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Organic coffee in Mexico

Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci

This piece was written in early 1995. A year later, pieces on why we should buy "organic" coffee were appearing regularly in the mainstream press. (The picture is of the ancient cedar in Tule, outside Oaxaca.)

Introducing modern farming techniques to third world countries can be of great benefit, but sometimes it can be enormously destructive of local economies, ecologies and social structures. Most rural Mexican communities center around the "milpa system" of food growth, in which corn, beans and squash are interplanted in one field. These plants provide the staples of the rural Mexican diet. In many cases, the introduction of modern cash crops and farming methods has hurt the milpas, and upset social institutions and local economies.

An example, is the introduction of "sun coffee" in the mountains of Oaxaca. Traditionally, coffee is grown on bushes planted in the shade of old-growth trees. This is known as "shade coffee", and the yield from these plants, while modest, has been adequate to provide campesinos with some cash spending money (to buy such things as salt, sugar, oil, etc.), to supplement the yield from their milpa. And because shade coffee needs less tending, there is more time available to tend the milpa.

The development of a coffee bush that thrives without shade has transformed the ecology. Now, trees get cut down to provide space for "sun coffee", and populations of birds and insects are disappearing, as is the topsoil. Sun coffee is a crop that needs to be actively tended. This means less time for tending the milpa. Sun coffee does not have the natural protection of a surrounding forest. It needs more insecticides and chemical fertilizers. Insecticides and chemical fertilizers, whatever you think of their effect on the ecology, cost more money. When the trees go, so does the water beneath them. Sun coffee needs to be irrigated. Irrigation, aside from how it drains the water reserves in an already drought-ridden country, adds to the time spent on the crop. Without the trees, fragile topsoil gets blown away.

For Miguel, the choices are few. He is landless. His father, and his father's father, and back into time as far as he knows of it, have all been cafeleros: growers of coffee. He started tending the crops with his father when he was too young to go to school. By the time he was old enough to go to school, his father's hands began to be affected by arthritis and so his schooling was sketchy, although he is literate, and in his village literacy has made him a leader.

As far back as anyone can remember, his family has lived on land owned by a merchant family in a far-off (50 miles) city. In exchange for tending and harvesting the coffee and caring for the land, they are provided with space for a house and a milpa, and a modest percentage of the coffee to sell for money, with which they purchase "extras".

Back in the '80s, cafetaleros were protected by a kind of coffee OPEC. The large distributors had banded together to keep the price of the beans at a high level, by warehousing excess crop in good years and releasing it in lean times. Further, there was money available at favorable rates through government-guaranteed loans. After all, next to petroleum, coffee is southern Mexico's largest legal export crop.

In this protected atmosphere, the answer to everyone's dreams of wealth seemed obvious: sun coffee, with a higher yield and a shorter growing season. Miguel's patron ordered him to tear out some of the forested land and plant nice neat rows of the new bushes. Miguel did as he was told, even though he had serious doubts about the wisdom of changing a way of growing that had proven beneficial for hundreds of years.

In 1989, the coffee cartel collapsed, and the price of coffee plunged. The loans and other subsidized support programs, which had by then doubled the amount of coffee being produced, dried up. Small landholders, unable to afford the high prices of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, left their land and moved to town to look for work. In a pattern often repeated in agricultural matters, the larger land owners began to buy out the smaller, and the ex-farmers returned to their ex-land as agricultural workers, usually on shares. Owners turned to cattle-raising as a means of income, and more forest was leveled for grazing land.

Miguel considers himself lucky, because his patron has enough capital to ride out the bad times. But he's worried. He's working much longer hours; he's exposing himself and his family to chemicals whose effects he fears; he has been noticing that the milpa (now in an area of reduced forest) is suffering more attacks by insects and bacteria; and at the end of the day he has less buying power than he used to have.

In March of 1995, he and several hundred of his neighbors from the Oaxaca highlands came to the city of Oaxaca to call the attention of the governor and other state officials to their plight. Many of them carried banners with the word "Zapatista" clearly displayed. When I asked him about that, he said "Well, we are very concerned. We have heard that these Zapatistas want the big distributors to stop squeezing us for their own profit. They say that because of the mistakes of the big landowners, the money for medicine and schooling (government programs severely cut under the new austerity programs demanded by the International Monetary Fund) is gone. I think maybe we must find a way to go back to the old ways of growing, before we all starve to death. But Zapatistas? Well, we will see about them...."

Writing in 1994 from Chiapas, Russell Greenburg of the Smithsonian pointed out that aside from everything else, shade coffee is simply better tasting than sun coffee. He suggested that the coffee lovers among us support the cafeleros and the ecology of southern Mexico by going a little bit out of our way and buying only shade-grown coffee. I don't know if it would make any difference, but I'll bet Miguel would appreciate the thought.

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Published or Updated on: April 1, 1995 by Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci © 1995
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