Bloomingfoods likes Equal Exchange. A lot. Equal Exchange is dedicated to buying its coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products from cooperatives of small farmers, by which decisions concerning both business and community affairs are made democratically. In turn, Equal Exchange sells much of its product to organizations such a Bloomingfoods, itself a member-owned cooperative. By trading directly with grower co-ops, Equal Exchange eliminates the multiple layers of middlemen common in the coffee trade, ensuring that a larger percent of the consumer’s dollars reaches the people who do the hard, skilled work of growing and harvesting fine coffee. Its commitment to "fair trade" coffees and the folks producing them is no better reflected than in the articles of their agreement with grower co-ops, such as CESMACH. These are:
1) To pay a fair, previously agreed upon price. This price will always be at least $0.05 above market price and will never sink below $1.56 per pound. Due to the extremely high quality of CESMACH coffee, their growers typically receive even more. But fair trade is about more than mere price per pound. Thus:
2) Equal Exchange offers its growers a reliable long-term relationship which they can count on year after year.
3) Equal Exchange offers pre-harvest financing, an absolutely critical condition for the poor indigenous farmers struggling to survive and raise their families through subsistence agriculture and the production of coffee.
4) Equal Exchange pays a "social premium" above the base price, this money to be used by the grower cooperative to invest in other socio-economic development projects. In exchange for these considerations, Equal Exchange insists that:
5) The coffee production be conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner, and
6) That the grower co-op operates in a democratic, politically empowering fashion that respects the rights and interests of all its members.
Through such arrangements, Equal Exchange has arguably done more than any other organization in the last 15 years to change the way coffee is grown, bought, and sold around the globe. Its commitment to fairly traded products, organic, sustainable production practices, and innovative systems of agricultural commerce is a non-pareil in the world of international agriculture. Bloomingfoods is thus delighted to be a leading outlet for the products it offers.
The goals of our trip were several, but they revolved around giving representatives from seven selected co-ops a chance to actually see and thus more intimately understand the conditions under which coffee is grown and processed in southern Mexico. It was also hoped that we would gain a fuller appreciation for the role which coffee plays in the political, social, and economic lives of producers, and also to personally express to the growers how much their efforts and their coffee are appreciated. Through such trips, little by little, Equal Exchange is doing its part to forge stronger connections between the growers and the stores and customers who purchase their coffee.
Logistically, our trip would consist of three principle stages: first, via multiple flights and a bus ride, we would make our way to San Cristobal de la Casas, a beautiful old colonial city in the heart of the state of Chiapas. From there we would make a half-day drive to Jaltenango, the site of the warehouses and offices of CESMACH (Campesinos Ecologicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas S. C.). Finally, we would make the long haul to Las Pilas, a village of 33 families that was so small and so remotely located in the buffer zone of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve that I was unable to find it on even the best map of the region that I could reference. Ah, it smelled to high heaven of adventure!
From the moment we drove out of the Tuxtla airport, the adventure was begun in earnest. In a light rain and howling wind, we had a wild ride on the new highway that connects Tuxtla and San Cristobal. Most drivers--including our own--made full use of the two wide two lanes of the highway, honking, tail-gating, flashing their bright lights, braking and accelerating fiercely, weaving from lane to lane as they raced up and down and around the winding road. Reminiscent, I know realize, of the way my friends and I drove when we were young. I sat by an open window in a reverie, my arm hanging out the window, reveling in the soft rain, wonderful mountain air, and exhilarating ride.
Thanks to the preliminary work done by our Equal Exchange guides, the patrona of the Hotel Pasada Isabel was expecting us, and she and an assistant quickly prepared a simple meal of eggs, tortillas, fruit, and tea. The meal was hot and bountiful, for which we were grateful. San Cristobal sits at almost 7000", and when the sun sets the temperature drops precipitously. In addition, the public areas of the hotel were almost completely open to the elements and the rooms themselves were unheated. Consequently, we huddled, somewhat chilled, over our steaming meals wearing the few articles of heavy clothing we'd brought. We were relieved at the end of the meal to discover our beds covered in warm blankets, and at the end of a very long day of travel we all happily fell into sleep.The next day was passed mostly in meetings. First our entire group assembled in the chilly hotel meeting/dining room for an introduction by Phyllis, Nick, and Lilla to the history and goals of Equal Exchange, as well as to review the rough itinerary we would follow on the trip. Clearly, a lot of planning had gone into the trip, but we'd be doing a lot of seat-of-the-pants adjusting as we went along. This concluded, we took our first walk through the scenic streets of San Cristobal to the offices of Otros Mundos/Amigos de la Tierra Mexico (Other Worlds/Friends of the Earth Mexico). Here international policy analyst Gustavo Castro Soto met us. For the next two hours, senior Castro presented to us a fascinating, albeit somewhat discouraging, socio-economic history of Mexico and Chiapas, with a special focus on the environmental degradation being wreaked by inappropriate agricultural, mining, and development practices. It was a tale dark in corrupt governmental action, misguided international treaties, and environmental and human abuses. Yet in the end it was not without hope that some positive change is happening, in part through the work of co-ops such as Equal Exchange and CESMACH.
Following our meeting with Soto, we ate a late lunch, convened another meetings to prepare for the following day’s trip to Jaltenango, and then indulged ourselves in a brief outing for supplies. This was our last chance to check email at any of the innumerable email cafés that littered the city and to visit the large open-air market for additional parkas and scarves for evening air we now realized was colder than we’d expected. The mountain winds continued to chill us, and we were all anxious to acquire a few extra garments to ensure that we didn't freeze in the mountain village to which we were headed. And what a great opportunity it proved. For it allowed us to wander and dicker among the scores of indigenous craftsmen vending their wares in the courtyard of one of Chiapas' largest churches.
But this is all by way of mere prelude. For the real story of the trip is the story of the CESMACH co-op, and the difference it is making in the lives of its member-farmers and in the stability and health of the fragile biosphere in which they live. Now confidently decked out in new woolen and heavy cotton scarves, parkas, leggings, and gloves, we were anxious to be on our way.
CESMACH: THE Co-op Difference
The meetings began with a review of the history of coffee growing in the region. Prior to the establishment of CESMACH, we learned, life for the coffee growers in the villages was arduous and largely without hope of improvement. Originally subsistence farmers, villagers in the area had gradually begun introducing coffee into their mix of crops, hoping in that way to gain some measure of security through diversification and to develop a source of income for the purchase the myriad consumer goods and services they could not locally grow or produce. But their isolated location, poverty, and competition from competing growers in other regions rendered even this a dubious pursuit. Their farming practices at the time were purely conventional, including the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and the removal of canopy species and understory to permit the planting of corn, beans, and other food crops.
The addition of coffee to the mix did nothing to improve conditions, environmentally or economically. The growers simply planted coffee trees on the steep mountain slopes, sprayed them with whatever cheap synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers they could afford, then hoped that the trees and coffee berries could withstand the fierce summer storms to which the region is subject long enough to mature and be harvested. Once this harvest was picked, the growers then waited for the arrival of the "coyotes," middlemen who systematically prowled the region during the harvest season, negotiating coffee deals with individual growers. The growers, being as they were perpetually broke and without recourse to other funding, had no option but to sell their precious beans for the pittance offered. Thus was the environment abused and the farmers plunged deeper into a cycle of poverty, weariness, and despair.
Finally, broke and disgusted, the growers determined to do something different, and in 1994 they banded together and the CESMACH cooperative was born. With the creation of CESMACH, producers put themselves into a position to begin operating under a different system. But of what would that system consist. What would be its methods, its processes, its goals?
Among the first decisions made was that growing practices would be organic and fully sustainable. As it is with organic farmers everywhere, protection of the land, itself, was immediately elevated to primary importance. So, not only are synthetic pesticides and fertilizers banned, but many additional practices have been introduced. For instance, in order to minimize erosion, the fields are painstakingly terraced, a particularly difficult feat in a region that is so heavily forested and exceedingly steep. Further, rather than merely discarding waste materials—chiefly pulp and wastewater—special efforts are made to compost or otherwise purify them prior to release. And instead of removing the forest canopy, it is carefully cultivated to ensure that it shields the coffee from the intense sun and the slopes from the driving rains.
But the production of exquisite, shade-grown organic coffee is only the first goal of CESMACH, and not so much an end unto itself as a means of achieving a great deal more. First, working co-operatively under the umbrella of CESMACH put the growers in a position to negotiate much better, "fairer" selling arrangements with buyers. To this end, the co-op rather than the individual farmers now negotiate crop sales, and selling in larger quantities vastly enhances the leverage they can bring to bear. This was further facilitated by the construction of warehouse and storage facilities, Now, instead of briefly holding and selling their coffee out of their homes and villages, the growers consolidate and hold their coffee in an efficient warehouse system until fair prices can be negotiated. The strength and flexibility this gives the villagers can be no better expressed than in "Coffee's David and Goliath Story," which describes the initially devastating but ultimately empowering incident which led to the partnership which now exists between CESMACH and Equal Exchange. Through such measures, CESMACH works to achieve a greater measure of prosperity for the villagers and with that the preservation of the local culture.Another very important consideration to CESMACH is that coffee cultivation methods contribute not only to the health of the coffee fields, themselves, but also to that of the fragile environment in which they are located. Many of the villages belonging to CESMACH are located in the periphery of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. This is a an area rich in rare and unique plant and animals species, many of which are threatened with extinction, chiefly due to habitat destruction. Growing coffee under a natural canopy, carefully terraced, and using organic methods clearly produces a superior coffee but also protects the natural environment. Recycling of the berry pulp into compost and filtering in deep wells the acidic water created in fermenting the coffee beans further contribute to the preservation of this delicate biosphere.
Beyond environmental conservation and organic coffee production, CESMACH has also launched a variety of social development projects: community-owned chicken production operations, organic fruit orchards, expanded composting activities, and promotion of public health awareness on issues such as cervical cancer. All these efforts are directed not only toward diversifying incomes but also to enhancing life in general for all the villagers. Octavio Carbajal of CESMACH expresses it thus: “We are conscious of the fact that we will not see economic or environmental change if we do not first make changes in our society, recover and strengthen human values. In CESMACH that is our priority.”Having thus learned something of the philosophy and goals which guide CESMACH, we were very excited to visit the warehouse and receiving areas, and to see those philosophies put into action. Just as our meetings with our CESMACH hosts explored the co-ops commitment to wise, sustainable agricultural and economic practices, so did our visit to the warehouse operations permit us to witness the extraordinary care taken to ensure that the co-op buys and sells only the finest coffees. The basic process is simple but the standards are rigorous.
Here's how they go about it.Upon the arrival of a grower with his crop, samples of the beans are extracted from each of the 100+ pound burlap bags in which they are delivered. The sample beans are visually inspected for flaws, their moisture content is analyzed, and they are dechaffed to determine the percentage of chaff to bean. If the quality is not up to the highest standards, the beans are rejected outright (later, in the fields, we would see the pains to which the farmers go to prevent this costly outcome); if it is too wet, it will be purchased, but a lesser price will be paid since it will be necessary to further dry the beans in the sun on the large cement slab outside the building. If accepted as is, the farmer’s entire delivery is then carried in, loaded on to a large mechanical scale, weighed, then stacked in the area in which it will be held until it is sent for processing at a facility owned and operated jointly by CESMACH and three other co-ops. And the grower receives payment according to the previously reached agreement. From the processing facility, the coffee is shipped to Europe, Asia, or the United States. Only then, in facilities such as those at Equal Exchange, will the coffee finally be carefully roasted, vacuum-sealed, then shipped to outlets such as Bloomingfoods for sale to consumers. It is worth noting as an aside at this point that until very recently, CESMACH had no facilities for actually roasting coffee or a plan for selling it in Mexico. Indeed, throughout our trip we noticed that good, richly brewed coffee was a rarity, a luxury not available to most people. Recently, however, CESMACH has purchased a roaster and is working diligently to develop at least a small local market for its exceptional coffee.
And so a long and fascinating day passed, until by 10:00 pm we were starving and exhausted yet anxious to embark for the village and coffee fields early the next morning. Our gracious CESMACH hosts relieved us of our hunger and weariness by feting us at a local café, complete with live marimba music, hot and spicy local cuisine, and cool Coronas. By the time we collapsed in our beds around 1:00 a.m. we were indeed ready for sleep.
The setting of Las Pilas is absolutely stunning, so far up the side of the mountain that we could look down hundreds of feet to see vultures circling, themselves hundreds of feet above the valley floor. And yet the mountains continue to rise up high above the village, beautifully enrobed in a mixed canopy of broad-leaf deciduous, pine, and palm trees. The village itself consists of thirty or so homes. Most that I entered were about 15' x 20" or 25', consisted of only one or two rooms, were constructed of mud bricks, had cement floors (a recent improvement from dirt floors, we were told), and tin roofs raised above the walls to facilitate air flow. I saw only one refrigerator, but somewhere in each house was invariably a hand-cranked grinder for grinding corn and a corner space devoted to a small hearth where a wood fire served to cook the ubiquitous corn tortillas and other dishes. There was electricity, but not much: most of the houses were very dark, lit only by a single, very dim bulb, and even that was turned off shortly after dark. I saw no indoor plumbing: washing was done outside, and there seemed to be toilet facilities at about every three houses. These consisted of a toilet beside a cistern full of water. After using the toilet, one simply dipped a bucket of water, poured it boldly into the toilet, and let gravity carry it down a drain to, where?
Las Pilas and the Growing of Organic, Shaded Coffee
Upon our arrival, the villagers gradually came out from their houses to meet us. After dropping our bags in a nearby home, we proceeded to the village school. There we met with representatives of most of the 17 families who are members of CESMACH, introducing ourselves, speaking a bit about why we were there, and expressing to them the high value placed on their coffee by our customers back home. This was actually quite an interesting endeavor, given that most of these folks rarely venture to a town and have no real conception of our co-op groceries. Still, they seemed impressed, albeit a bit confused, by the fact that Americans would travel so far simply to observe and learn about their coffee growing activity. From them, in turn, we began to learn first-hand of what that activity consisted.
Climate, terrain, grinding poverty and utter dependence on man, donkey, and nature for almost all energy input render coffee production in the mountains of Chiapas a manual, arduous, and very precarious vocation. Those same conditions, together with major doses of incredible ingenuity and tenacity, also make it possible for the villagers to produce some of the finest coffee in the world.
First, let’s talk field locations. There is virtually no flat land in Las Pilas, and the orientation and vegetation of the slopes immediately surrounding the village are unsuited for coffee productions. Consequently, to our surprise, we learned that most of the “fields” are accessible only via a 1/4 to 1 hour hike along some of the narrowest and most precipitous trails I have ever walked.We were hard pressed to keep pace with our village guides as they led us to the fields. And by the time we arrived, we felt much more like resting than picking. But picking was what we were there to do, to experience, if only for an hour or so, what it feels like to stand beneath the tall forest canopy and actually pick coffee berries. For it was March, and the tail end of the harvest season. Indeed, the last berries needed to be picked. This was actually the 3rd or 4th picking of the trees this season, the multiple pickings ensuring that the majority of the berries were picked at the peak of ripeness. Ours was the final picking of the season, and so we were instructed to pick all remaining berries, regardless of ripeness. Why? Because this coffee is grown under purely organic methods, without pesticides, herbicides, and other synthetic chemicals. Unpicked berries, either left on the trees or fallen to the ground, attract insects and disease, and so they must be removed from the fields. As we were to see in the next stage, the berries that were not entirely ripe would be sorted out, processed and sold, but not for Equal Exchange coffee. They would not be hauled to the CESMACH warehouse. Think rather of the wandering coyotes and of any of the popular supermarket brands with which most of us grew up.
After picking for little more than an hour, our group of 5 or 6 pickers had managed to assemble in our baskets three or four pounds of berries. Our hosts laughingly told us we’d need to pick up the pace a bit if we didn't want to starve. Four pounds, maybe. About $8 worth! After all that picking, and this doesn't include all the work necessary to produce those berries: the planting, terracing, spreading of compost...the hours spend walking back and forth between the village and fields. It was a shock. Our first tangible lesson in how hard these folks work to eke out a living. And yet we were reminded, the price they earn through CESMCH is more than is paid by the coyotes to the growers not members of CESMACH.
Sorting and Processing
After picking, the berries are poured on a tarp and the green and otherwise obviously bad specimens discarded. Again, these are sold to the coyotes for use in poorer general market coffees seen on supermarket shelves.
Next, the “good,” ripe berries are poured into a large concrete sorting tank. Gravity and a ¾” hose stretched a half a mile or so up into the mountains then bring water to the tank. No pumps, no wells: just a slender hose and gravity. We watched in some amazement as the tank slowly filled with water and most of the berries sank. These, we were told, were good, solid berries, inside which both beans would be good. Others, however, floated to the top and were scooped off in a basket. Upon examination, we found that hail or insects had damaged all these berries, so that at least one of the two beans inside was bad. These berries, like the one ones previously sorted out, would also be sold to the coyotes.
After discarding all the "floaters," the drain plug at the bottom of one end of the tank is partially pulled, allowing water and beans to flow down a pipe toward another tank, the so-called "fermentation tank." At this point, more labor occurs. Much more. The cherries must be depulped, the process whereby the beans contained in the berries are separated from the pulp and husks. This task is performed, like all other work in this neck of the woods, purely by hand. There is no electricity in this remote location, and the villagers eschew even small gasoline motors. Instead, they stand for hours, laboriously turning the crank as the coffee flows down. We all took a turn at the crank, and about 5 minutes was enough for us. The farmers stand there for hours at a time, turning, turning, turning...and this after a long day of picking.
As the coffee passes through the depulper, the husks and pulp pour on to the ground. They will be hauled off and composted. The beans, on the other hand, flow into the fermenting tank where they are first rinsed and then permitted to ferment for about a day. Fermentation is thought to accentuate the body and flavor of the coffee beans, but it must be done with great care because if the beans ferment for even a little too long they will be spoiled and an entire season of labor will have been for nothing.
Standing there, looking at the wet, fermenting coffee, I was moved to ask the obvious question, "What do you do with all this wet coffee when it is fully fermented"? The reply, appalling. "Oh, we put it into bags and haul it back to the village." Yes, the wet coffee is loaded into burlap bags, then hauled by man or donkey back along the long, torturous track to the village. Ugh!
The wealthier families in Las Pilas have concrete drying patios outside their houses; poorer families had only tarps. On to these they pour their wet coffee, and for several days the woman and young children spread and rake it in the sun, turning it over and over to ensure that it dries evenly, thoroughly. When the coffee has been dried down to 12% moisture and a thin shell called parchment encapsulates each coffee bean, the producers pull the coffee off of the patios, return it to the burlap bags, then store it under cover until a truck can be found to make the four-hour trip to the warehouse in Jaltenango where it will be received and tested as I described above. And so the harvest is completed.
And that, in very brief, is an account of our trip, of the work of CESMACH and Equal Exchange in Chiapas, and of the nature of coffee production on an organic, shaded, terraced CESMACH farm in Las PIlas. Inspiring work, dogged work, yet work in which the folks at CESMACH, at Equal Exchange, and at Bloomingfoods all believe very strongly, for it embraces, harmonizes, and attempts to render economically feasible the best of food, community, sustainability, and social justice.
And thus we return full circle to the primary theme and issue that took us to Chiapas in the first place: "Fair trade." Is there fairness in this arrangement? You decide. The farmer, using the most primitive manual methods can produce only a small amount of coffee, for which he is paid about $2 per pound in Jaltenango. If he endeavors to expand his production, the need for speed in the harvest forces him to pay hired help, thereby reducing his margin. By the time the coffee has been hauled to Jaltenango, stored, hauled to the processing facility outside town, stored again, trucked to Vera Cruz and shipped to Equal Exchange facilities in Massachusetts, roasted, placed in vacuum-packed bags, then shipped to our stores, it's price has gone to $10 per pound. The indigenous farmer on a remote hillside in Las Pilas has difficulty imagining all these processing stages, of fully grasping the complexity and expense inherent in international commerce. He sees only the endless hours he works to produce a few pounds of coffee for which he is paid $2 per pound yet which ultimately sells for $10 per pound. And he asks how this can be regarded as "fair," for it is barely enough to provide his family with the essentials for life. And so they said to us as we left them there on their hillside, "You see now how hard we work. You see how poor we are. You taste how good the coffee is. Please pay us more"! Yet in like fashion, a shopper in Bloomingfoods sees $9.99 per pound for Equal Exchange coffee and asks, how can this be "fair," for it is $4 more per pound than the "coyote coffee" he knows is being sold in supermarkets. And so those customers say to us, "It costs too much. It is not fair. Please charge us less."There are no obvious and easy solutions to this situation, of course. Not if we desire the best possible coffee, and that it be produced without damage to the delicate environments in which it is grown, and that the men and women who produce it be able to earn a decent living, and that we not have to pay $20 per pound. We present our observations from this little fact-finding adventure only to heighten the awareness of our customers, just as the experience heightened our own. And so that when you, the reader, walk through our polished and modern stores and see the coffee resting so brown and perfect in our bulk bins, maybe, just maybe, it will evoke in your mind's eye the image of a patient, enduring farmer slowly leading a donkey laden with bags of soggy coffee beans up a dirt trail toward home as the sun sets behind the mountains, and the "price per pound" you see on our sign may indeed seem a little more, well, "fair."