Beautiful, bewildering, treacherous Chiapas. A land where indigenous hopes have been rekindled. A land where indigenous blood-letting has been the official response ever since.

With the Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994, indigenous people in the Mexican state of Chiapas took a historic stand against the centuries of repression that their people, the original inhabitants of this region, have suffered. That cold dawn became a landmark event when thousands of Indigenous insurgents armed predominantly with simple rifles, wooden sticks and their profound roots of human dignity and their beliefs in what is just stood up and said, “Ya Basta!” “Enough is Enough!”

But rather than answer the people’s cry for respect of their rights and real development in the communities, Mexican national authorities appear to believe that social and cultural problems can be resolved by simply applying more force. And despite the excruciatingly long process of negotiating peace between the Mexican government and the Zapatista rebel forces, the recognition of indigenous rights to autonomy in Mexico appears to be as far away as it has ever been. Indigenous people in Mexico make up some 10 percent of the total population. But in states like Chiapas, in the southeastern comer of Mexico, that number jumps to approximately 50 percent, comprising the majority of Mexico’s Tseltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Zoque and Tojolabal Mayan speakers. The indigenous municipalities are located primarily in the highlands and jungle regions of the state and are characterized by an overall lack of basic health care, education, minimal sanitary conditions, clean water, electricity and basic respect for human rights. Like so many indigenous regions in the world, the misery of Mexico’s indigenous population had been previously hidden from the public attention. But these basic indicators reveal the painful problems:

• Illiteracy rate – 50 percent

• Inhabitants without drainage or sewage systems – 85 percent

• Inhabitants without electricity – 75 percent

• Inhabitants without access to potable water

– 50 percent

• Inhabitants living in homes with dirt floors

– 90 percent

On the road to San Andres

The San Andres Peace Accords – negotiated since May 1995 until the signing of the first of the accords in February 1996 — were designed as an attempt to reconcile the injustice and exploitation that indigenous communities in Chiapas and Mexico have endured for centuries. The Mexican government accepted these talks as “necessary” after the Zapatista uprising drew international attention to the need for democracy, justice and respect for human dignity in this long-forgotten comer of Mexico.

However, the political road to implementing the San Andres Accords has been plagued with unnecessary obstacles and was mined from the start with the duplicitous intentions of the government negotiating team. Today, four years after the signing of the peace accords, none of the agreements have been respected. Instead, “rebellious regions” in Chiapas are surrounded by military camps, infiltrated by paramilitary forces and filled with a sense of insecurity and division.

In the face of this, autonomous indigenous groups in Chiapas struggle for the construction of a “New Mexico” – a Mexico based upon justice and a respect for cultural differences. Just as the political road to San Andres has become unnecessarily blocked, so has the physical road. An unsettling game of cat and mouse with government patrols awaits travelers.

A winding thread of asphalt takes us from the “safe” tourist hamlet of San Cristobal de Las Casas, past San Andres Larrainzar to the region of El Bosque. Around every comer a surprise awaits: sporadically located landslides; gaping holes where torrential rains cause entire chunks of road to simply disappear; and the now-common strategically placed immigration and military check-points to control the movement of Mexican citizens and foreign nationals alike.

In order to avoid repeated harassment and the possibility of interrogation and detention, travelers either embark upon this road during the wee dawn hours, or take the cumbersome detours, far from the “not-officially-declared conflict zone” of San Andres.

One way or another, you

do finally end up in the lush, productive, high-altitude coffee-growing region of El Bosque, populated by indigenous campesino (small-scale) farmers.

Once in the region, we were able to meet and discuss questions of local development with the recently formed coffee-grower’s Cooperative Mut Vitz (“Bird Mountain” in Tzotzil).

“All we have is our land”

We were in El Bosque to attend a meeting of Mut Vitz members with progressive coffee roasters, North American importers and alternative credit bank representatives. They had gathered in southern Mexico to discuss how business relations could help them form a cooperative that would respect local traditions and human rights. It was an opportunity to get to know each other and to understand each other’s needs with perspectives from “both worlds.”

“I am very happy to see that you have come to learn about how we are working and see how we are organizing around organic coffee,” said Manuel Hernandez, one community promoter. “As you know, for a campesino coffee farmer, all that we have to support ourselves and our families is our land.”

But organic coffee is an arduous and unforgiving crop. The coffee plant takes three years of backbreaking work before it will yield a single berry. The organic producer must construct individual terraces or plant-living barriers on the contour of the in order to prevent soil erosion.

Pests must be painstakingly controlled, generally by manual practices like spraying mixtures of natural repellents or by simply hand-eliminating infested berries and trimming the affected branches. Shade trees must be strategically planted and trimmed to maintain a consistent, filtered sunlight. And all natural wastes are meticulously combined into the on-site compost heaps that are used to produce natural fertilizers.

During the harvest season, the work only intensifies. A campesino coffee farmer is up before dawn in order to take advantage of all possible daylight working hours. But first, he and his family must walk several hours just to get to his little parcel of coffee plants. They must carry baskets and bags and enough pozol (a thick corn drink) to get them through the workday until evening falls.

The picking of coffee is something that must be done at precisely the right time. The farmers must work quickly once the berries have ripened to a crimson red. Otherwise, the quality — and therefore the price — of their product suffers dramatically.

But despite the tender care and human energy that goes into producing coffee, campesino farmers historically have seen little profit from their coffee crop. More often than not, coffee results in being yet another mechanism for exploitation.

“Something that is very typical when we go to sell our coffee to the local middlemen — or coyotes as we call them here — is that they don’t weigh the coffee properly. Or they might tell us that the coffee is still wet, even though we know it has been properly dried, and they lower the price,” explains Lucio Gonzalez, the current president of the Mut Vitz coffee-growing cooperative’s board of directors.

“Or the coyotes will simply offer us any price they like, since we have already carried our coffee to the point of sale. It is unlikely that a coffee producer will carry his coffee back home. Of course, the coyotes know that too, so essentially they can just offer any price and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ So we end up not earning enough to buy a simple depulping machine or other basic equipment we need to improve the quality of our production, much less the quality of life in our communities,” said Gonzalez.

Selling through progressive coffee roasters and importers who are interested in supporting indigenous peoples through their business channels is one way that Mut Vitz is looking to escape from the ages-old economic traps of their region.

“I think you know that when we sell our coffee we receive a very low price. But in contrast, everything that we have to buy is very expensive. And so our earnings often do not even cover our basic needs,” says Juan Perez, another community promoter.

“Here in Chiapas there are many, many needs,” explains Diego Nunez, in-coming member of the Mut Vitz board of directors. “But through this kind of coordination we hope that we will be able to sell our coffee to people like you, who offer a fair price for our product. As coffee producers and members of Mut Vitz, we have to say that enough is enough! “We hope that through this kind of work, we can escape the very traditional exploitation under which we have historically suffered,” said Nunez.

The Mut Vitz co-op is a shining example of the degree of local initiative and organizational capacity that popular organizations can marshal. Despite many obstacles, Mut Vitz has moved forward quickly in production capacity, quality control, conversion to certifiable organic practices and expanding markets. Because of the lack of government interest for true development in this zone, producers here have been searching for independent economic and social alternatives to support positive change in their communities. One critical aspect in the creation of alternative models that are supportive of democracy, self-management and sustainability is the sale of their coffee at “fair trade” prices.

There are currently some 1,000 producers associated with Mut Vitz. They expect to produce more than 1.5 million pounds of high-altitude coffee this year.

During our brief visit, we could sense the pride these farmers have placed in their proposals. Bill Harris is the coordinator of Cooperative Coffees, a fair-trade coffee importer based in Americus, Georgia.

He sells “fair trade coffee” in Canadian and U.S. markets and came on the delegation to learn more about the realities and alternatives facing small-scale coffee farmers in Mexico. “I’ve told many (people) since returning from Mexico that this was a very moving and inspirational trip for me,” said Harris. “I’ve visited many cooperatives during the last three years, but I’ve never seen the spirit and determination I felt in that simple room on the hill. Mut Vitz is indeed what this fair-trade movement is all about. This has really answered questions that were lurking in my mind concerning our work. I needed a good dose of justification and I got it!”

International fair-trade initiatives recognize the work that campesino coffee farmers invest in their fields in order to produce high-quality coffee, while applying ecologically sustainable practices. Fair trade looks to change structures or international-trading “norms” in order to improve the economic and social conditions under which the small-scale producer works and lives.

For example, fair trade offers direct access to international markets and seeks to improve the actual terms of trade for the campesino farmer by elevating the purchase price for coffee — irrespective of the going international market price. It also attempts to facilitate credit to democratically organized campesino farmer cooperatives that otherwise have little to no access to working capital. These kinds of practices are young experiments at leveling the playing field of international trade, but appear to be gaining ground.

But despite international interest in this kind of experience, locally the cooperative is at constant risk. Mexico is not accustomed to such independent development and the local reactions show it.

The political climate in coffee country

The official government party, the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (or PRI for its initials in Spanish) has been in power for 70 years, making it one of the longest running one-party systems in modem history. During that time it has become a master at “the Carrot or the Stick” diplomacy. In a country where Tierra y Libertad, “Land and Liberty,” was the battle cry for a decade-long revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, nothing scares the PRI now more than a truly independent campesino organization. Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel laureate poet, once called the Mexican government a philanthropic ogre. Independent organizations are bought, co-opted or repressed. Campesino leaders who are not willing to play by the PRI’s rules are likely to be imprisoned or killed.

A key part in the government’s co-option strategy is the pro-government National Campesino Confederation (CNC) and the Indigenous National Institute (INI). Credits for farming and other resources are channeled through structures such as these in order to keep the lid on local initiatives.

These agencies offer generous credits to obedient organizations and withhold support from the unruly.

And when the government finds itself unable to control unrest, tactics become increasingly heavy-handed. For example, during a series of campesino land takeovers in Chiapas in 1980, the state’s governor (with apparent federal government approval) did not hesitate to have the army open fire on the community of Golonchan, in the municipality of Chiton. In that incident, 15 campesinos were killed and 22 were injured.

Chiton is just one illustrative example of a long list of violent acts during the PRI reign of power. It demonstrated a tendency that has only increased in Chiapas since the Zapatista uprising in 1994. The overriding result has been an enormous void of credibility for the government and an additional cause for mistrust of government proposals amongst popular organizations seeking democratic development in Mexico.

In the region where Mut Vitz operates, the desire for independent development has not gone without its list of frightening tales.

In March 1997, approximately one year after the signing of the San Andres Peace Accords, the Public Security Police entered San Pedro Nixtalucum, a small community of the Autonomous Region of El Bosque and one of the 28 communities that make up the Mut Vitz co-op.

As police attempted to arrest several residents, members of the community protested and the police opened fire, killing four people. Twenty-seven people were arrested and hundreds of people were displaced from their community for several months.

And then, in June 1998, the Mexican military along with Public Security Police openly attacked several Zapatista-supporting communities in El Bosque for the first time since the 1994 insurrection began. A battle ensued, and after hours of shooting eight campesinos and two policemen were dead.

Killings in the region have returned again this year, only now with a considerably more ambiguous face – as ambushes disguised to look like robbery attempts. The most recent incident occurred this last February 1.

That day several members of the Mut Vitz coop from the community of Chavejaval were ambushed and robbed while transporting their coffee. Three of them were killed. Common crime or political assassination?

That is a difficult question to answer in the midst of a low-intensity battlefield. It is true that there now exists enormous economical pressure in the communities. With the militarization of the state, there is an accompanying increase of violence. However, this makes for the fifth death in the first months of the year and cooperative members question the coincidence that all the victims should come from their community. They sense a systematic repression against people who seek local development independent of government control.

Such is the reality behind a cup of coffee in times of war. But nevertheless, Mut Vitz producers are conscious of the need to continue the path they have chosen and consolidate their organization.

Strides forward

“The problem is that we have lost faith in government solutions. That means we reject money from any of their so-called assistance or development programs,” Lucio explains. “So the producers work without any access to credits. They are simply working with their own force and the sweat of their brows. We are attempting to build our own independent support fund for the producers by virtue of our sales.”

Coffee is one of the few sources of cash income for campesinos. They use this income to buy what they cannot produce – medicines, tools and building materials. Nevertheless, the majority of campesino coffee harvests are committed to the “coyotes” long before the berries are ever picked from the trees.

Because coffee is an annual crop, most producers go through the majority of the year without additional income. By the time the harvest months come along, the producers are already in debt to the local coyote, or simply need cash to pay the temporary help necessary to help get the harvest in quickly before the berries become over-ripened and dry on the bush. So rather than earning money from the harvest, many end up simply being able to cover their prior debts and production expenses. As one promoter says, “We work just so the middleman can eat a little bit better.”

Despite these obstacles, Mut Vitz has made great strides forward. The cooperative has recently acquired its export license. The producers have been learning alternative organic production practices for the past three years to improve the quality and quantity of coffee their trees can produce. They are well into the transition from “natural” to “certifiable organic” production, paying particular attention to all appropriate practices for sustainable shade-grown coffee.

“We have seen the difference between continuing along the same path that we in this region have always followed, and the possibilities of creating real change,” explains Lucio. “Change is always difficult. But continuing with the coyotes, for example, is simply repeating history.

“Essentially, we only end up with a little bit of cash in order to get us through the next months following the harvest, and then we begin the same cycle of borrowing and debts again. With independent organization and direct export, we are really putting ourselves to the test, but we also have seen concrete benefits in doing so. We are experimenting with something new and something that we are controlling according to our own criteria.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).