Starting From Beans

How a Zapotec Coffee Coop was Born

by Julieta Santana



Coffee: La crisis y la revolución
By Robin Mejía

Starting from Beans
By Julieta Santana

What is Fair Trade?

Selling Coffee Drinkers on Fair Trade

Coffee Resources on the Web




Tucked away in three Zapotec communities in the isthmus region of Oaxaca lies a small organic coffee cooperative, La Trinidad. And, in the verdant hillsides which surround each town center coffee bush roots run deep. Perhaps only corn farming is older. Justino, 45, gentle mannered and a farmer in Los Naranjos since he could toddle, remarks, “Mi padre tenía cafetales, y su abuelo tenía cafetales, y su abuelo (My father had coffee bushes, and his grandfather had coffee bushes, and his grandfather).”

Though organic certification has come only in the last decade to this town, pesticides and fertilizers have only had a negligible role in its history. When money for food is scarce, buying chemicals for crops is not a consideration. And, many in this indigenous community are conscious caretakers of the land, like Justino, who, when asked if he’s ever used non-organic fertilizers, said, “Why would I want to give my children contaminated land?” Here, the family heirlooms passed from one generation to the next come in hectares of coffee fields. Coffee is the mainstay, so, for most families price per kilo is serious business.

The birth of a cooperative

Prior to 1999, for about seven years, these coffee farmers had entrusted their beans to UCI, (Union de Campesinos Indígenas), a larger cooperative in the area that was both organic and fair trade certified. However, in 1998 the coop decided to financially support a candidate for the state election campaign, and some of the farmers began to receive late payments. Also, many farmers had never received nor heard about fair trade premiums. This bonus specifically aims to give individual farmers a more just share of the coffee profits beyond what the market dictates. Fair trade very clearly mandates that this premium be distributed, saved, or spent by democratic decision of the cooperative members. UCI, though a popular and successful cooperative, seemed to have left out the “fair” in its trade.

It was at this crucial time that a few visionaries stepped forward. UCI’s trade manager, upon learning of the questionable tactics of his own company, resigned from his position, determined to help those coffee producers who wanted out. Salomón García, who was at the time working for UCI’s organic program also quit, along with the production manager. Salamón invited Lazaro Hernández (also disillusioned with UCI), who brought in150 farmers from his community of Los Naranjos, to begin the new cooperative. Together, they envisioned a more democratic cooperative with “a transparent administration.” Thus, with the later addition of farmers from Santiago Xanica (“town beneath the clouds”) and Lagunilla (“small lagoon”) these three communities formed the Trinity, or La Trinidad, in January 19,1999. UCI’s retired managers shared all their experience and know how of the coffee business, continuing to offer the new coop advice. Equally important was their coffee processing knowledge which (due to scarce resources) was done initially in a home.

Women of Xanica , photo, Kiko Malin groundsforhealth.com

Coffee path and payment

Especially important was Jorge’s connection with U.S. buyers, which allowed the cooperative direct contact with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont and Allegro in California. Non-cooperative farmers normally receive a price as low as 350 pesos ($35 US) per 100 pound. sack, and many produce five or fewer sacks per year. Consider that it takes nearly a work’s week to simply harvest the amount of coffee cherries (raw product), which washed and dried will leave this amount of dry roasted beans. But through fair trade, Green Mountain Coffee pays La Trinidad 1,410 pesos per sack. This price is no doubt one of the highest paid for coffee (a commodity currently plagued by low market prices), and for the farmers, some with as many as ten children, every peso matters. Reflecting on his own childhood in Xanica, Salomón (the town’s elected cooperative president) explained “When you are truly poor, you really stop and think before you purchase something, even something as simple as a piece of bread.”

As Transfair (the fair trade organization) envisioned, a significant portion of the premium goes toward social projects. After the first year, with the fair trade premium as down payment, Xanica’s members discussed buying a truck on credit. However, Salamón was hesitant to put the community in debt, and also saw a greater need. Many of the farmers in his branch of the coop lived an hour or two’s walking distance from the nearest town and lacked access to a general store. Rather than a truck, he proposed a cooperative store, located centrally between the members, so that buying a bag of beans or a bar of soap need not be an ordeal. The community agreed, and today member own not only a store, but a storage shed, and a sizeable piece of land where a warehouse is planned.

Two new organic projects are also up and coming-- one for the production of honey, and the other for sugar. For their own small business ventures, the women have begun a small microcredit program. For honey sales, the coop has already been in touch with a subsidiary of the Mazunte Cosmetics Company, another organic indigenous organization nearby. Discussion has also begun on the possibility of Xanica venturing into a bit of ecotourism, as the biodiversity of flaura and fauna in the area is impressive and virtually untouched. Ultimately, as with any democracy, these decisions lie with all the “socios” or cooperative members.

Several hours away are Los Naranjos and Lagunilla. The cooperative of these combined communities numbers over 200 members and the fair trade premium has been suffcient for the purchase of a truck, an office supply store, a warehouse, a vegetable garden project and a microcredit program.

Community, cooperation, and commitment

In Xanica, the forty family cooperative has a strong sense of community, or as Mexicans would say, convivencia, sharing of life. At a tequío, where every Sunday members have the option of volunteering a day’s work for community projects about a dozen men come ready to work. At the end of a season, the men will be rewarded with a percentage of the free trade premium proportionate to the tequíos attended. Nearly a dozen men work with picks and shovels, preparing a space for the warehouse, while, nearby a few men including a 15 year old and a 13 year old are fixing wax plates into wooden boxes for honey production up the hill. The mood is light, the men and boys talk freely.

Salamón hardly rests. As dusk falls, and the work slows, he has some moments for reflection. “It is a difficult,” he says, “and a slow process, to teach and empower individuals to do things themselves. We do everything voluntarily, the coop pays only our basic transportation and food needs.” Salomón’s wife and two small daughters live four hours away downhill in the town of Pochutla, where Salomón spends Wednesday through Friday. There he supports his family by buying and selling cattle. “After three years of service I thought, its time for me to leave. But the community gets attached to you, their trust in you grows, they like how things are going, which makes it difficult to leave. They have been screwed over by so many others. So I told them okay, I’d stay another three years.” Salomón was offered government work as Mayor of Xanica, but refused, giving this simple reason, “I want to serve the people.”

In three years, the coop’s improvements have been impressive. Though some skeptical farmers will never join, the coop has 250 members and continues to grow as socios spread the word and more farmers are certified. Green Mountain closed its accounts with UCI, and has agreed to buy as much coffee as La Trinidad produces, for as long as it can produce. Thus, all of La Trinidad’s coffee is sold fair trade, which makes the cooperative unique, and perhaps a bit spoiled.

Despite the successes, for these farm communities reality is still far from “rosas y pan pintado.” Though, most children today attend school at least through sixth grade, many of the adults, especially the women, are illiterate. Justino’s only son has been in the states as an undocumented farm laborer a year to date. Any who can manage to come up with money will venture to the U.S. seeking work to purchase a hectare or build a concrete home back in Oaxaca. Landless farmers continue to work as virtual slaves in nearby fincas (plantations), or they leave their homes and children for weeks at a time to earn money in nearby cities. Fair trade cannot be the only answer. After all, these are coffee plants, not Jack’s beanstalk.

Then again, perhaps the fairy tale needs to be rethought. Rather than Jack, our hero’s name could be Jorge, Justino, or Salomón, his pocket full of coffeebeans, and empowerment and diversification plans, with a multinational giant as his foe. In three years, La Trinidad has shown by its progress that with a mix of brain, brawn, and belief, their Mexican beans are not without magic. This tale has only just begun.

© 2003 El Andar Magazine