Archive for November, 2008

… continued from the previous post.



In 1994 the organization was legally registered as a civil society association under the name “Ecological Farmers of the Sierra Madre of Chiapas” (CESMACH).  Then, in 1996, they obtained their first certification of organic processes and products from the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) and, in that same year, they were able to begin selling organic coffee to the United States. Eventually, in the year 2000, Cesmach was accepted as a Fair Trade member, having complied with the criteria established for small coffee-producing cooperatives by Max Havelaar. Currently, Cesmach is organically certified in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and following the guidelines established by the European Union.  It also has Fair Trade certification with FLO International.

1999 was an important year for Cesmach because the organization carried out both internal and external development via a process of priority analysis which helped the group identify strategies that would allow for the cooperative to continue on and to grow in the region, by paying closer attention to urgent needs and by searching for alliances and allies that share the organization’s objectives and needs. Cesmach analyzed basic elements such as access to financing, integrated product quality improvement, increase in the number of producer members in order to create an economic, social and environmental impact, internal capitalization, acquisition of infrastructure and equipment, etc.

Cesmach’s offices and coffee storage warehouse.


The cooperative today

Today Cesmach is well-established as a true cooperative that is active and that serves as a tool for its associated small-coffee producers. It is primarily dedicated to searching for solutions and to making proposals in response to the complex set of problems faced by the small coffee producers and their communities. The following chart provides some information on the evolution of this organized group:






Number of members




Hectares of organic coffee




Exports (in 69-kilo sacks)




Number of communities




Municipalities involved




Product certifications





Fair Trade


Fair Trade


In 2006, CESMACH went through a second internal analysis and strategic planning process, designed to update the co-operatives’ objectives and goals in the framework of a new market reality and changes in the organization to include greater participation from the producer-members, the communities, former leadership from committee members, and the employees.  

Sustainable coffee farm

Currently Cesmach is organized into operational departments (production, commercialization, administration and accounting, commercialization and community development). The important activities of this social business are grouped into programs that are described below.

Collecting pergamino coffee in the farmers’ warehouse.


Sustainable coffee program

The goal of this program is to systematize and carry out production activities, to oversee investment, and to improve the processing and marketing of the organization’s coffee while maintaining ecological standards and a highly-responsible social ethic. A component that was incorporated in 2005 was conservation of the biodiversity, going beyond the farms and looking at that which has the greatest impact on conservation: El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve’s flora and fauna. The result is a coffee that has a tremendous impact on its communities of origin with regards to social, economic, and natural resources.

A visit from Equal Exchange, one of our primary allies in promoting sustainable coffee.


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As many of you are now well aware, Equal Exchange buys a portion of our Mexican coffee from the CESMACH co-operative of small-scale farmers in Chiapas.  We have told the story of how we began working with CESMACH, and have posted links to a variety of articles that others, who have travelled with us to visit CESMACH, have published in their food co-op newsletters.

This year one of our Interfaith partners, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, granted CESMACH funding to support their efforts to train women leaders in the co-op.  Through our Small Farmers Green Planet Fund, Equal Exchange also sent additional funding to support a food security and environmental protection project through which the women members are planting organic gardens and orchards, raising poultry, and rescuing endangered native plant species in the El Triunfo Biosphere.

We have just received this report, and project update, from the co-op.  The first of two parts, covering the history of CESMACH, the unique resources of the El Triunfo Biosphere, and the situation facing their members in included.  Part II will cover the work that they are doing to grow and export high quality organic coffee, and some of the projects which they are implementing to protect the fragile eco-system in which they live and farm, and improve the quality of life for their members.  They’ve also included some beautiful photos we hope you enjoy!


The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve

The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve was established on March 13, 1990 and encompasses 119,117 hectares of land, an area that is shared by the municipalities of Acacoyahua, Angel Albino Corzo, Montecristo de Guerrero, La Concordia, Mapastepec, Pijijiapan, Siltepec and Villa Corzo.

It is made up of rough terrain and the altitude ranges between 400 to 2,750 meters above sea level. The highest points are at El Triunfo, La Bandera, El Venado, El Cebú, La Angostura and Ovando. The total surface area is 119,177 hectares and the land is divided in two management zones: the nucleus zone and the buffer zone. The nucleus zone has five areas (
I. El Triunfo, II. Ovando, III. Quetzal, IV. El Venado and V. La Angostura), all of which are designated to protect and research biodiversity and to provide environmental education. This zone has a total surface area of 25,763 hectares. The buffer zone is one area that encircles the nucleus zone and is been primarily designated for the development of sustainable production. It has a surface area of 93,458 hectares.

Location of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve

El Triunfo’s flora includes 10 of the 18 types of vegetation found in the state of Chiapas. There is a high diversity of plant species—in the Ovando Hills alone, 791 species, including 476 genus and 122 families, have been reported. 751 species are endemic to the mountainous zone in area 1 (el Triunfo), including Decachaeta ovandensis, Heisteria acuminata, Desmopsis lanceolata, Forchhammeria matudae, Bunchosia matudae, Centardisia (Ardisia) ovandensis, Daphnopsis flavida, Plocanophyllon flavum and Rondeletia ovandensis. Other species that are endemic to this area include the fichus (Ficus crassiuscula), the “carnero” (Coccoloba escuintlensis), the “caquito” (Sloanea terniflora), the “naranjillo” (Swartzia ochnacea), (Ceratozamia matudae) and (Erythrina tajumulcensis).

Flora that is representative of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve

Fauna is another important aspect—22% of all species found in Mexico are living in this area. To date, 14 amphibian species, 42 reptilian species, 390 bird species and 112 mammal species have been reported. Some animals are endemic, such as Matuda’s arboreal alligator lizard (Abronia matudae), the Cerro Ovando salamander (Dendrotriton xolocaltcae), the pit viper (Bothriechis ornatus), the blue-winged tanager (Tangara cabanisii) and the horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus). There are other threatened species and species in danger of extinction such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), the spider monkey, (Ateles geoffroyi), the tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and the quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno).

The jaguar and the quetzal, two species in danger of extinction, are still present in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve.

In El Triunfo there are four climates: sub-humid heat, semi-humid heat, temperate humidity and semi-hot humidity. The temperatures range from 14 to 30 degrees centigrade, with an annual precipitation of 1,000 to 4,500 mm annually. This is one of the regions in the country that receives the most rainfall, which in turn generates a water resource that feeds the Grijalva River hydroelectric complex, the largest in Mexico.

A common panorama in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas

The distance between Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, and the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve is 180 kilometers. It can be reached by following Highway 157 towards Independencia and then heading south towards Jaltenango de la Paz. Upon reaching the Nueva Independencia junction, take the road to Toluca.

The small coffee producers and their social and economic situation


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The weekend has arrived and it’s time to stock up the fridge and replenish the cupboards. Where do you choose to shop: the supermarket chain in your town? Whole Foods? Trader Joe’s? Or perhaps, your local food co-operative?

Many of us who are concerned about the food we eat – where it comes from, who grows it, and how it’s grown, processed, and distributed – choose to buy our groceries at the local food co-operative, where we may also choose to become members. Why favor food co-operatives over other grocery stores and supermarkets? For some, it’s to support the ideals of community control and democratic ownership. There’s a sense that the products on the shelves are healthier for us, the farmers, and the planet. Many engaged consumers also believe that food co-operatives provide a greater selection of organic, local, and Fair Trade products and will come from companies that share these principles.

For those of us who are deeply committed to these values, there’s a desire to see them reflected in our food choices: it’s just another way of voting, only in place of ballots, we’re using our consumer dollars. There’s an assumption that most, if not all, of the brands being offered also reflect this commitment to small farmers and businesses, organic and natural farming practices, and whenever possible, are locally or Fair Trade produced. I believe that most food co-op members and consumers want to know that the companies behind the products share a commitment to social change, democratic principles and are working as part of the movement to create a green and just food system.

Alas, this is not always the case. It is not even often the case.

Even natural and organic products’ origins get tricky. Check out the flow chart below, created by Dr. Phil Howard, a professor at Michigan State University who is pioneering research into the corporate consolidation of our food system.

Do you see your favorite organic brand mentioned above? Are you shocked, as I was, to see how many of those companies are actually owned by the likes of Coca-Cola, Kraft and Cargill? Is it disheartening to discover the degree to which a few corporations and their subsidiaries currently dominate the natural foods industry? Do you think that they share the same commitment to growers and consumers, workplace democracy, a transparent and fair food system (up and down the supply chain), and a healthy planet? How easy would it be even to learn this information?

On Phil Howard’s website, you can get a better view of these charts and learn more about these disturbing trends. You can also read an excellent interview with him that Equal Exchange’s marketing writer, Ashley Symons, conducted during Howard’s 4-day visit to Equal Exchange in June of this year. During our exchanges with Dr. Howard, he showed us a number of slides which graphically present how increasingly consolidated the organic industry has become. In every aspect of the supply chain – production, processing, distribution and retail – the entire food industry is in the hands of fewer and fewer multi-national companies. And so, if you thought that there was something different about the organic industry, think again.

In stark contrast, Howard has also published an “Independents” chart that represents the minimal presence of independent and cooperatively-owned businesses in the national natural foods market. You’ll see Equal Exchange on there, along with three other cooperatively owned businesses: Organic Valley, Alvarado Street Bakery, and Frontier Natural Products. Not many, are there?

Why does any of this matter?

As a co-operative business, Equal Exchange’s model shares many values with our food co-operative partners and their members and consumers. We believe in an economic model and supply chain that emphasizes small-scale farmers, independent business owners and co-operatives. We want our purchases – as a company and as individuals – to support other companies and co-operatives that are trying to restructure and revitalize our food system by strengthening democratic models, practicing sustainable agriculture methods, and whose missions share the goal of providing food for people not for the profits of a handful of food conglomerates.

What can we do about this imbalance in the food industry, now being mirrored in the organic industry? How do we “take back” our food system?

The comparison between corporate businesses versus independently-controlled brands and products is startling and bleak, but it is our belief that the actual situation is much more inspiring. The solution to corporate domination barely exists on a national level… yet. By its very nature, the hope of the organic and Fair Trade movements (as they were originally conceived) exists in co-operatives and in pockets “off the radar,” locally and regionally. Small farmers, co-operative food companies, and regional independents supply their local co-ops with produce, dairy, baked goods and bulk products. They are the real champions of a more just and environmentally-responsible food system.

Once awareness of the trends in the organic industry (which parallel similar trends in the media, banking, and other sectors) grows, it will be easier to take action. As more and more people begin to grasp the impact a corporate controlled food system is having on our lives and our planet, we believe it will be easier to take the appropriate actions – both through political arenas and through our own individual and collective behaviors.

We can take back our food system!

At Equal Exchange, we believe that the first step in fixing this broken and imbalanced food system is to understand how it currently works and who it favors. Next we can begin imagining the system we want, and working together, we can make a better, more fair system possible. This is the movement that food co-operatives, interfaith groups, and engaged consumers helped build with respect to Fair Trade, and prior to that with organics. Now it’s time to go even deeper. We believe that Phil Howard’s research and these charts are providing a great contribution to advance this movement.

We are currently working with food co-ops to help them create their own “Independents Chart” that shows the regional, independently-controlled businesses that are making a difference in their area; companies at the cusp of sustainable agriculture, community activism and social responsibility. We believe that by providing this type of information to co-op members and consumers, we can begin to help each other make more conscious choices to support the brands that are more closely aligned with these values. In this way, food co-operatives, committed to building a supply chain for people, can continue to educate members about the extent of corporate domination, but also offer an alternative – one the supports communities, co-operatives and the environment.

Nick Reid, a salesperson with our Natural Foods team, teamed up with one of our long-time food co-operative allies, Sevananda Natural Foods Market in Atlanta, Georgia, to come up with a chart that shows the local, regional and independent vendors whose products are sold in their store.

In the case of Sevananda, the choices are clear.  Consumers do have viable choices.   But informed decisions require information.  We believe that this is the starting point… where we end up is our choice. And it starts with the next trip for groceries.

What do you think?

Nick Reid contributed to this article.

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