The Grassroots take on NAFTA

June 17, 2008

By Chris Treter

We’re 14 years into NAFTA and many throughout the U.S. don’t know what the North American Free TradeManifestation at the Other Campaign in Chiapas, Mexico Agreement (NAFTA) is or have forgotten its’ significance. That isn’t true south of the border where the gap between the rich and poor continue to grow at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, 2008 sees the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico working on the Security and Prosperity Partnership. However, from the looks of the advisory board which include the CEO of Walmart and 28 big businesses, security and prosperity for all in North American seem to be far from its objectives.

In multiple visits to Mexico in the past decade we’ve
been witnesses to the lasting negative impacts of neoliberal economic policies manifested within NAFTA. From increased migration in southern corn and coffee growing communities to diminishing mom and pop shops being replaced with big box stores, cultural assimilation is on the move and the grassroots are fighting back. Check out “Reclaiming Corn and Culture” in YES! Magazine by Wendy Call to learn more about the role coffee cooperative are playing to support community sustainability.


Delicious Peace

June 16, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In 2000, I visited coffee farmers in Mbale, Uganda. Then a few months ago at the 2008 SCAA conference in Minneapolis I learned about an extraordinary group of farmers in that same region who formed a coffee cooperative comprised of Jews, Christians, and Muslims intent on improving their access to the market while advocating religious peace. Mbale is just barely on the outskirts of where the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group of self-proclaimed Christian guerrillas, has conducted armed attacks against civilians for over twenty years.

I know that I was not the only one with moist eyes in the conference room when Thanksgiving Coffee owner Paul Katzeff played this movie trailer about collaborating with the Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace’) cooperative to import their coffee to the U.S.


10 years after the Acteal Massacre….

January 2, 2008

Posted by Chris Treter

Few coffee co-ops we’ve come across in our adventures have the tragic yet inspirational story of Maya Vinic. On Dec. 22nd, 1997, many in the refugee camp of Acteal were off tending to their coffee fields while the women, elders, and children were praying and fasting for peace in their chapel. That morning, dozens of armed paramilitary climbed the cliff that marks the edge of the camp and surrounded the wooden chapel. Over the course of 5 hours they killed 45 mostly women and children; their penalty for pacifically struggling for indigenous rights and refusing to side with the paramilitary against the Zapatistas.

Most who were on the ground (see the documentary “The Damned War in Chiapas” if you don’t believe me!), knew that such a massacre could be imminent. In fact, although the government was informed by the community of Acteal a full month before the massacre that threats were being made, nothing was done to prevent it. The survivors tell us that the only thing the government did that day was block the road to traffic while the massacre took place and then tried to cover up its’ traces that evening.

The truth and the continued search for justice is being uncovered and pursued thanks to the perseverance of the survivors and their families, most of which make up the coffee growing co-op of Maya Vinic. Maya Vinic was formed in 1999 because they were members of the same coffee growing co-op as the paramilitary who attacked them. In the countless visits we’ve made to visit Acteal and the farmers of Maya Vinic we have repeatedly heard from them about the injustices they faced at the hands of paramilitary farmers.

This past week, as the farmers of Maya Vinic commemorated the 10th anniversary of the massacre, human rights groups are giving warning that the same conditions that existed in Chiapas in 1997 are present today. Many fear an escalation in violence is imminent. In his last public speech, Subcommandante Marcos, the masked military leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared that the time has come to end speaking in public forums and return to a preparatory and more clandestine stance to deal with increased paramilitary and military activities in the state. Upon the announcement, he stated, “The signs of war on the horizon are clear. War, like fear, also has a smell. And now we are starting to breathe its fetid odor in our lands.”

In my many visits to Chiapas in the past two years I have traveled with CAPISE (The Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations ) to hear the testimonies of various communities effected by paramilitary activity. Now, my contacts tell me that the situation has become increasingly more difficult. Threats of displacement and death are becoming common place. Visit these links to learn more:

– To learn more about the situation read “Zapatista Code Red,” by Naomi Klein

– To get up to the minute details and action you can take to support human rights in Chiapas visit Indymedia Chiapas

– Want to travel to Chiapas and document human rights violations? Then contact CAPISE


The Indigenous Arhuaco of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

December 30, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In two weeks, I’ll join my fellow blogger-soon-to-be-authors Chris and Jody Treter for a visit to two coffee producing communities in Colombia. The first is the indigenous Arhuaco of the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. The Arhuaco are one of four indigenous groups believed to be descendants of the ancient Tayrona civilization which thrived around 900 CE and may go as far back as the beginning of the first millennium. We’ll be meeting Arhuaco representatives from the Tayrona Indigenous Federation.

In preparation for the trip I’ve been learning what I can about these people and their environs. I started by reading a chapter about them in Dean Cycon’s book Javatrekker and a few dribs and drabs floating around on the web.

Some themes emerge in what I read. First, as with many indigenous people around the world, coffee was used against them as a colonial weapon of oppression. But today they are tentatively embracing it as a potential tool of economic empowerment by seeking relationships with fair trade coffee partners.

Second, by all accounts they are distrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders. I suppose they have their reasons.

And finally, they have a deeply held religious belief that their mountains are the heart (or, depending on what you read, the navel) of the world. As such, they feel that the health of the Sierra Nevada range is critical to the survival of the world. Apparently, for decades now they have been diagnosing local ecosystem changes as symptomatic of global warming.

According to our trip host, Cooperative Coffees, the Tayrona Federation have the following eight objectives in commercializing their coffee. Here they are as quoted verbatim from the Coop Coffees website.

  1. Give to the Confederación Indígena Tayrona, as legitimate representative of the insterests of the Arhuaco people, the economic capacity to commercialize their own coffee.
  2. To strengthen indigenous institutionality of the Arhuaco natives, represented by the Confederación Indígena Tayrona.
  3. To strengthen economic self/sustainability in the Arhuaco community as a strategy to prevent deplacement of the indigenous population of the zone.
  4. To control the entering to the zone of external agents to the community that produce internal disarticulation.
  5. To assure that the coffee producing Arhuaco community members receive the benefits to which an organic producer has right.
  6. To refrain from cultural dissolution or crackeling of the community.
  7. To create the mechanisms that permit the Arhuaco community to have better sales processes in their agricultural products.
  8. To acquire knowledge based on experience of commercialization of agricultural products.

I’m very eager to learn whether selling coffee through fair trade relationships is helping them realize these goals. The beer activist in me is also very keen to see if there are some unusual versions of chicha being brewed up in them there mountains.


News from Fair Trade: FLO’s Pricing Announcement, Market Forces & Peru

December 16, 2007

 Last Week, the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) announced a long-awaited decision to increase the Fair Trade certified minimum price for washed and unwashed arabica coffees. The press release is here: FLO Price Increase Release

For washed arabicas the minimum price per pound bumped to $1.25 per pound (up from $1.20) and for unwashed the price increased to $1.20 USD per pound (from $1.15). The FLO increase translates into a base price of $1.55 for organic fair trade washed arabica coffees. ($1.25 minimum + $.20 organic premium + $.10 fair trade premium).

FLO’s press release states that market pressures didn’t warrant a price increase for robusta coffees.

This announcement follows on a decision made in June 2007 when FLO conceded a modest increase on both the organic and fair trade premiums by 5 USD cents each under  pressure from producers, ATOs (alternative trade organizations) and allies. 

For many ATO’s and trade allies, FLO’s decision to increase pricing is too little too late. For several years now, alternative traders and small scale producers have attempted to engage FLO on the minimum price issue. How are Fair Trade cooperatives supposed to secure coffee in a market when, on one hand, the global commodity market prices are reaching those of the Fair Trade minimum and, on the other end of the spectrum, elitist coffee importers are offering exhorbitant prices to indiviual farming families for a year’s entire harvest?

So, while FLO’s price increase may be vital when the world’s coffee prices spiral downwards once again, it is unlikely that small scale farmers will see much benefit in 2008 from the recently announced price increase.  In 2007, importers of specialty coffee were forced to pay prices that far exceed fair trade minimums in order to secure high-quality coffee. 2008 promises to be yet another year of increasing prices in the specialty market.  The Oromia co-op from Ethiopia, for example, recently announced they expect approximately $2.50 per pound USD on 2008 contracts.  

The increase in coffee prices, whether dictated by FLO or a result of demand for specialty coffee, is a victory for small scale producers. Alternative traders and allies have long advocated for severing ties with the commodity markets and, instead, create pricing structures based on the cost of production plus differentials related to quality, cost of living, isolation of the farmers and inflation in the country. It remains to be seen what our market in the States will bear as increasing prices get passed along to roasters, retailers and consumers. The value of currency will be another factor to watch in 2008 because buyers from Europe, New Zealand and other countries, with their currencies becoming stronger and stronger against the dollar, have more flexibity to deal with increasing prices in their respective markets.

 Finally, it’s important to note that healthy trading relationships shouldn’t be relegated to pricing alone. Small scale coffee growers from Peru circulated the following letter (linked below), admonishing FLO for their acceptance of Perales Huancaruna into the FLO certification program. They assert that Perales Huancaruna, the biggest coffee exporting corporation in Peru,  has a long history of disenfranchising small scale growers in order to make a profit.  They fear the entrance of Perales Huancaruna into FLO’s system will be the demise of the fair trade certification system for small scale growers in Peru. Read the letter by clicking below

Letter from the National Association for Small Scale Producers in Peru


Yachil Xolobal Chulchan (A New Light in the Sky)

December 9, 2007

By Chris Treter

The fog lifts from the steep mountain and the seasonal rain has briefly ceased leaving behind deep puddles of mud. I hand my passport over to a masked joven guarding the gate of the Zapatista headquarters. I’ve arrived again at Oventic, an hours’ drive from San Cristobal de Las Casas in the heart of the Mayan Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. It was here nearly 14 years ago that a well-organized and determined group of impoverished Mayan farmers rose up against the Mexican government on the day NAFTA began. Telling the world “Ya Basta, they ushered in a glSan Cristobal de Las Casasobal movement for a dignified and just economy.

Just seven years ago, Jody and I hunkered down here on our arrival to Chiapas to serve as human rights observers. Living and working among the community for two weeks, the experience offered a window into the harsh reality of the poorest of the poor in Mexico. Here we learned that the struggle for a just and sustainable existence for the Mayan people does not end overnight. Here we found the heart of fair trade beating inside a people who where brutally subjugated to the “conquest” of the “new world.” Where the likes of Pedro de Alvarado and Diego de Mazariegos placed the Mayan people into servitude of the Spanish elite. Today the global conquistadores, veiled as corporations such as Coca- Cola and Syngenta continue the rampage of the rich and vibrant Mayan communities, playing its role to tear apart the threads of its cultural existence.

The guard, sporting a black pasamontana to conceal his identity from belligerent outsiders opens the gate and ushers me on to the Office of VEZLNigilance where I am questioned once again for the purpose of my visit. Outside, Monika Firl, Cooperative Coffees Producer Relations Guru, visits the women’s artisan cooperative, Mujeres por La Dignidad (Women for Dignity), while I go through the process of authorization to enter Zapatista Territory.

“I’d like to speak with the Junta to discuss our coffee purchase this year,” I tell a half a dozen masked men in a dirt floor shack with one table and a bench. Here after conversation with the Junta – the judicial and administrative body elected in a form of participatory democracy – we get approval to head on to Santa Catarina, the Zapatista municipality where Yachil Xolobal Chulchan (Tzeltal translation of “A New Light in the Sky”) is headquartered.

The rains have been heavy this October; locals say some of the worst they remember. Not only does this lead to a cold and damp life for the Tzotzil and Tzetal Mayans that call the Highlands their home. It also means that already difficult traveling conditions are made worse. Trails that lead farmers to the closest town, sometimes a six-hour hike through the meandering mountain forests, turn to an impassable mud pit. For the privileged class like myself, this equates to mudslides and washed out bridges on the main road as our taxi lumbers toward Santa Catalina with our meeting with Yachil.

Rain pounds the windshield as Monika and I discuss topics ranging from communication problems with our Ethiopian partners to how to meet the green bean coffee needs of 23 small roasters who make up our roasting cooperative. We brainstorm on how we are going to approach our meeting with Yachil – a co-op with almost no infrastructure, facing continued government oppression, extreme poverty, and operating on a shoestring budget.

Upon entering the town square of Pantelho, a run-down, coffee frontier town at the end of the long paved road in this region, our companeros come out of the shadows and lead us to the house of the President of the Co-op. “He had to go to the hospital in San Cristobal,” they say. “We are sorry but his wife has a very bad heart.” Quickly we are reminded of the daily existence of life in the rural highlands of Chiapas. She is one of the 1 million inhabitants, the vast majority indigenous, that do not have access to health care in Chiapas. Though 71.6% of the indigenous population is malnourished, there is only 1 doctor for every 25,000 inhabitants of the state (Source CIEPAC).

The meeting begins with 17 members of the board of directors and representatives of the communities to discuss this year’s harvest. We sit in the “living room,” – a vacant room with one computer. Wooden planks used as a bed are strewn across the old tattered and cracked concrete floor. The compas put down their satchels and sit upon them. The wind and rain take turns interrupting our discussions as they find their way between the holes in the aluminum roof and cracks of the old weather worn door. The corn, towering over the house at nearly 10 feet tall (this isn’t Midwest GMO corn!), sways back and forth in the courtyard to the rhythm of our conversation.

”Greetings brothers, I am honored to spend some time with you today.” I state, as Monika and I start the greetings that at times can continue on for minutes in a Mayan community. In the corner against the wall, the representatives of San Juan Cancuc huddle together. They hadchiapa walked for 4 hours – leaving the house at 5 am to make it to the meeting.

As we discuss harvest projections, coffee related projects, and possible damage caused to the fields due to the heavy rains, our conversations are translated from Spanish to Tzotzil and Tzetal, the Mayan languages spoken primarily by the growers in this area. Since the Zapatista uprising in ’94 the number of people speaking these language have actually increased. This is rare in a world where indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America, there are only a third of the 1,750 languages that were spoken in Latin America when the Spaniards arrive still in existence today. The pressure to speak Spanish is evident in our meeting.

“Friends, why are you so quite?” I ask. After contemplation they respond, “We are ashamed, we don’t speak Spanish very well.”

”You should be proud of your language. I should be ashamed, I don’t speak Tzotzil or Tzeltal.” I say in a customary reply made dozens of times in my many travels here.

”Well you may be ashamed buy I am afraid! Chris is one of my 23 bosses and if we don’t figure out how to overcome these challenges he will be mad.” Monika chimes in, trying to break the ice.

It works as the room roars in laughter. It seems they know my demeanor and disposition too well to fall for that! We return to our meeting, unified and in understanding that we are working together to overcome the evil and oppression brought on by the conventional coffee market and global economic policies.

From then on the meeting moves quickly. They need pre-financing if they are to get the beans from the growers this year. Many of them do not have an income other then their crop and need money immediately to feed their families. The co-op has nowhere to store the coffee and needs to get three trucks on the main roads. Once the beans are harvested and dried the growers will bring their coffee to the trucks for collection. But no one is trained to prepare the coffee for exportation.

Overcoming these challenges are necessary to provide a better livelihood for the growers. Last year the farmers received 23 pesos per kilo from the co-op. The coyotes – the pesky competition in the conventional market – only paid 17 pesos (and that was in a high market). The 5 pesos difference is very important to communities of growers that are literally leading a “hand to mouth” existence. In addition, Cooperative Coffees leaves the contract open and pays $.30 cents above the market price.

This year, Cooperative Coffees is paying $1.70/ a pound – nearly 30 cents more then the certified fair trade/organic price. In addition, Cooperative Coffees keeps a buffer of 30 cents above the market price at all times. So, for instance, if Yachil closes the contract on the day the market price reaches $1.50, Cooperative Coffees will pay $1.80. Higher Grounds has put profits generated from coffee sales to help fund water and school projects in Zapatista communities.

Our offer is appealing to the co-op and such face-to-face conversations are necessary to understand the overwhelming challenges of this underdeveloped cooperative. They sign the contract, committing to sell us a container of green beans and hand it back to Monika. Now the hard work will begin.

Following picking, depulping, fermenting, drying, and sorting, the farmers must store the bags of coffee in their homes until enough coffee is ready for them to hike it out and deliver to the trucks which will rush it off to the processing center in Tuxtla Gutierrez to be sorted for exportation. Once 40,000 pounds are split up into 152 pound jute bags and processed into cafe de oro – export grade green beans, a truck takes off to the coast of Veracruz where the coffee is loaded on to a ship and sets off for New Jersey. Once through customs safely in the U.S., a semi brings us bags of Yachil’s coffee to our roastery where it is roasted fresh and delivered to customers around the country. A long tedious process, but well worth it once its signature flavor, notes of chocolate and a clean, smooth aftertaste, hit your tongue.

On our way out of town, we run into the President of the co-op and his wife. She stands stoically and silent to the side of her husband. Shoeless, she is dressed in a traditional Mayan huipil with a shawl to protect her from the cold and rain.chiapas Her husband fills us in on the journey, “She is still sick and the doctor isn’t sure how to cure it,” he tells us. “The rain has completely washed away the bridge on the main road leading back to San Cristobal, you will have to cross the river by foot. You should hurry, it is getting late.”

For the members of Yachil Xolobal Chulchan, it’s another day in the life of an indigenous coffee farmer. Who after 500 years of the Conquista, continue to struggle against a global economy that is threatening the very existence of its language, culture, and indigenous identity. Another day where the happenings on the floor of the New York Board of Trade influence the amount of food a farmer can bring home to their families. Where U.S. immigration policy is a conversation had huddled around the family fire between bites of tortilla and beans. And where the privatizing interests of an increasingly powerful Mexican Government threaten traditional Mayan governing systems practiced daily in the juntas and community asambleas across the region. Here, the translation of the word “fair trade” does not just mean a price paid to a certified coffee grower. It is the tedious and time-consuming construction of lasting dignified direct relationships. It is the transformation of trade relations into a partnership for a better future. Where a New Light in the Sky can someday shine down even on the rainiest of days.


Fair Trade Field Notes from Guatemala

December 1, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Chris Treter, one of the three bloggers here at Bean Activist, is way too modest to toot his own horn so I’m going to do it for him.

Michael over at CRS Fair Trade recently blogged in praise of Chris T’s willingness to pitch in and help farmers get a fair shake at making a decent living from the coffee trade.

Michael and Chris met up in Guatemala to conduct a series of basic roasting workshops for four different cooperatives: Loma Linda, Nueva Alianza, Santa Anita and APECAFORM, a cooperative that CRS has supported since the early 1990s. After their truck got stuck in a ditch for a couple hours, they finally made it to their rural highland farm-community destination.

The growers they visited wanted to learn how to roast beans themselves for their own domestic market. This is a great way to add value at the farmer cooperative level and reduce the environmental footprint of coffee by developing local markets.

Part of fixing the flaws of the global coffee trade includes farmers getting more of the value of their product. Green coffee is an export commodity, whereas roasted beans are a gourmet specialty product with much greater value. Farmers who can supplement their export earnings with even a modest amount of domestic sales of roasted beans may well be on the way to a more livable and stable financial footing.

I’m looking forward to seeing more efforts like this, and its no surprise that my pals at Higher Grounds are leading the way. I’d be glad to hear from any readers know of other northern coffee companies helping growers to develop domestic markets for roasted beans in producer countries. This could be promising trend for farmers.