February 25, 2004

Coffee Farmers Speak About Benefits of Fair Trade

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Two men with tired yet determined visages representing the Northern Chiapas Coffee Network spoke at a small conference held in 153 Uris Hall yesterday about the plight of the Chiapas coffee farmers and their relation to the Zapatista armed resistance in 1994. Miguel Gonzalez Hernandez, 50, an NCCN advisor, and Angel Alvarez, 30, a small farmer and rural educator, see the network as a disseminator of information concerning the often-ignored conditions that rural Mexican farmers must endure.

“Our principal objective is the education of the peasant population,” Alvarez said through an interpreter.

The northern region of the state of Chiapas in Mexico is rich with natural resources, yet ironically many of its people are impoverished, Alvarez said. Much of this situation, he said, has to do with promises that were never fulfilled following the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910. Emilio Zapata, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza each led separate revolutionary forces, with Zapata’s army focused on the goal of distributing land to the peasants.

However, for many years since the revolution, the more centrist philosophy of Carranza has dominated. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a general focus on opening borders to foreign investment and other “neoliberal economic policies” has contributed to the low wages small farmers have endured for years, Alvarez said.

“The accomplishments of the Mexican Revolution were never achieved,” he said.

Alvarez added that in 1992 then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the Institutional Revolutionary Party repealed Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which officially called for land redistribution but effectively gave out lands that were often not arable.

Salinas also repealed the ejido system, whereby towns were given a common plot of land to use for agriculture and other needs, Alvarez said. After Salinas, the ejido land could be bought, sold or repossessed by banks.

With the rhetoric of the 1910 revolution eliminated from the Constitution, peasants took arms and began the Zapatista movement in an attempt to gain access to arable land. Alvarez has been targeted by Mexican paramilitary troops as a Zapatista sympathizer.

“The proposals of the Zapatista movement include protection for those with different political and religious beliefs,” Alvarez said.

Now, the NCCN focuses on establishing organic, or “fair trade,” coffee as a major source of income.

“We saw that coffee was a viable economic alternative. We had to find a way to produce organic coffee,” Hernandez said.

While the NCCN is able to pay the $10,000 yearly fee and pass the inspection necessary to be recognized as a fair trade coffee entity, it is having difficulty finding a suitable and sustainable market for organic coffee. Starbucks, Nestle and Proctor and Gamble currently monopolize the coffee market in northern Chiapas, according to Alvarez. The NCCN takes particular offense to Starbucks because the company purchases coffee through intermediaries rather than directly from small farmers.

According to Alvarez, government-sponsored paramilitary troops are rampant throughout northern Chiapas. They hire poor peasants and train them as spies and assassins to try to divide peasant movements. In addition, “vices” such as prostitution are implemented and supported by military barracks, he said.

While vast oil fields reside in southern Chiapas, the government controls most of this resource, Hernandez said. The land is the only means through which the peasants may eke out subsistence, and while sheep and cattle are also raised in northern Chiapas, coffee remains the most likely resource that peasants can rely upon for the foreseeable future.

The presentation was sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program.

Archived article by Clark Merrefield