Chiapas’ Coffee Growers: Accidental Environmentalists
Kristian Beadle steps off a rickety bus in southern Mexico and finds a traditional coffee-growing culture that suits modern sustainability efforts admirably
Every steaming cup of coffee could tell a story, and the shade-grown coffee from southern Mexico’s Chiapas state tells tales of a disproportionate role in sustaining local villages, hillsides, and wildlife.
It’s a story with several lumps of conflict and uncertainty stirred in.
The volatility of the global coffee market makes it a difficult business, and Chiapas’ small farmers face the precarious equilibrium common to all small farms and businesses. But they face an additional set of unique challenges, including the shaky political truce between the government and Zapatista rebels who made global headlines in the mid-1990s for taking up arms in the name of indigenous peoples’ rights. Meanwhile, the toehold made by organic and fair trade initiatives is slipping in Chiapas even as a rapidly changing climate could kill the region’s top cash crop.
Chiapas has some of the world’s tastiest coffee, but will the campesinos(peasant farmers) continue to grow it? Will the biodiversity and carbon storage inadvertently protected by this style of coffee production eventually be compromised?
I went searching for these answers in the highlands of Chiapas. Uphill from the charming colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas is the much smaller community of Chamelho. Swooning after a rough mini-bus ride, and waiting for the next transport, I made a pit stop at a church in the main plaza. It was a striking scene: a combination of grass, dirt, and indigenous icons surrounding scenes of Jesus and the Nativity, an odd melding of the Christian and Mayan sacred. This juxtaposition was a tourist attraction in less remote villages, but this church featured only local parents and their children listening to music and chatting amiably.
After a series of enthusiastic hand gestures — many people in these parts rely purely on the Tzotzil Mayan language — I was dropped off at a wooden warehouse that smelled of coffee. It wasn’t thick and tangible like your neighborhood coffee shop, but rather deep and musky like freshly cut grass. Clustered around a table were four Tzotzil Mayan girls in flowery blue dresses with ribbons in their hair, knitting new additions to their homemade garb.
The place was a coffee cooperative, Majomut, and it too was a melding of the indigenous and the international. The cooperative purchases coffee from 928 member-landowners, paying them fair trade prices in accordance with their certification, then ships then beans to overseas buyers, such asCafé Direct, which specialize in ethical coffee and tea purchasing…