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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