal, killed.
* February 1st,
o Martin Gomez Jimenez, Chavajebal, killed (widow, Rosa Sanchez Perez, 2 children)
o Lorenzo Perez Hernandez, Chavajebal, killed(widow, Rosa Sanchez Nunez, 1 child)
o Rodolfo Gomez Ruiz, Chavajebal, killed (widow, Petrona Gomez Sanchez, 8 children)
o Mateo Jimenez Nunez, gravely wounded by gunfire (wife, Maria Gomez Sanchez, 1 child)
* – February 16th, Manuel Nunez Gomez, Bochil, La Lagunita,—– killed
* – July, Kerry Appel, Mexican courts overturn expulsion, free to travel again
* – July 26th, Salvador Lopez Gonzalez, arrested
* – July 27th, Pascual Sanchez Gomez, Chavajebal, killed (widow, Magdalena Hernandez Gomez, 5 children)
* – August 2nd, Lucio Gonzalez, President of Mut Vitz,arrested
* – August, Kerry Appel, Mexican Immigration issues another expulsion order and ban
* – September 9th, Marcos Ruiz Gomez, San Antonio el Brillante,killed
Note: I have been informed by Mut Vitz that Marcos Ruiz Gomez had previously been a member of the coffee coop but had left the coop some time previous to his murder.
In August I was given a letter written by Mut Vitz. The original text in Spanish is below followed by my English interpretation.
Mut Vitz, Sociedad de Solidaridad Social Avenida Ignacio Allende #4, Centro Historico San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Tel. 00-52-961-25095, 00-52-967-82104
R.F.C. MVI-980813-DA5, Registro de Exportar 2335
Chiapas, Mexico a 20 de Agosto
?Por este medio les daremos a saber por parte de la Sociedad Mut Vitz S: de S.S. denuncia a los medios de comunicacion y a derechos humanos, a la sociedad civil nacional y internacional y a los negociantes de comercio justo y al Gobierno de Mexico y Estados Unidos de America lo que ha estado pasando en estos meses. ?En enero mataro un socio de Chavajeval, municipio de San Juan de la Libertad, en febrero murio otros 3 en el camino de la misma comunidad, en junio otro uno, en julio llevaron a la carcel 2 de Union Progresso, agosto llevaron a carcel el presidente de la Sociedad Mut Vitz. Esto esta pasando en las comunidades en resistencia. ?Esto es parte de guerra sucia de Gobierno de oprimir a las indigenas que luchan por democracia, justicia y libertad para todos.
?By this medium we inform you, on the part of the Society of Mut Vitz: S.S., of the denouncement to the mediums of communication and to human rights groups, to the national and international civil society and to fair trade businesspersons and to the Mexican and United States governments, of that which has been happening in these months. ?In January an associate was killed from Chavajeval, municipality of San Juan de la Libertad, in February 3 others died in the road of the same community, in June another (was killed), in July 2 people from Union Progresso were taken to jail, in August they jailed the president of the Society of Mut Vitz. This is happening in the communities in resistance. ?This is part of the dirty war of the government to oppress the indigenous communities, which are struggling for democracy, justice and liberty for everyone.
(end of letter)
?It is obvious that these expulsions, arrests and murders are part of an intentional campaign against the communities in resistance in general and specifically against members of the coffee cooperative Mut Vitz. For one thing, all of these murders are happening to members of the autonomous communities in resistance and none are happening to the members of the pro-government (PRI) communities. The level of violence is also far higher than what statisticians might call a “normal” level of violence. Another indication that this is an intentional campaign of violence is that these murders are happening in the midst of a massive military occupation. There are several paramilitary groups operating in Chiapas who have direct ties to the army, police and the government of Chiapas. There is one paramilitary group right in the midst of the area where these murders are taking place called “Los Platanos”. I have stood with members of Mut Vitz on more than one occasion while they pointed out to me the paramilitary training taking place with the state Public Security police on the hill across the valley. As proof that the Mexican army and the paramilitaries might collaborate in murder, all one has to do is recall June of 1998 when the army and the paramilitaries invaded Chavajebal and Union Progresso. They killed three members of the autonomous communities outright and then killed five more after they arrested them. It is also very worrisome to note that there are also many similarities between the events occurring now in the communities of the Mut Vitz members and those that preceded the massacre of 46 indigenous persons at Acteal in December of 1997.
The Human Bean Company, citizens of the cities of Denver and Boulder, Colorado, members of Businesses for Human Rights and Equitable Trade in Chiapas (BETHRIC), and even fair trade groups in Europe have been participating with the members of the coffee cooperative Mut Vitz in many projects. These projects range from chicken coops to hog pens, from reforestation to bathrooms, from health clinics to ovens for baking bread. And for the efforts of Mut Vitz and of all of their friends and allies who are working together toward fair trade that respects the rights of indigenous peoples what we get in return is expulsions, arrests and murder.
We call on the President elect of Mexico Vicente Fox and on the new governor of Chiapas Pablo Salazar to recognize San Andres Accords and the COCOPA Initiative on Indigenous Rights and Culture, to disarm the paramilitary groups and to withdraw the army to their barracks. And we call upon them to stop the murder of the members of Mut Vitz. And we call upon the citizens and the media and the governments of other countries to pressure the Mexican government to end this campaign of violence.
With all of the talking that Vicente Fox and Pablo Salazar are doing right now about the benefits of trade and investment and the supposed democratization of Mexico and the alleged improvements in the human rights record of Mexico, we have to ask, “Do not these benefits extend to indigenous peoples and to fair trade businesspersons as well?”
The Human Bean Company
The statements included in the above document are not without extensive documentation. I have video documentation, police reports, newspaper articles, testimonies, personal observation and reports by the thousands (literally) to confirm all of the allegations made.