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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Time out in San Cristobal

I came up to San Cristobal a few days ago. I’ve been really looking forward to getting here as it’s where the MayaVinic Fairtrade co-op is located and also looked like a good place to take a rest break.

The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the change in temperature…I arrived on a cloudy, cool day and my t-shirt collection seems a little inappropriate. At an elevation of over 2,000m, the city still gets warm during the day but cold at night. My long-johns were somewhere lurking in my luggage and it was time to dig them out for the first time since California…

San Cristobal has quite an international, young feel with cafes, coffee (everywhere) and plenty of tourist distractions. The cobbled streets and colonial architecture make the city very walkable and easy to amble around in. And lucky for me, plenty of vegetarian options for eating…

San Cristobal and the surrounding area is also home to many indigenous populations. The Zapatistas, made up of different indigenous groups, made worldwide headlines when they rose up against the Mexican government in 1994 in protest against the continued historical injustices on the day the NAFTA agreement came into being. They continue to seek redress today.