The main reason San Cristobal was on my radar was because I had made a contact there who could introduce me to one of the local Fairtrade co-ops. The state of Chiapas is the largest coffee producer in Mexico and has a number of organic and Fairtrade producers. So I knew I’d have other options without coming here. But it’s always good to have a contact and Dan Swanson warmly welcomed me to San Cristobal and was very happy to show me around areas of the city and introduce me to the people at Maya Vinic.
Dan is an ex-pat from Chicago who lives in San Cristobal and works with the Jubilee Economic Ministry (JEM). One focus of JEM’s work is to help the indigenous populations in the Chiapas region and around San Cristobal in particular. There is a long history of oppression of indigenous people and even the different groups are wary and mistrusting of each other. Dan helps to try and bring these groups together. The Maya Vinic co-op arose out of many events that took place in the 1990s and was formed in 1999. It’s producers are indigenous Tzotzil. The name Maya Vinic means “Mayan Men”.
When I arrived I met a few of the staff there. Antonio and Luis spoke to me during my visit and I also met ‘El Presidente’ Pablo Vasquez. The office there is smaller than what I’d seen at UCIRI though they did also have a roasting, grinding and packing room. They export their best quality coffee to the US (e.g. Higher Grounds), Canada (e.g. Alternative Grounds) and Japan; mostly it is as green beans.
Their mission from the start was not with a conventional business plan. It was community-minded and a response to the troubles they’d experienced in the previous years (I will write more on this in my next post). Coffee was a way for them to come together as a community and build something for the future. It takes time to get something like this working successfully but by 2001 they were beginning to export coffee as Fair Trade. Over the years they have kept working and improving. Their warehouse (in Acteal, about 1.5 hours’ drive away) has an eco-project alongside it now, with meeting room, gardens containing coffee plants, a small store, mushroom cultivation and in the last few years they have been able to produce honey. Early next year they hope to open a cafe in San Cristobal.
Luis was a great help during my visit as he talked to me in English (very well I might add!) and interpreted my conversation with Antonio. Maya Vinic coffee is certified organic and Fair Trade and the coffee volume they produce is just about large enough that they are able to absorb the certification and licensing fees that are required (these fees are often a problem for smaller-size producers and co-ops). They are happy to export a large proportion of their coffee as ‘green bean’ rather than roasted, packaged coffee as it gives them a little more diversity and helps reinforce relationships with their developed-world partners.
After my time with them Dan and I planned a visit to their warehouse in Acteal where I’d be able to see the base of operations and how they’ve managed to build up their business from that 1999 inception.