UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (IV): Reflections

It’s been a few days now since my visit to UCIRI and here’s a few reflections on my visit with a few more photos.

I was hugely relieved to get there as the whole idea of the ‘Fair Trade’ bike ride seemed to be so far away at times. I’d met some great people involved in Fair Trade in California but southern Mexico was where I felt the main part of the trip would start. However, I’ve learned and seen a lot along the way.

Meeting Fransisco, the founder of UCIRI is quite an honour. I didn’t know about him beforehand, but to meet the person who played a very large role in establishing Max Havelaar in the late 1980s and more recently helped found CLAC (Coordination of Caribbean and Latin American Small Producers).

Rosendo, the coffee farmer I spent time with, is one of many indigenous inhabitants of the area. UCIRI co-op is predominantly made up of families who are Zapatista or ‘mixtes’. Indigenous populations of southern Mexico (and beyond) have suffered at the hands of colonialists since the 16th century and notably in modern times the ‘zapatistas’ rose up in protest in 1994 over the creation of NAFTA. Since then there has been continued discrimination and poverty amongst these populations. UCIRI helps their communities to at least have a dignified way of life; a difference between extreme poverty and basic living needs being met.

In my few days with UCIRI I was using colectivo taxis or riding in other people’s cars. Nobody wears seat belts and mostly they don’t even work. It’s ironic and I would say a lot less safe than being on my bike!

UCIRI shows how business can be done fairly. They have established themselves in the domestic market and internationally, so being able to control the whole supply process within Mexico gives them the best opportunity to make the most of the raw material. Often, even for other Fair Trade commodities, the processing, packaging etc. of these takes place in the Western world and potential income sources are deprived of these local producers. However, in some small cases this is changing. Modern trade rules play a large part in preventing small producers from being able to take on these opportunities.

Village life in Chayotepec was a new insight for me and gave me a sense of how life typically is for billions of people in the world. Most of us in the developed world have little idea of how privileged we are. How easily we forget the ease in which we live our daily lives while consuming products or resources that come from these people. In itself this is not a problem; what’s needed is a life of dignity and respect for these producers, their families and their communities.

The visit has lifted my spirits as I move on to new areas and to hopefully visit more Fairtrade producers. Next up is San Cristobal (I arrived here yesterday) where I hope to visit a couple of other coffee producers, Maya Vinic and Majomut.

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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (III): Coffee visit, Chayotepec

I spent the next couple of days in the ‘village’ of Chayotepec. It is tiny; a collection of eight families perched in hillside dwellings at the end of the dirt road I’d travelled up the evening before. I didn’t really know what I’d let myself in for but it turned out to be hugely eye-opening and unlike anything I’d experienced before.

I’ve seen rural life in the developed world, but this was in another league, or at least to my eyes it was. From the buildings people lived in, to where they were situated, how they lived and got around, it was a real learning experience. I started out with breakfast at Irma’s (and went there for all my meals whilst in the village). Like most ‘houses’ in the village it is a basic brick building with open doorways and very random add-ons constructed. Coffee was available for each meal – easily available as most of the villagers have coffee bushes growing in their gardens that they roast and grind themselves. Despite the water (boiled over the stove which gave it a ‘tasty’ smoked flavour) the coffee was good.

After breakfast I spent some time with Rosendo, a coffee farmer. We walked and he showed me where his coffee bushes were located (more than 3,000 of them). It took me a while to notice the look of the bushes as they were growing amongst many other types of bushes and trees in the forest. The harvest doesn’t start until December so most of the berries I saw were still green. Rosendo is part of the UCIRI co-op (though some of the other villagers belong to another co-op) and he told me how that works for him and how it has benefitted him, his family and the community over the years. Unfortunately my Spanish is still limited so a lot of what he said I didn’t understand. His wife’s family also have neighbouring land where they grow coffee and it is all done in the traditional way using certified organic practices. Coffee-growing goes back many generations for them.

Village life still looks very traditional. The school has 11 pupils though it was clear that the ‘older’ young people had to leave the village for other opportunities. Irma has two daughters in the US and four of Rosendo’s children live elsewhere. The village has only had electricity within the last few years, and now they have TV and mobile phones. Internet access was not available when I was there. Everyone kept chickens, cows were kept in nearby pastures and everyone had some kind of fruit or vegetable tree growing on their land – mandarins, avocados, oranges, squash, peppers among others. I got to see how chiles are dried with a family who lived down the road from the village.

Time obviously works differently too. Most of the villagers are up early and the taxi leaves on its morning run to Santa Maria every day at 5am, repeating the round trip again in the afternoon. I got highly confused that the village runs on ‘normal’ time and not ‘summer’ time (1 hour ahead). I was early for all my meals…

I got a real sense that the people in the village seemed quite happy, despite the obvious hardships that life there can bring. Life is basic but everyone has what they need, including most of their teeth. I noticed most of the older adults had teeth missing and some gold replacements for the essential ones. It was funny just watching them when they had their mouth open. Most villagers seem to have a way of generating additional income outside of coffee. The ‘eco-tourist’ project has helped Rosendo and Irma’s families; the village taxi; villagers make or sell things for other villagers, such as cheese, peppers or fruit.

On the second night with rain having been falling steadily all day and the village clouded over, I got a little worried when the taxi didn’t seem to return ‘on time’. Perhaps the road got tricky, or the weather was really bad down below…and then I had to laugh at my Western way of thinking, of how we worry so much when things don’t run like clockwork. The taxi runs twice a day and has done for years and so of course they’ve experienced far worse than the weather I’d seen. It comes back when it comes back…not a minute sooner.

The promotion of the village as an eco-tourist destination is still in its formative phase, or so it looked to me, though they’ve been promoting it for a few years. There’s now a central learning centre (not quite finished) and five cabanas for tourists. The people offer guiding and an insight into local day-to-day life. But it’s not free! I was happy to support them in their project as it didn’t seem like they get many visitors right now. Cheese-making, local crafts, coffee, visiting the forest for animal and ecological interests were all possible. Rosendo told me about the numerous different animals and plants that can be found locally. It’s definitely an ‘escape’ and an easy place to switch off and learn about a whole different way of life.

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