Posts Tagged ‘Chiapas’

The following article by Steve Stroup, Member Services and Outreach Coordinator at Bloomingfoods, was originally posted on the Bloomingfoods websiteBloomingfoods has been a key and fundamental partner of Equal Exchange for over 15 years.  They have been instrumental in helping us envision and build an alternative model of trade that aims to restore dignity and fairness to small scale producers, supports sustainable agriculture, and connects consumers to small farmers.  Steve was one of seven food co-op representatives whom we invited to accompany us on a trip to Chiapas, Mexico last month to visit one of our farmer co-op partners.  Here’s his inspiring article which we are really proud and excited to share with all of you!


Co-ops, Equal Exchange, and the Struggle for Fair Trade


View from the coffee fields of Las Pilas

An Offer We Couldn’t Refuse
In the fall of 2008, Bloomingfoods was contacted by the Equal Exchange Co-op, known by us all as purveyors of fine and fairly traded coffee, tea, and chocolate. Their offer: would we like to send a representative on a spring tour they were organizing to Chiapas state in southern Mexico to visit the warehouses, processing facility, and farms of the CESMACH (Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas S. C.) Co-op, from which it procures a significant portion of its Mexican coffee. They’d make the arrangements; they’d provide guides and translators; they’d hold our hands in the event of a screaming case of Montezuma’s revenge; we just needed to be there, with open minds and relatively sound bodies, anxious to learn, and with a willingness to share what we witnessed with folks back home. Without hesitation, we responded, “yes, of course”!   And I was lucky enough to get the nod.  What follows is an account of the trip, part mere travelogue but my best effort to share with you both some of the most significant and defining details of coffee production for Equal Exchange and, more importantly, the inestimable role which co-ops are making in the world of agricultural commerce and social justice.

Bloomingfoods likes Equal Exchange. A lot. Equal Exchange is dedicated to buying its coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products from cooperatives of small farmers, by which decisions concerning both business and community affairs are made democratically. In turn, Equal Exchange sells much of its product to organizations such a Bloomingfoods, itself a member-owned cooperative. By trading directly with grower co-ops, Equal Exchange eliminates the multiple layers of middlemen common in the coffee trade, ensuring that a larger percent of the consumer’s dollars reaches the people who do the hard, skilled work of growing and harvesting fine coffee.  Its commitment to “fair trade” coffees and the folks producing them is no better reflected than in the articles of their agreement with grower co-ops, such as CESMACH. These are:

1) To pay a fair, previously agreed upon price. This price will always be at least $0.05 above market price and will never sink below $1.56 per pound. Due to the extremely high quality of CESMACH coffee, their growers typically receive even more. But fair trade is about more than mere price per pound. Thus:

2) Equal Exchange offers its growers a reliable long-term relationship which they can count on year after year.

3) Equal Exchange offers pre-harvest financing, an absolutely critical condition for the poor indigenous farmers struggling to survive and raise their families through subsistence agriculture and the production of coffee.

4) Equal Exchange pays a “social premium” above the base price, this money to be used by the grower cooperative to invest in other socio-economic development projects.  In exchange for these considerations, Equal Exchange insists that:

5) The coffee production be conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner, and

6) That the grower co-op operates in a democratic, politically empowering fashion that respects the rights and interests of all its members.

Through such arrangements, Equal Exchange has arguably done more than any other organization in the last 15 years to change the way coffee is grown, bought, and sold around the globe. Its commitment to fairly traded products, organic, sustainable production practices, and innovative systems of agricultural commerce is a non-pareil in the world of international agriculture.  Bloomingfoods is thus delighted to be a leading outlet for the products it offers.

The goals of our trip were several, but they revolved around giving representatives from seven selected co-ops a chance to actually see and thus more intimately understand the conditions under which coffee is grown and processed in southern Mexico. It was also hoped that we would gain a fuller appreciation for the role which coffee plays in the political, social, and economic lives of producers, and also to personally express to the growers how much their efforts and their coffee are appreciated.  Through such trips, little by little, Equal Exchange is doing its part to forge stronger connections between the growers and the stores and customers who purchase their coffee.

Logistically, our trip would consist of three principle stages:  first, via multiple flights and a bus ride, we would make our way to San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful old colonial city in the heart of the state of Chiapas.  From there we would make a half-day drive to Jaltenango, a town of 30,000 inhabitants, and the site of the warehouses and offices of CESMACH (Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas S. C.). Finally, we would make the long haul to Las Pilas, a village of 33 families that was so small and so remotely located in the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve that I was unable to find it on even the best map of the region that I could reference.  Ah, it smelled to high heaven of adventure!

Phyllis, Nick, and Lilla

And so it was that at the crack of dawn on March 1st, I flew out of Indianapolis International, touched down briefly at Sam Houston, and then flew on to Mexico City. There I was united with my traveling companions. Our number was ten: enough to ensure lots of camaraderie, support, intellectual exchange, and fun but without being too unwieldy. Phyllis “Felicia” Robinson, from Equal Exchange, a former resident of Latin America and a veteran of many such trips, was our leader. She was assisted in this by her colleagues, Lilla Woodham and Nicholas Reid. The co-op reps were an interesting mix of ages and professional assignments. In addition to myself (the geezer of the group), these included: Kevin Quinn, Produce Manager at People’s Co-op in Ann Arbor; Don Pierce, I.T. Systems Manager at Harvest Co-op in Boston; Rita York, Assistant General Manager of Community Mercantile in Lawrence;  Margaret Mills, Grocery Manager at People’s Food Co-op in Lacrosse, Stephanie Catlett, Marketing Coordinator/Newsletter Editor for New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, IA, and Kathy Piedl, Wellness Manager at Hungry Hollow Co-op, Chestnut Ridge, NY. Following a brief layover in Mexico City, we all piled into a plane for a short flight to the Chiapas state capital, Tuxtla Guttierez. There we were met by a representative of CESMACH, who herded us into a bus for the hour drive to San Cristobal.

From the moment we drove out of the Tuxtla airport, the adventure was begun in earnest. In a light rain and howling wind, we had a wild ride on the new highway that connects Tuxtla and San Cristobal. Most drivers–including our own–made full use of the two wide two lanes of the highway, honking, tail-gating, flashing their bright lights, braking and accelerating fiercely, weaving from lane to lane as they raced up and down and around the winding road. I sat by an open window in a reverie, my arm hanging out, reveling in the soft rain, wonderful mountain air, and exhilarating ride.

Thanks to the preliminary work done by our Equal Exchange guides, the patrona of the Hotel Pasada Isabel was expecting us, and she and an assistant quickly prepared a simple meal of eggs, tortillas, fruit, and tea. The meal was hot and bountiful, for which we were grateful. San Cristobal sits at almost 7000″, and when the sun sets the temperature drops precipitously. In addition, the public areas of the hotel were almost completely open to the elements and the rooms themselves were unheated.  Consequently, we huddled, somewhat chilled, over our meals wearing the few articles of heavy clothing we’d brought. We were relieved at the end of the meal to discover our beds covered in warm blankets, and at the end of a very long day of travel we all happily fell into sleep.

Gustavo Castro Soto

The next day was passed mostly in meetings. First our entire group assembled in the chilly hotel meeting/dining room for an introduction by Phyllis, Nick, and Lilla to the history and goals of Equal Exchange, as well as to review the rough itinerary we would follow on the trip. Clearly, a lot of planning had gone into the trip, but we’d be doing a lot of seat-of-the-pants adjusting as we went along. This concluded, we took our first walk through the scenic streets of San Cristobal to the offices of Otro Mundos AC/Amigos de la Tierra. Here international policy analyst, Gustavo Castro Soto met us. For the next two hours, Senior Castro presented to us a fascinating, albeit somewhat discouraging, socio-economic history of Mexico and Chiapas, with a special focus on the environmental degradation being wreaked by inappropriate agricultural, mining, and development practices. It was a tale dark in corrupt governmental action, misguided international treaties, and environmental and human abuses. Yet in the end it was not without hope that some positive change is happening, in part through the work of co-ops such as Equal Exchange and CESMACH.

Street view from our hotel

Following our meeting with Soto, we ate a late lunch, convened another meetings to prepare for the following day’s trip to Jaltenango, and then indulged ourselves in a brief outing for supplies.  This was our last chance to check email at any of the innumerable email cafes that littered the city and to visit the large open-air market for additional parkas and scarves for evening air we now realized was colder than we’d expected. The mountain winds continued to chill us, and we were all anxious to acquire a few extra garments to ensure that we didn’t freeze in the mountain village to which we were headed. And what a great opportunity it proved. For it allowed us to wander and dicker among the scores of indigenous craftsmen vending their wares in the courtyard of one of Chiapas’ larger churches.

But this is all by way of mere prelude. For the real story of the trip is the story of the CESMACH co-op, and the difference it is making in the lives of its member-farmers and in the stability and health of the fragile biosphere in which they live. Now confidently decked out in new woolen and heavy cotton scarves, parkas, leggings, and gloves, we were anxious to be on our way.

CESMACH: THE Co-op Difference


Arising early the next morning, we piled sleepily into a van and headed into the real boondocks, driving through a landscape dusty and brown in the waning days of the dry season, passing through quiet, colorful villages coming slowly to life in the warming sun of morning. After about four hours, we arrived in Jaltenango and the headquarters and warehouses of CESMACH. We proceeded immediately to the CESMACH offices, where we were met and warmly greeted by several members of the staff and board.  Our day then began in earnest, with 10 intense hours filled with meetings and with watching coffee being received, tested and evaluated for quality and condition.

The meetings began with a review of the history of coffee growing in the region. Prior to the establishment of CESMACH, we learned, life for the coffee growers in the villages was arduous and largely without hope of improvement. Originally subsistence farmers, villagers in the area had gradually begun introducing coffee into their mix of crops, hoping in that way to diversify and to develop a source of income for the purchase the myriad consumer goods and services they could not locally grow or provide.  But their isolated location, poverty, and competition from competing growers in other regions rendered even this a dubious pursuit. Their farming practices at the time were purely conventional, including the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and the removal of canopy species and understory to permit the planting of corn, beans, and other food crops.

The addition of coffee to the mix did nothing to improve conditions, environmentally or economically. The growers simply planted coffee trees on the steep mountain slopes, sprayed them with whatever cheap synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers they could afford, then hoped that the trees and coffee berries could withstand the fierce summer storms to which the region is subject long enough to mature and be harvested. Once this harvest was picked, the growers then waited for the arrival of the “coyotes,” middlemen who systematically prowled the region during the harvest season, negotiating coffee deals with individual growers. The growers, being as they were perpetually broke and without recourse to other funding, had no option but to sell their precious beans for the pittance offered. Thus was the environment abused and the farmers plunged deeper into a cycle of poverty, weariness, and despair.

Finally, broke and disgusted, the growers determined to do something different, and in 1994 they banded together and the CESMACH cooperative was born.  With the creation of CESMACH, producers put themselves into a position to begin operating under a different system. But of what would that system consist. What would be its methods, its processes, its goals?

Among the first decisions made was that growing practices would be organic and fully sustainable.  As it is with organic farmers everywhere, protection of the land, itself, was immediately elevated to primary importance.  So, not only are synthetic pesticides and fertilizers banned, but many additional practices have been introduced. For instance, in order to minimize erosion, the fields are painstakingly terraced, a particularly difficult feat in a region that is so heavily forested and exceedingly steep.  Further, rather than merely discarding waste materials—chiefly pulp and wastewater—special efforts are made to compost or otherwise purify them prior to release. And instead of removing the forest canopy, it is carefully cultivated to ensure that it shields the coffee from the intense sun and the slopes from the driving rains.

But the production of exquisite, shade-grown organic coffee is only the first goal of CESMACH, and not so much an end unto itself as a means of achieving a great deal more. First, working co-operatively under the umbrella of CESMACH put the growers in a position to negotiate much better, “fairer” selling arrangements with buyers. To this end, the co-op rather than the individual farmers now negotiate crop sales, and selling in larger quantities vastly enhances the leverage they can bring to bear. This was further facilitated by the construction of warehouse and storage facilities,  Now, instead of briefly holding and selling their coffee out of their homes and villages, the growers consolidate and hold their coffee in an efficient warehouse system until fair prices can be negotiated. The strength and flexibility this gives the villagers can be no better expressed than in “Coffee’s David and Goliath Story,” which describes the initially devastating but ultimately empowering incident which led to the partnership which now exists between CESMACH and Equal Exchange. Through such measures, CESMACH works to achieve a greater measure of prosperity for the villagers and with that the preservation of the local culture.

Endangered Horned Guan

Another very important consideration to CESMACH is that coffee cultivation methods contribute not only to the health of the coffee fields, themselves, but also to that of the fragile environment in which they are located. Many of the villages belonging to CESMACH are located in the periphery of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. This is a an area rich in rare and unique plant and animals species, many of which are threatened with extinction, chiefly due to habitat destruction. Growing coffee under a natural canopy, carefully terraced, and using organic methods clearly produces a superior coffee but also protects the natural environment.  Recycling of the berry pulp into compost and filtering in deep wells the acidic water created in fermenting the coffee beans further contribute to the preservation of this delicate biosphere.

Beyond environmental conservation and organic coffee production, CESMACH has also launched a variety of social development projects: community-owned chicken production operations, organic fruit orchards, expanded composting activities, and promotion of public health awareness on issues such as cervical cancer. All these efforts are directed not only toward diversifying incomes but also to enhancing life in general for all the villagers. Octavio Carbajal of CESMACH expresses it thus: “We are conscious of the fact that we will not see economic or environmental change if we do not first make changes in our society, recover and strengthen human values. In CESMACH that is our priority.”

CESMACH Warehouse

Having thus learned something of the philosophy and goals which guide CESMACH, we were very excited to visit the warehouse and receiving areas, and to see those philosophies put into action.  Just as our meetings with our CESMACH hosts explored the co-ops commitment to wise, sustainable agricultural and economic practices, so did our visit to the warehouse operations permit us to witness the extraordinary care taken to ensure that the co-op buys and sells only the finest coffees.  The basic process is simple but the standards are rigorous.

Here’s how they go about it.

Inspecting coffee

Upon the arrival of a grower with his crop, samples of the beans are extracted from each of the 100+ pound burlap bags in which they are delivered. The sample beans are visually inspected for flaws, their moisture content is analyzed, and they are dechaffed to determine the percentage of chaff to bean. If the quality is not up to the highest standards, the beans are rejected outright (later, in the fields, we would see the pains to which the farmers go to prevent this costly outcome); if it is too wet, it will be purchased, but a lesser price will be paid since it will be necessary to further dry the beans in the sun on the large cement slab outside the building. If accepted as is, the farmer’s entire delivery is then carried in, loaded on to a large mechanical scale, weighed, then stacked in the area in which it will be held until it is sent for processing at a facility owned and operated jointly by CESMACH and three other co-ops. And the grower receives payment according to the previously reached agreement. From the processing facility, the coffee is  shipped to Europe, Asia, or the United States. Only then, in facilities such as those at Equal Exchange, will the coffee finally be carefully roasted, vacuum-sealed, then shipped to outlets such as Bloomingfoods for sale to consumers.

Stacking coffee on to scale

It is worth noting as an aside at this point that until very recently, CESMACH had no facilities for actually roasting coffee or a plan for selling it in Mexico. Indeed, throughout our trip we noticed that good, richly brewed coffee was a rarity, a luxury not available to most people. Recently, however, CESMACH has purchased a roaster and is working diligently to develop at least a small local market for its exceptional coffee.

And so a long and fascinating day passed, until by 10:00 pm we were starving and exhausted yet anxious to embark for the village and coffee fields early the next morning. Our gracious CESMACH hosts relieved us of our hunger and weariness by feting us at a local café, complete with live marimba music, hot and spicy local cuisine, and cool Coronas. By the time we collapsed in our beds around 1:00 a.m. we were indeed ready for sleep.

Bright and early we were again up, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then loaded our bags on to the roof of a CESMACH van that appeared in timely fashion to take us into the mountains. We were told that once the wet season hit, only 4-wheel drive vehicles even had a chance of making the journey, but now, before the summer rains had blown in, the van could make it.  The ride was long and rough, passing for a while through dry, lowland country, roughly farmed or grazed, with an occasional small village strung along the road.  As we proceeded, the pavement became poorer and more broken, the villages more widely spaced. Finally, the paved road went left and a dirt path forked right. We took the fork, and for the next hour and half we drove a circuitous route ever higher, higher into the mountains, the slopes becoming ever more lushly vegetated and the road more frequently washed out all or in part (still part of the aftermath of hurricane Stan, which struck the area in 2005).  And so we drove into an increasingly remote country until finally, rounding yet another bend, we saw our destination, the village of Las Pilas.

Las Pilas and the Growing of Organic, Shaded Coffee

The setting of Las Pilas is absolutely stunning, so far up the side of the mountain that we could look down hundreds of feet to see vultures circling, themselves hundreds of feet above the valley floor. And yet the mountains continue to rise up high above the village, beautifully enrobed in a mixed canopy of broad-leaf deciduous, pine, and palm trees. The village itself consists of thirty or so homes. Most that I entered were about 15′ x 20″ or 25′, consisted of only one or two rooms, were constructed of mud bricks, had cement floors (a recent improvement from dirt floors, we were told), and tin roofs raised above the walls to facilitate air flow. I saw only one refrigerator, but somewhere in each house was invariably a hand-cranked grinder for grinding corn and a corner space devoted to a small hearth where a wood fire served to cook the ubiquitous corn tortillas and other dishes. There was electricity, but not much: most of the houses were very dark, lit only by a single, very dim bulb, and even that was turned off shortly after dark. I saw no indoor plumbing: washing was done outside, and there seemed to be toilet facilities at about every three houses. These consisted of a toilet beside a cistern full of water. After using the toilet, one simply dipped a bucket of water, poured it boldly into the toilet, and let gravity carry it down a drain to, where?

Las Pilas home interior

Upon our arrival, the villagers gradually came out from their houses to meet us. After dropping our bags in a nearby home, we proceeded to the village school. There we met with representatives of most of the 17 families who are members of CESMACH, introducing ourselves, speaking a bit about why we were there, and expressing to them the high value placed on their coffee by our customers back home. This was actually quite an interesting endeavor, given that most of these folks rarely venture to a town and have no real conception of our co-op groceries. Still, they seemed impressed, albeit a bit confused, by the fact that Americans would travel so far simply to observe and learn about their coffee growing activity. From them, in turn, we began to learn first-hand of what that activity consisted.

Path to the coffee fields

Climate, terrain, grinding poverty and utter dependence on man, donkey, and nature for almost all energy input render coffee production in the mountains of Chiapas a manual, arduous, and very precarious vocation.  Those same conditions, together with major doses of incredible ingenuity and tenacity, also make it possible for the villagers to produce some of the finest coffee in the world.

Hand holding coffee branch

First, let’s talk field locations. There’s virtually no flat land in Las Pilas, and the orientation and vegetation of the slopes immediately surrounding the village are unsuited for coffee productions. Consequently, to our surprise, we learned that most of the “fields” are accessible only via a 1/4 hr to 1 hr hike along some of the narrowest and most precipitous trails I have ever walked.  We were hard pressed to keep pace with our village guides as they led us to the fields.  And by the time we arrived, we felt much more like resting than picking. But picking was what we were there to do, to experience, if only for an hour or so, for it was early March and the tail end of harvest season.  The last berries needed to be picked. This was actually the 3rd or 4th picking of the trees this season, in this way ensuring that the majority of the berries were picked at the peak of ripeness. Ours was the final picking of the season, and so we were instructed to pick all remaining berries, regardless of ripeness. Why? Because this coffee is grown under purely organic methods, without pesticides, herbicides, and other synthetic chemicals. Unpicked berries, either left on the trees or fallen to the ground, attract insects and disease, and so they must be removed from the fields. As we were to see in the next stage, the berries that were not entirely ripe would be sorted out, processed and sold, but not for Equal Exchange coffee. They would not be hauled to the CESMACH warehouse. Think rather of the wandering coyotes and of any of the popular supermarket brands with which most of us grew up on.

Sorting and Processing

Basket of beautiful coffee berries

After picking for little more than an hour, our group of 5 or 6 pickers had managed to assemble in our baskets three or four pounds of berries. Our hosts laughingly told us we’d need to pick up the pace a bit if we didn’t want to starve.  Four pounds, maybe. About $8 worth! After all that picking, and this doesn’t include all the work necessary to produce those berries: the planting, terracing, spreading of compost…the hours spend walking back and forth between the village and fields.  It was a shock. Our first tangible lesson in how hard these folks work to eke out a living.  And yet we were reminded, the price they earn through CESMCH is more than is paid by the coyotes to the growers not members of CESMACH.

After picking, the berries are poured on a tarp and the green and otherwise obviously bad specimens discarded. Again, these are sold to the coyotes for use in poorer general market coffees seen on supermarket shelves.

Rita skimming off the bad beans

Next, the “good,” ripe berries are poured into a large concrete sorting tank. Gravity and a ¾” hose stretched a half a mile or so up into the mountains then bring water to the tank. No pumps, no wells: just a slender hose and gravity. We watched in some amazement as the tank slowly filled with water and most of the berries sank. These, we were told, were good, solid berries, inside which both beans would be good. Others, however, floated to the top and were scooped off in a basket. Upon examination, we found that hail or insects had damaged all these berries, so that at least one of the two beans inside was bad. These berries, like the one ones previously sorted out, would also be sold to the coyotes.

Farmer depulping his berries

After discarding all the “floaters,” the drain plug at the bottom of one end of the tank is partially pulled, allowing water and beans to flow down a pipe toward another tank, the so-called “fermentation tank.” At this point, more labor occurs. Much more. The cherries must be depulped, the process whereby the beans contained in the berries are separated from the pulp and husks. This task is performed, like all other work in this neck of the woods, purely by hand. There is no electricity in this remote location, and the villagers eschew even small gasoline motors. Instead, they stand for hours, laboriously turning the crank as the coffee flows down. We all took a turn at the crank, and about 5 minutes was enough for us. The farmers stand there for hours at a time, turning, turning, turning…and this after a long day of picking.

As the coffee passes through the depulper, the husks and pulp pour on to the ground. They will be hauled off and composted. The beans, on the other hand, flow into the fermenting tank where they are first rinsed and then permitted to ferment for about a day. Fermentation is thought to accentuate the body and flavor of the coffee beans, but it must be done with great care because if the beans ferment for even a little too long they will be spoiled and an entire season of labor will have been for nothing.

Coffee being raked and dried

Standing there, looking at the wet, fermenting coffee, I was moved to ask the obvious question, “What do you do with all this wet coffee when it is fully fermented”?  The reply, appalling. “Oh, we put it into bags and haul it back to the village.” Yes, the wet coffee is loaded into burlap bags, then hauled by man or donkey back along the long, torturous track to the village. Ugh!

The wealthier families in Las Pilas have concrete drying patios outside their houses; poorer families had only tarps. On to these they pour their wet coffee, and for several days the woman and young children spread and rake it in the sun, turning it over and over to ensure that it dries evenly, thoroughly. When the coffee has been dried down to 12% moisture and a thin shell called parchment encapsulates each coffee bean, the producers pull the coffee off of the patios, return it to the burlap bags, then store it under cover until a truck can be found to make the four-hour trip to the warehouse in Jaltenango where it will be received and tested as I described above. And so the harvest is completed.

Fair Trade?

And that, in very brief, is an account of our trip, of the work of CESMACH and Equal Exchange in Chiapas, and of the nature of coffee production on an organic, shaded, terraced CESMACH farm in Las PIlas. Inspiring work, dogged work, yet work in which the folks at CESMACH, at Equal Exchange, and at Bloomingfoods all believe very strongly, for it embraces and attempts to harmonize the best of food, community, sustainability, and social justice.

And thus we return full circle to the primary theme and issue that took us to Chiapas in the first place: “Fair trade.” Is there fairness in this arrangement?  You decide. The farmer, using the most primitive manual methods can produce only a small amount of coffee, for which he is paid about $2 per pound in Jaltenango. If he endeavors to expand his production, the need for speed in the harvest forces him to pay hired help, thereby reducing his margin.  By the time the coffee has been hauled to Jaltenango, stored, hauled to the processing facility outside town, stored again, trucked to Vera Cruz and shipped to Equal Exchange facilities in Massachusetts, roasted, placed in vacuum-packed bags, then shipped to our stores, it’s price has gone to $10 per pound. The indigenous farmer on a remote hillside in Las Pilas has difficulty imagining all these processing stages, of fully grasping the complexity and expense inherent in international commerce. He sees only the endless hours he works to produce a few pounds of coffee for which he is paid $2 per pound yet which ultimately sells for $10 per pound. And he asks how this can be regarded as “fair,” for it is barely enough to provide his family with the essentials for life. And so they said to us as we left them there on their hillside, “You see now how hard we work. You see how poor we are. You taste how good the coffee is. Please pay us more”!  Yet in like fashion, a shopper in Bloomingfoods sees $9.99 per pound for Equal Exchange coffee and asks, how can this be “fair,” for it is $4 more per pound than the “coyote coffee” he knows is being sold in supermarkets. And so those customers say to us, “It costs too much. It is not fair. Please charge us less.”

Las Pilas donkey

There are no obvious and easy solutions to this situation, of course. Not if we desire the best possible coffee, and that it be produced without damage to the delicate environments in which it is grown, and that the men and women who produce it be able to earn a decent living without us having to pay $20 per pound. We present our observations from this little fact-finding adventure only to heighten the awareness of our customers, just as the experience heightened our own; and so that when you, the reader, walk through our polished and modern stores and see the coffee resting so brown and perfect in our bulk bins, maybe, just maybe, it will evoke in your mind’s eye the image of a patient, enduring farmer slowly leading a donkey laden with bags of soggy coffee beans up a dirt trail toward home as the sun sets behind the mountains, and the “price per pound” you see on our sign may indeed seem a little more, well, “fair.”

For more information about Equal Exchange and Fair Trade visit www.equalexchange.coop and www.SmallFarmersBigChange.coop.  And if your Spanish is up to it, check out the CESMACH site.

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This week we received a letter from our friends at the Center for Economic & Political Research for Community Action (CIEPAC) in Chiapas with an update of the on-going repression (including death threats) that members of their staff, and community leaders with whom they work, have been experiencing.

CIEPAC has been an organizational ally of Equal Exchange for many years.  We have tremendous respect for their investigative research and analysis, and for the popular education work they carry out, both in the indigenous farming communities of Chiapas, as well as with international audiences.  They have provided highly informative and insightful talks to the groups we bring to Chiapas which provide valuable context to help frame the extremely difficult situation facing small farmers and rural communities in the region.   

Please join us in solidarity with those in Mexico who are actively struggling for the economic, political, social and resource rights of small farmer communities.  Mexican officials need to know that we will not stand by while these human rights abuses continue.

Nikhil Aziz, Executive Director of Grassroots International, is disseminating the following letter which describes the current situation and asks for our response.  Please take a moment to read the letter and send your email to Mexican officials.


Dear Friends,

Human rights and community leaders in Mexico continue to experience threats – including death threats. They ask for help from global activists to protect their lives and their community work.

Current threats follow previous repression, including the unjust prosecution of local organizers of the Civil Resistance against the high cost of energy in the southern state of Campeche.  Last December, in response to an emergency action, letters of solidarity with Sara Lopez and Joaquin Aguilar brought authorities in Campeche to the negotiating table.

Your support is still needed.

Sara and Joaquin continue to be defamed and harassed by the Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE), and these tactics are now spreading throughout communities in Mexico who resist the increases in fees for electric service.  The resistance of communities in the states of Campeche and Chiapas is spurred by sky-rocketing electricity costs, due to the growth of U.S. backed privatization schemes, and the construction of new dams that cause environmental damage and displace families.

Now people in various communities in the state of Chiapas are also being targeted for their resistance to the electric rate hikes.   In one community, the actions of the Federal Commission of Electricity took a step up by fueling conflicts between community members.  CFE’s “divide and rule” approach resulted in the death of a farmer and left several people wounded.

In another instance, Nora Cacho, the Executive Director of the Center for Economic & Political Research for Community Action (CIEPAC) – a Grassroots‘ ally – has been receiving threatening phone calls from an unknown individual.  The calls began after Nora led the World March of Women in December, during which she spoke out against acts of feminicide and the criminalization of social movements in Mexico .  According to an open letter released by CIEPAC last week, government officers and police were filming and taking photographs of the demonstration.

Let’s send a resounding message that the world will not turn a blind eye to government repression of peaceful activists.  Please lend your voice once again to pressure federal, state, and municipal authorities in Mexico to stop their tactics of harassment and intimidation against women and organizers.  Time is of the essence. 

Nikhil's Aziz' signature
Nikhil Aziz
Executive Director

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… 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 story of the CESMACH (Campesinos Ecológicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas) coffee co-operative in Mexico is a powerful example of what a group of far-sighted and tenacious farmers, with a commitment to protect the unique cloud forest in which they live, can accomplish when they set their minds to the task. Since 1995, when the co-operative was legally founded, the 270 coffee producers that live and farm within the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere, have dedicated themselves to organic farming as a way of protecting the Biosphere’s fragile resources and to create a more sustainable life for themselves and their families. Please read their story as they told it to us.


The CESMACH farmers are located in the Sierra Madre mountains in the southwestern part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. They farm within the buffer zone of El Triunfo, a U.N.- designated biosphere, rich in flora and fauna, containing many endangered and protected species. Within the nucleus of the biosphere, agricultural activities are not permitted as the area contains many endangered and protected species.  Organic farming is allowed in the buffer zone, which separates the biosphere from the surrounding region, as long as it is done in accordance with a strict set of standards designed to protect the fragile environment of the rain and cloud forest.


Equal Exchange has been working with the CESMACH co-operative since 2005 when we offered to buy 10 containers of their coffee – 60% of their total production. Since that year, our relationship has been steadily growing. In 2008, we brought our first group of visitors, representatives of food co-ops across the United States, to visit the farmers. It was during this visit, that the founders of CESMACH told us the enthralling story of how they transformed themselves from individual farmers to a strong and visionary co-operative business selling high quality, organic coffee. “It’s been a very long road to get here, and when we started it was just a dream,” Victorico Velasquez Morales, a founding member and former CESMACH president told our group.

CESMACH has had tremendous success selling its members’ coffee into the specialty coffee market, thereby keeping the communities unified and raising their members’ standard of living. Still, the farmers live in highly marginalized communities and they face many critical social and economic challenges. Coffee is the only source of income for most farmers in this region and they are economically dependent on their individual plots which average only five acres.

Consequently, the CESMACH farmers have decided not only to become the supplier of the highest quality, organic coffee in the region, but to create and implement a variety of social development and environmental projects which will benefit its members and the fragile Biosphere in which they live. Three years ago, the co-operative leadership began actively working with the women members and the wives of members to implement small individual patio gardens and collective chicken farms in order to both diversify their families’ diets and to generate additional income. (more…)

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The following article, written by Patty Kupfer, was printed in the September/October 2008 issue of Sojourner’s Magazine. Patty used to work for Witness for Peace and co-organized some of Equal Exchange’s Interfaith Department’s delegation visits to Chiapas. During these trips, we visited our coffee farmer partners, CIRSA, an amazing organization of Tzotzil and Tzeltal -speaking indigenous farmers located in the highlands of Chiapas. Patty interviewed some members of the co-op for this article. You can also read more about CIRSA in the Viroqua Food Co-op’s May/June 2008 newsletter.


Ask the nearly 600 members of the CIRSA coffee cooperative in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, how things are going and they’ll tell you, “Little by little, we’re moving forward.” Considering that a couple of decades ago the parents of these indigenous farmers worked in slavery-like conditions on large coffee plantations in the region, and that their region has been ignored and marginalized throughout its history, their progress is tremendous.

The Indigenous Communities of the Simojovel de Allende Region (CIRSA in Spanish) shipped 235 tons of fair trade coffee last year to the United States and Europe. Through the fair trade certification system, the small farmers of CIRSA and similar cooperatives throughout Latin America are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. This provides stability to small farmers, who live in some of the world’s poorest regions—and who are especially vulnerable to the volatile market that dictates world coffee prices. This is why, on our weekly trip to the grocery store, many of us fork over some extra change for fair trade coffee. (more…)

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