Producer Profile: Mexico

Written by Cafe Campesino on May 1, 2002 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |
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In 1999, Café Campesino imported the first container of coffee sold by Mut Vitz (our Mexico Chiapas coffee origin) through fair trade channels. Since then, Café Campesino, as a founding member of Cooperative Coffees, continues a direct relationship with Mut Vitz. We have visited this dedicated group of farmer several times and return from each trip inspired by their dedication and determination in spite of their difficult struggle for basic human rights in Chiapas.

A Cooperative Coffees Roaster Visit to Mut Vitz: Café Campesino’s Chiapan coffee producing cooperative
by Monika Maria Firl

There’s nothing like a trip to the heart of coffee country to bring Fair Trade aspirations back into focus.

Small-scale coffee farmers throughout the Chiapan highlands are facing a hungry year. Although coffee production was good for the 2001 — 2002 harvest, the international prices are as low as they’ve been in more than 100 years. Farmers without access to some kind of alternative markets are likely to leave much of the coffee on the trees, since the price it would fetch will be less than what it costs to pick the berries. This will be a challenging and competitive year for farmers in coffee-growing regions everywhere. For a young cooperative like Mut Vitz, it could be a “make or break” experience.

Once again, I had the good fortune to accompany as facilitator and translator during the now annual Cooperative Coffees Roaster Delegation to meet the producers from their Chiapan coffee supplier, Mut Vitz. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about their progress and the challenges still facing the cooperative during these difficult times.

The Political Backdrop

Chiapas without the incessant roadblocks and patrols of military, immigration and special police forces lends itself to the image of positive change. Much has been said about Mexico’s new political leadership with the PAN/Vicente Fox victory. With it, there were wide-flung expectations for structural change in the political system and the hope of “resolving the Chiapas problem” (in 15 minutes according to Fox’s campaign promises).

But the reality looks far less promising. Between the ongoing degradation of people’s everyday living situation to the dramatic – such as the still unresolved assassination of lawyer and human rights activist Digna Ochoa in Mexico City – we must question to what extent the old political system has really changed.

In addition to this general atmosphere of political and social uncertainty, the economic situation is increasingly desperate. And despite the national rhetoric, it appears that attention will be paid to big capital interests in macro-projects, but not to a farmer nor to his family’s needs.

Mut Vitz Meeting the Challenge

It is increasingly clear that positive change will have to begin with locally based processes.

The cooperative Mut Vitz (“Bird Mountain”) is comprised of some 600 producers from 24 communities located in the Northern Highlands of Chiapas, in the following 6 municipalities: El Bosque, Simojovel, Bochil, Jitotol, San Andres Larrainzar, and Chenalho. The potential for total annual production is calculated to exceed 15,000 quintales (100-pound bags) of high-altitude coffee. The cooperative was “self-organized” by its members in 1997, and is now legally recognized under Mexican law. Mut Vitz acquired its export license in February of 1999.

The producers are applying all appropriate practices for sustainable, shade-grown coffee. The first group of producers received organic certification from CertiMex/Naturland this year, and all members expect to be certified organic by the following harvest. The cooperative was incorporated in the FLO International Coffee Producer’s Register in September of 1999.

Mut Vitz coordinates a network of some 48 organic promoters working in community groups to maintain a participative process for the transfer of technology and the practical know-how for organic coffee production. The producers have already made great strides towards fortifying their own organizational structures and local leadership.

On the Road to Territory “Mut Vitz”

A winding thread of asphalt takes us from the “safe,” tourist hamlet of San Cristobal de Las Casas, past San Andres Larrainzar to the region of El Bosque. Once there, we were able to meet and discuss questions of local development and their obstacles with community representatives from the independent, coffee-grower’s cooperative Mut Vitz.

“I am very happy to see that you have come to learn about how we are working and to see how we are organizing around organic coffee,” said Manuel, one community promoter. “As you know, for a campesino coffee farmer, all that we have to support ourselves and our families is our land and the coffee on it.”

The timing of our visit couldn’t have been better. The day we arrived in the community Unión Tierra Tzotzil, the coffee “acopio” was in full swing. The organic certified groups from half of the communities were designated to bring their coffee into the office for weighing and quality control for the Cooperative Coffee contracts that day.

It was a long morning of hauling and weighing, watching and waiting…but it was a good day for producers. Spirits were high as producers watched their four-sacks-apiece of coffee begin the long journey North. It was a great day for us to gather images and impressions of what it takes to bring in quality coffee.

But despite the tender care and the backbreaking work that goes into producing coffee, the small-scale, or campesino, coffee farmers have historically seen little profit from their crop. For them, coffee has been just another mechanism for exploitation.

“Something that is very typical when we go to sell our coffee to the local coyotes, is that they don’t weigh the coffee properly,” explains Lucio Gonzalez, former president of the cooperative. “Or they might tell us that the coffee is still wet even though we know that it has been properly dried. Or they will simply offer us any price they like. And since we have already carried our coffee to the point of sale, it is unlikely that a coffee producer will carry his coffee back home. Of course, the coyotes know that too, so essentially he can just offer any price and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ ”

Selling through Fair Trade importers is one way that Mut Vitz is looking to provide sustainable and autonomous development for member producer families and their communities.

Hills of Coffee

The following day, we were able to visit the coffee fields and meet with the producers from the community of Alvaro Obregon.

Community representatives were well prepared and amazingly coordinated to show us their work in three of the coffee plots – 2 organic producers and 1 producer still on the second-year transition list. Afterwards, climbing up and down the steep paths cutting through their fields, we were taken to the center of the community where fresh tortillas and a bowl of steaming chicken soup (locally grown “pollo de rancho” I was proudly told by Manuel, our gracious host and the community organic promoter) were awaiting.

A group of some 40 Mut Vitz members were gathered to speak with the group. One message that came across loud and clear was the need for the producers group still in transition to find any kind of market – better than the local price – for their coffee this year, and how to find fair market prices for a larger percentage of their coffee for next year’s harvest.

After seeing the manual “wet-processing” the coffees goes through to remove the seed from the pulp, we stopped by the Autonomous school, where the children of Mut Vitz members attend. We were told of the dire need for all sorts of basic school supplies. (Linda, the gracious representative from Alternative Grounds, pulled some 1,000 pesos out of her “personal fund” when we returned to San Cristobal and sent a big box full of notebooks, pencils and markers back to the community with our thanks on the part of Cooperative Coffees for preparing such a fine community visit.)

Looking Ahead

Despite endless obstacles, Mut Vitz continues to rise to the occasion. In its usual style, the new directive has taken it upon itself to seek out internal solutions to confront the many external challenges.

On of the biggest challenges ahead will be to maintain their organic certification. An energetic commission of community representatives spent months planning and preparing for this past year’s inspection by the organic certification body CertiMex. For example, it was necessary – as will be the case every year – for Mut Vitz to review its membership list for misspelled names and update community lists (members dropping out, new members joining, changes in land holdings, etc.) CertiMex had also requested that the roster contain information on the total acreage of each associate, including land under corn and/or other crops in addition to the coffee production and that each member be assigned a code number. Mut Vitz was also required to write up its internal regulations and summary reports from its own internal organic inspections.

These requests for documentation are not uncommon practices – such is the reality of organic certification today. But for a campesino organization, the amount of paperwork entailed is daunting. Therefore, pending tasks – reviewing their internal regulations and incorporate the organic practices in writing; creating a written calendar/plan for implementing the work in the coffee fields; and a written calendar/plan for implementing organic work in the production of basic grains and vegetables – for this year’s inspections have been divided up amongst a number of specially commissioned representatives who will work together to review the existing information and prepare the appropriate documents.

In light of, or perhaps in spite of, the difficult times, Mut Vitz is scrambling to find support for projects complementary to their coffee production. For example, the women’s collectives are desperately looking for the means to open greater markets for their artisan work. They are also hoping to initiate productive projects to improve the family diet, such as organic vegetable gardens, as well as collective chicken and pig reproduction projects to increase the family income.

For Mut Vitz, this is certainly a year full of challenges and hard work ahead, but it will also be a year for definition and collective growth.

Considered by many to be one of the most successful small-scale farmer cooperatives in Latin America, UCIRI began exporting fair trade coffee in 1983 and now sells over 40 containers of coffee each year directly to end users. Cafe Campesino imported one of its first containers from UCIRI in 1998 and, as a founding member of Cooperative Coffees, continues a direct trade relationship. Our Mexico Oaxaca coffee is sourced from UCIRI and medium-roasted to highlight sweet and smooth acidity and nutty flavor.

UCIRI: Union of Indigenous Communities in the Istmo Region
by Laure Waridel

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a group of peasants have taken steps to cut the links of dependence and victimization often inherent in the conventional coffee trade. These peasants have chosen to take a stand and act for the future of their communities. To protect the Earth, which they call their mother, these indigenous Zapotecos, Mixes, and Chontales practice organic agriculture.

For more information on UCIRI, click here:

http://www.equiterre.qc.ca/english/coffee/
rte_alternative_eng/coop_eng/coopuciri.html

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