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 global 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 Vigilance 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 had 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. 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.