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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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (II): Central Warehouse, Lachivista

The next morning I got a better look at my accommodation for the night and the rest of the UCIRI facility. On one side of an open courtyard there were several rooms where some of the staff lived. On the other there is the roasting and packing area. I got a brief tour of the area then and a better look when I came back down from the mountains.

It was another morning of “letting things go” with some waiting around for the trip up to the village of Lachivista and the central warehouse. The tentative plan (and I am still unclear as to how loosely the locals go by the clock…) was to head up there around 10am from the office, so I settled in with a coffee and had more of a look around with some attempts at chatting to a couple of the staff. By 11.30am it looked like we were off, but then that became 12pm. Eventually at 1pm we were ready to go. Again, another lesson for me to let things go and just trust that everything is fine. It probably didn’t help that I was still a little unclear as to what the day would bring, but at the same time it was good for me as the whole thing was such a new experience.

An hour later we arrived. Lachivista is not very high up (probably less than 300m) but the road there was winding and had numerous potholes, rocks and in one section had been washed out completely, shutting it for two weeks. The facility is quite the place – a central office, warehouse (bodega) for bean packing/storage, a small health and dental centre, credit union, cafeteria, meeting area, accommodation rooms for staff, fruit processing area (for maracuya and tamarind), greenhouse with coffee plants, a basketball court…and probably more.

The farmers are scattered in many locations and this is where they bring their green coffee.The harvest is typically from December to February so the warehouse looked almost empty, though there was still plenty of coffee in there. The greenhouse is where they cultivate different varities of coffee in their early stages so the farmers can purchase the plants and take them to their own farms.

The way UCIRI has developed over the years means the producers have many more opportunities for diversification and access to credit if needed. Coffee prices are volatile but with UCIRI they at least know that they are able to live a life of dignity and respect.

The meeting with the organic inspectors perhaps went on longer than anticipated, so by the time it was all done and everyone had eaten it was getting late (well for me it was – around 5pm) and I was told I’d be going up to the ‘eco-tourist’ village in the mountains. Trusting that all was in hand, I got a lift with one of the UCIRI staff to the next village to then switch to a local taxi (collectivo) that would take me up to the village of Chayotepec.

The collectivos are everywhere in Mexico and mostly they are glorified pick-up trucks, with bench seating and a cover for transporting people and any local goods. Now was my chance to get a ride in one. The excitement soon gave way to more unease as the road out of town started as a dirt track…exactly where was I going??!? Slowly grinding uphill various people would hop on or hop off and I wondered where they lived. This seemed to be the middle of nowhere…and the road got steeper, more rutted…surely there can’t be a village at the end of this road, can there?

An hour later, at dusk I arrived. I was told by Fransisco that someone in the village would help me out when I arrived. I could do nothing but trust that all would be fine. I tried explaining to a couple of guys there that I knew nothing about the village, what I was going to do there, or where I was staying. Even though a gringo doesn’t show up very often there they took things in hand and I was soon shown to my cabana in the dark. A newly-built simple room, it looked welcoming right then. A couple of locals then brought me some coffee and biscuits and I was left to reflect with a sigh of relief and wonder on the day’s events.

UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (I): Head Office, Ixtepec

One hundred and twenty days and more than 7,000 km since I left Vancouver, I finally closed in on my goal of my first visit to a Fair Trade producer. My thoughts while riding the 60km from my stopover to Ixtepec were many, but my greatest concern was whether I was pedalling to the right place! I’d not been able to confirm my visit with the co-operative and hoped that I was heading the right way and that they’d be happy to see some random gringo show up on their doorstep.

UCIRI (Union of Indigenous Communities in the Isthmus Region) is a coffee co-operative formally established in 1983. It comprises more than 50 communities located in different regions of Oaxaca that represents more than 2,500 members. It’s origins were formed several years before then led by Dr. Francisco van der Hoff, who went on to use the example of UCIRI to help create the first Fair Trade certifier, Max Havelaar, in the Netherlands in 1988.

As it turns out, it was easy to find. Their front walls are painted a deep red and yellow in the style of their coffee brand. Three-feet high lettering is hard to miss. I pulled my bike through the garage entrance and was warmly welcomed by Celso and Raymundo. It took a few minutes to convey why I was there, but they seemed happy to see me. What followed over the next day or two was where I got to learn a little about how day-to-day life works outside of our time-oriented Western culture.

Riding solo for several months makes it easy to control my time. Now I was at the disposal of UCIRI. I was told that Fransisco would be along later that day and as he spoke English I’d be able to tell him more about my trip and what opportunities would be possible for me with UCIRI. I had arrived around lunchtime, so apart from gesticulations, some good coffee and a spot of my usual lunch, and I waited and looked around the office before Fransisco arrived.

After some discussions with him and his staff, a plan was put together that I’d go up to the main processing and packing area in Lachivista and then hopefully go further up into the mountains to see a coffee farm. Accommodation for that evening was a bit vague – a room somewhere nearby. But first we went back to Fransisco’s house to clean up the garden and mend the chicken shed. Not exactly what I was expecting…

It was 7pm before we headed back into town and where I could get my bags to the room. I’m used to sorting accommodation early, so having to wait this late (for me) was unsettling, but I knew I was in good hands. I just didn’t know what kind of room I’d be getting. My limited Spanish meant I hadn’t realised that some UCIRI employees have rooms at their roasting facility half a mile away. I was shown to a spare room, and with great hospitality given a bed and blanket. By then I was pretty tired from the day’s events and made do with a dinner of granola that I had in my bag, while looking forward to what was to come the following day.

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Gracias…

I’ve been on the road now for 17 weeks (119 days!) and have almost reached my first Fairtrade visit. In a day or two I hope to connect with the people at UCIRI (I say hope because I haven’t successfully been able to contact them yet…). I’ve got another three or four places I hope to visit before I cross into Guatemala.

So far this trip has taken a lot longer and been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been challenged continuously and have learned a lot along the way. But now that I’m close to my first Fairtrade visit I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a sincere thanks to all who have taken interest in my trip, who read the blog and have posted comments. It’s really helped me to know you’re following and watching out for me.

Getting close to this and other Fairtrade visits I’m more excited about the purpose of my trip and hope to learn a lot over the next few months. I’ll share this here and I hope it continues to interest everyone!

Muchas gracias,

Kieran

Welcome to Oaxaca…

I was happy to get out of Guerrero as it seems to be one the provinces that’s a little higher risk than most. Acapulco was the most obvious sign of that with police frequently rumbling around in their pick-up trucks toting guns of various sizes. Oaxaca seemed to be a lot more appealing. It’s where the population is more indigenous and seemingly more ‘authentic’ (though I’m not really sure about what that says about the rest of Mexico I’d seen – it was hardly a US theme-park version of Mexico…). Perhaps it’s just where older cultures and customs prevail and are more obvious. In any case, I was looking forward to getting there.

The sign said Welcome to Oaxaca and I raised my arm in salute as I passed under it. Riding on a little happier, it was only a few minutes later when I noticed a long line of traffic ahead. An accident perhaps?

As it turns out it was a roadblock. Perhaps this is ‘authentic’ Mexico. Some local farmers (campesinos) were protesting about not being paid by the government for their work. According to one chap he said the money is being used to stop drug trafficking instead. Whatever the reason, it was quite a sight. They were on their third day of protest and nothing was getting through during the daytime. They intended to keep it up for the ‘working week’, only removing themselves in the evenings.

As I rolled my bike through the people and parked vehicles I was a little worried they wouldn’t let me through. Luckily I was greeted in a friendly way by everyone and a couple of people asked me what I was doing. I could only offer sympathy for their predicament, take some pictures, and move on.

Amazingly it was all very peaceful. The police looked on without any concern. People were able to get through using a chain of taxi vans at each end of the block, and the ‘protesters’ were chatting under various canopies they’d set up. It was all very civilised. I only hope someone in government was paying attention to their protest, though I’m doubtful it would achieve any lasting impact.

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