Fair Trade Visit: Union de la Selva (Cafe Tenam) – Comitan

A short hop from San Cristobal (well it felt a bit shorter on some of the downhill parts) is the city of Comitan. During my stay in San Cristobal I’d had some great coffee at the La Selva cafe. I noticed a Fair Trade label on their menu which turned my head. I found out their office is in Comitan – perfect for me as I was going to pass through there anyway.

Yet again I wasn’t able to confirm an appointment beforehand, and even with the address it wasn’t easy to find, but I showed up the day after I arrived, met with a couple of people and we arranged to meet again earlier this week.

I met with Jose Rene Hernandez Cruz, the President, and Juan Barrayan who gave me a good insight into the co-operative and it’s history (Jorge Hernandez Cruz later showed me their roasting and packaging area too). It was established in 1979 and is comprised of mostly indigenous tojolabales and tzeltales members located in the Selva, Altos and Sierra regions of Chiapas. The ethos is to promote a ‘social conscience’ and to help preserve the environment and health of its customers.

Their coffee is 100% organic and just under 50% is sold as Fair Trade. They currently have IMO (Fair Trade) and Chiapas ‘original’ certifications. Certification fees are paid by the co-operative. The Comitan office is also where the warehouse (bodega) is located and where the green coffee is graded for quality separation for the different markets. The better coffee is exported abroad to markets in Europe and USA.

The coffee comes in a ‘dry-processed’ state (pergamino) and I got see the machine in action that strips the beans of this parchment, that leaves the green bean (though it is referred to as ‘gold’). At harvest time (December-April) the machines next to the warehouse grade the different beans by size and quality for export.

In another part of the site they have their processing facility where the coffee for the domestic market is roasted and packaged. The roasting machine looks a lot different to the ones I’d seen in other places and resembled an old mainframe computer from the 1950s. Lots of buttons and electronics, though I couldn’t see any whirring tapes…It’s a high-volume roaster and apparently more modern, though I couldn’t help feeling that it lacked a lot of style. After the roasting they have grinders and a machine to bag the coffee for sale.

Their office area looks relatively modern and certainly has had some money invested in it. Part of the area is a small shop/cafe where the public can come to buy the whole bean or ground coffee or to sit and have a cup. They’ve also created a nice little sideline with the kind of souveniers and products you’d typically see in an up-scale Western cafe. Prominently displayed on a shelf are La Selva-branded mugs, travel mugs, magnets and little ‘stove-top’ coffee makers.

Jose Rene has his own cafetelera, comprising around 3,000 plants on 2 hectares. He said this represents a normal density of plants, given that there are other trees and vegetation on such a typical ‘shade-grown’ plot. In common with most coffee producers throughout Mexico (and elsewhere), this represents a typical plot size. Small sizes predominate. However much of the “Big Coffee” (Nestle, Kraft etc) coffee comes from direct sun plantations that grow lower quality (robusta) beans. This is a lot more common in Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam, among others.

The producers of La Selva take great care to produce their coffee to organic standards. Whilst this is very exacting, laborious and time-consuming it helps to improve coffee productivity and the environment and ensures the growers receive a higher price for their coffee. Juan told me that he would like to sell more of their coffee as Fair Trade, saying that in future it would be possible to sell up to 80-90% of their exports as Fair Trade. In Mexico there is a domestic organic certification available (Certimex) but the La Selva coffee carries a certification that guarantees it is 100% authentic ‘Chiapas’, a certification given to a range of different products (amber, coffee, textiles, crafts).

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Resting in San Cristobal

I decided I would take a bit of time to relax in San Cristobal, and it was a good place to do so. Decent food (for me, plenty of vegan options), excellent coffee (mucho organic, local and some ‘fair trade’ options too) and an attractive centre that makes for some easy-going, meandering walks around and about the distinct colonial architecture of the town.

It’s been a great way to unwind a bit and though I haven’t explored much outside of town I did get to see a good few things here. As well as my Fair Trade visits, Dan suggested I visit one or two of the several NGOs that are based here. Most of them are geared towards helping the indigenous populations in Chiapas. I met up with Faustino & Gilberto at Desmi and popped into the office of Frayba. As Dan had explained to me on our visit to Acteal, the local indigenous populations have suffered heavily over the years and organisations like these two try do what they can to help.

Desmi promotes the interests and rights of mixed and indigenous communities in Chiapas. They work to promote economic solidarity through means of justice, equality, dialogue and environmental respect, all geared towrds creating autonomy within these communities.

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Frayba) Center for Human Rights is an independent non-profit Civil Organization. Frayba was founded in 1989 through the initiative of Samuel Ruiz García, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They work in defense and promotion of human rights, especially for the indigenous villages and communities here in Chiapas.

Changing tack…my time here coincided with an annual culture festival (Cervantino Barroco) so I got to sample some local music in different venues around the town. There is normally some music to be had here if you wander the plaza or some of the pedestrianised streets

I also took the chance (and I would certainly describe this as ‘taking a chance’) to send a couple of things back home. I’d tried to do so from La Paz and was confronted by the impressively convoluted way of using the Mexican postal system. When I was there, any package must first be inspected by customs, which was conveniently located about 3km away from the post office. So I expected more hassle here in San Cristobal, but firstly I had to find an envelope…

After trawling around town trying to find a large packet envelope (Mexican post offices haven’t got around to selling the kind of things you might need to send a package. Just stamps), I went back to the post office to await the fun. Amazingly enough it was not only straightforward but I got a lot of help getting it sent. The guy behind the counter found an old box that I could use; he packed it up (firstly having to check what I was sending) and conveniently ignored the extra few grams that took the package into a higher price band. I expected nothing but more hassle and so I’ve had to revise my view a little. The other strange thing was seeing the row of staff busy typing away on typewriters, though one lady looked particularly bored as she plodded her finger on the space bar to get to the end of the line…

I stayed at a nicely-run B&B called Gite del Sol. It was inexpensive and friendly, on the lower scale but suited my needs (apart from getting used to the cool evenings and crispy mornings). It’s run by a Mexican-Canadian couple so I kept hearing French and English as well as Spanish, as welll as the odd spattering of German too. As for food and coffee, I found some great places here. The best vegetarian (where I went repeatedly) was Arcoiris, which does a vegetarian buffet. It’s very homely and low-key and they do some ‘interesting’ combinations when using up the previous day’s food, particularly the bread…but it’s generally fresh and it was easy to find vegan options there. My top recommendation! There are a couple of really good bakeries (Madre Tierra and Casa del Pan Papalotl, which is also organic) too where I ate enough bread to make up for all the tortillas I’d been eating for the previous two months. For coffee I had too much choice…from the Cafe Museo, Casa del Pan, Madre Tierra, Cafe La Selva, Cafe Yik…all organic, some Fair Trade, all local Chiapas coffee.

Leaving San Cristobal was hard to do…but Guatemala soon awaits!

Fair Trade Co-op Visit: Union Majomut, San Cristobal

Another coffee co-operative that I hoped to visit in San Cristobal was Union Majomut (Union de Ejidos Comunidades Cafeticultores Beneficio Mojmut). I’d got their information from Fransisco while visiting UCIRI.

I arranged a visit to their main office in San Cristobal and spent a little time with Fernando, Roberto (el Presidente) and Lennart, a volunteer from Germany who (like most Germans it seems) speaks English and was a great help with some of the translation. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of their office as it was getting late in the day. But we did have a good conversation and I got to learn about the co-op.

The story of Majomut is different from Maya Vinic. In my first few minutes there some of the differences were obvious. The office was larger and much more modern. It was larger and seemed to be more typical of a North American office than what I had seen at UCIRI and Maya Vinic. Roberto and Fernando met me in their boardroom/meeting room upstairs, and we sat down together for what appeared to a formal conversation. It was hard to tell but perhaps their approach to business is just a little more professional in general.

There are more than 1,000 families from 35 communities (both Tzetzal and Tzotzil) located in the Los Altos de Chiapas region. Membership has remained fairly steady over the years. Originally set up in 1981 they began operations in 1983. They produce organic and Fair Trade coffee (since 1994) and over the years have diversified into other food production (vegetables for subsistence and food security), women’s collectives, community training and micro-credit financing.

The village of Majomut is close to Acteal, north of San Cristobal. The warehouse is located here and they have also built a training centre that was partly funded by the social premium that Fair Trade sales provide. Like many other coffee co-operatives, Majomut exports its coffee as ‘green beans’ rather a roasted & packaged product. The higher quality beans are exported and roasted coffee is produced mostly for the the local market in Chiapas.

Before I left, I asked Roberto and Fernando what some of the typical challanges are for Majomut. For them, to maintain organic certification is an ongoing challenge as they need to keep educating their farmers about the required standards and guarding against the use of chemicals and fertilisers on the crops. Another issue this year has been the price of coffee and the constant flux of coffee prices is always something they have to be careful of. Also unknown for 2012 is the recent move by Fairtrade USA to change the way they certify Fair Trade products when it leaves the FLO/Fairtrade International system at the end of this year. Majomut exports 30% of its coffee to the USA and it remains to be seen what this move by FTUSA will mean for them in the year ahead.

Fair Trade Co-op Visit (II): Maya Vinic, Acteal

The day after my visit to the Maya Vinic office, Dan organised a trip for us to see their warehouse in the village of Acteal. Located north of San Cristobal, up and over a couple of scenic valleys, it’s a 1.5 hour drive that took us winding through some pretty bumpy roads. This is a constant hazard in these kind of areas but an accepted part of everyday life here.

Dan has worked in this area for around ten years and has been based here for over a year. He regularly makes trips to visit the different communities and was happy to bring me along to see a couple of them for myself as well. As we travelled, Dan tried to explain the complexities of the relationships between these indigenous people. He explained things pretty well but even by the end of my visit that day I was struggling to understand the whole situation. In fairness, Dan says even he is still working to understand it too.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there has been a long history of oppression of the indigenous populations in Chiapas. So…I will try to keep this as clear as I can!

About a quarter of the 4.3m inhabitants of Chiapas are indigenous. Language is the main ethnic identifier. In this area the most common are Tzotzil and Tzeltal. Acteal is a Tzotzil community and the inhabitants are commonly known as “Las Abejas” (The Bees). In common with indigenous peoples worldwide, here they have been treated as 2nd-class citizens and have long been marginalised and forced to live in areas with the least productive land, and lacking government support. The Zapatista uprising that created headlines in 1994 was supported by many indigenous people of different backgrounds. In 1996 the Zapatistas tried to negotiate indigenous rights and autonomy, but it was never ratified and tensions escalated between the two sets of supporters. The ultimate tragedy played out on 22nd December 1997 in Acteal when 49 villagers were massacred. The victims were men, women and children who were praying and fasting in the local chapel.

The government since then has jailed a number of people they deemed to be responsible. Many were from the same area around Acteal, former friends and neighbours. However, the local community believes that there are many others locally who have not been held to account and this has continued to foster distrust and suspicion. Many people have left Acteal to move to a neighbouring community and some even set up a new one less than 10 years ago.

In Acteal a Danish sculpturist created the “Columna de la Infamia” (Pillar of Shame) as a memorial to those who died. It is located next the road above the hill where these events took place. Down a series of steps, Dan and I walked to the main heart of the village – the administrative office of “the bees”, an open meeting area (which when we visited was holding a memorial service for those who died. It happens on the 22nd of every month), health centre and the chapel where those who died were praying. At the front of the open meeting area are draped a series of banners proclaiming the names of the dead and the names of those who the community believes took part in or authorised the massacre.

The response of this pacifist community culminated in 1999 with the formation of the Maya Vinic co-operative. Since then the co-operative have successfully created a community-minded enterprise that now benefits many producers within the surrounding area. A number of achievements followed: Fair Trade coffee certification, Fair Trade benefits for the productores (e.g. “social premium” funds, micro-loans, training), a new warehouse, purchase of vehicles, a new office in San Cristobal, diversifying into honey production and to open a cafe in San Cristobal in 2012. In 2001 France awarded Maya Vinic with a Human Rights award for their response to the tragedy.

On my tour at Maya Vinic I got to see a range of their operations. Their warehouse is the coffee delivery point for the producers. This is also where the coffee gets sorted and graded according to quality. It passes through a range of different machines, and due to my limited Spanish I was only able to understand that the green beans that are left at the end are the best quality and they are the ones that get exported abroad, mostly to the USA.

Then I got to see their garden/eco-project. It contains the main meeting room, dormitories for co-op members to stay in if needed, and a nursery of coffee plants. I took them on trust when they said the bee hives were further up the slopes! And one other quite unique feature is that they produce mushrooms that they sell to the producers. The mushrooms are cultivated using discarded corn stalks, that are bagged up and left to ferment in a couple of special climate-controlled rooms. The mushrooms grow on the outside of the plastic bags and are picked off as and when they’re ready. Unconventional it certainly was!

Pablo (the President) was also in the village so Dan and I stopped for a few minutes to chat. Afterwards, we stopped by at a neighbouring community. On the way there, we drove through other villages and along dirt roads. The streets were filled with people walking along on their way to market. All the women (and most girls) were traditionally dressed. Each community has its own unique way of dressing and together they create a very colourful, bright and fascinating insight into centuries-old traditions. We gave three ladies a lift along the dirt roads and I remarked to Dan how dodgy we must look – two white guys in the front and the three indigenous ladies in the back…

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Fair Trade Co-op Visit (I): Maya Vinic, San Cristobal

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.

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