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!

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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 (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.