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Observations from Chiapas

Observations from Chiapas Image

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Joe Moskowitz, Peace Coffee Dir. of Finance & H.R.

The roaster is starting to smoke. What's worse is no one in the café seems to notice or care. I nervously ask the barista, in my broken Spanish, how long they have been roasting this batch. "Un hora" she replies. I can't help but wince at this length of time, thinking of our 15 minute batches in the roastery at home. Luckily she doesn't notice. If only our roasters could see this, I think to myself: Smoking roaster, starless-midnight colored beans and a peculiar smell wafting across the café.

As quickly as I started thinking, critically I stop. I could not be severe for two reasons: 1) I couldn't roast much better myself, and 2) Does it matter that much if your coffee bean is a little burnt when you have a revolution going on outside your café?!

Understand there weren't charging mobs outside or any imminent danger standing at the café in San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. However, I was indeed amidst a revolution. This area is ground zero for grass roots civil liberty movements in Chiapas and all over Mexico. Most notably this was the epicenter of the Zapatista uprising of January 1st, 1994.

I am here representing Peace Coffee, on this trip that has been organized by our good friends at Higher Grounds Trading (Chris and Jody Treter). We are here for a week to visit coffee farmers, Zapatista communities and NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Peace Coffee purchases beans from two coops in Chiapas: Yachil and Maya Vinic. Our home base is Posada Isabela in the historic old town of San Cristobal. Posada Isabela is not only physically beautiful but is also a historic safe haven of sorts. In past times when the government has illegally tried to remove reporters form Mexico, authorities would move hotel to hotel trying to discover journalists by demanding to see a list of guests. Isabela refused to disclose any information and was safely able to hold out.

On the first day we visit CIEPAC (Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action). CIEPAC defines itself as a civil organization that monitors national and international events, disseminates information to people and educating communities. Often times the only news available to coffee farmers and rural communities comes from the government and big business. All too often that information is spread with the purpose of manipulating people into complacency and a state of fear.

We are treated to a lecture by one of the organization's cofounders, Miguel Pickard. We literally cover a semester of World Economics by discussing origins of the world economy, world economic principles and current hierarchal model of developing and developed countries. We discuss the debilitating effects of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the next step SPPNA (Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America). While NAFTA makes me worried, angry and work harder at Fair Trade, SPPNA simply scares the crap out of me.

SPPNA is a working agreement between Canada the US and Mexico. On some levels, it is Americanizing all three countries with a disposition to marginalize groups who don't conveniently fit in. In this case, it is the indigenous peoples and farmers of rural Chiapas who are being pushed to the side.

After lunch, we are able to visit the Office of the Coffee Coop Maya Vinic on the outskirts of San Cristobal. There they have a small roastery, cupping area, meeting room and offices. Besides exporting coffee Maya Vinic is able to roast non-export-grade coffee and distribute as a national brand in Mexico. The revenue from this project helps them fund the operations and staffing for the offices. The staff there, Louis, Tonio and Victoriano present us with an outline of the Coop. Maya Vinic is made up of 422 farmers, working 540 hectares (1000 acres) and producing 100 tons of coffee a year. They work with farmers on Education for better growing, organizational oversite and certification of the coffee beans.

In the evening, we were to meet with Julio Cesar of CAPISE (Center of Political Analysis Economic and Social Investigation. But this second NGO visit for the day does not materialize. Our intended host was called to an emergency.

Tensions have been running high leading up to our visit. All of the indigenous and autonomous groups in the area were on 'Red Alert' due to increasing aggressions. We tried to meet with CAPISE two more times during the week but to no avail.

Our next two days are supposed to be spent in the communities of Maya Vinic and Yachil. Due to the aforementioned tensions we are not granted permission to visit the Autonomous (Zapatista) communities of Yachil. In addition, from what we can understand, the Yachil Cooperative is transitioning from an old Board of Directors to a new one and does not want any outsiders in the community.

This underscores the importance of visiting our Fair Trade partners in person. Through these visits we begin to understand the subtleties of our different cultures and how it affects the way we trade together. As we discuss this situation, I realize that understanding the situation is quite complex. What exactly is happening at the Co-op? Is there anything being lost in translation? Discussions with the Coffee Farmers in this region are often translated twice. Once from Tzotzil or Tzotzal into Spanish and then Spanish into English.

We spend most of the second day at the Maya Vinic Warehouse located at Acteal, about 2 hours north of San Cristobal. Coffee farmers drop off their beans at the warehouse for processing. The beans are sorted for quality and repackaged for Export or National Distribution (roasting in San Cristobal.) Through funding from Higher Grounds, Maya Vinic was able to repair a large truck that helps farmers get their coffee to the warehouse.

The site of Acteal has an important place in the history of Maya Vinic. It was the site of a 1997 massacre of 49 community members by unknown paramilitary groups. It is often viewed as the final catalyst for the formation of Maya Vinic. The event highlights the indirect actions of the Mexican Government in oppressing the people of Chiapas. In this case, the military had blocked off the road leading to Acteal on the day of the Massacre. In addition, military members were discovered attempting to clean blood from the walls of the church the day after the massacre. The government, police or military will train, aid, entice or even bribe one community with the goal of harassing or attacking a neighboring community. In this way people are turned against each other, often with deadly results. This effectively removes any chance for a collective voice from the people.

We travel a number of miles to the east from the warehouse in Acteal where we settle in with the family of Ernesto. He lives with his parents, wife and two children and brothers and sisters in a three-bedroom home with a separate cooking building and small barn. We bring food and eat dinner together. Much of the dialogue is in Tzotzil and a little Spanish. The kids are doing what all kids do — playing, laughing and exploring. Ernesto and his family give us 2 of their 3 rooms to spend the night. (You'll find a photo of Ernesto at the top of this month's newsletter). 

On the morning of our third day, our second in the countryside, we make formal introductions with the farmers of this local community and then spend the rest of the day in the fields hiking, picking coffee cherries and learning about growing and harvesting. In this valley where the farmers live, the fields are everywhere on every inch of fertile soil. Some of the steep hillsides contain other crops and we wonder how people walk up the steep hillsides let alone grow and harvest food on them. We return to San Cristobal that evening.

Our forth and fifth days are spent in the countryside again. This time heading more East than North — toward the Yucatan. We stop in Nuevo San Gregorio, a small Zapatista community that is the benefactor of a new water sourcing project.Schools for Chiapas is the main sponsor of this project. We visit briefly and learn about the self-sustaining benefits of the new water source. In the past, their water supply has been cut off by paramilitary. Now members of the whole community have access to water on their own land. 

In the afternoon we drive east through beautiful valley after valley. In the early evening we arrive at a small roadside shack that is the check point for entering the community of Bolon Ajaw. At first, they are not sure we will be able to visit tonight because there is already a group of journalists (Al Jazeera) in the community. After an hour of waiting, we receive word that they will allow us in. We are shuttled to an entry point on the side of the road about two miles down and told to hurry into the tree coverage... neighbors are watching.

Bolon Ajaw sits adjacent to Agua Azul, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Chiapas. Agua Azul is a series of majestic water falls that flow through a deep river valley. The fields and homes of people here are also located next to an additional series set of waterfalls — ones the tourist attraction can not reach. As a result, the community has been under increasing pressures from neighbors, local police and paramilitary OPDDIC (Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Peoples) to move out or else... There is a steady flow of international observers in the community. Most people volunteer to stay at Bolon Ajaw for a week and are simply 'present' in order to document any incidence that may occur. When an international presence like this is in the community it is that much harder for the government, military or police to act overtly against the group. On the two days we spend at Agua Azul there were 5-8 International Observers.

We spend our time here touring the fields, seeing the falls and cooling off in the bluest water I have ever seen. We are left to ourselves for most of the time, so much so that I begin to wonder if we really are 'doing' anything. Remembering that it is the support of the international community that matters most right now, I realize how much we are helping. We are doing what people so often times don't: recognizing that there is a problem even if we ourselves can't directly change anything at this moment in time.

We depart on the 4+ hour van ride to San Cristobal in the heat of the day. It's 'Jungle Hot': +90 degrees and +90% humidity. I keep sane by counting the speed bumps between Agua Azul and San Cristobal: There are 262.

On our final day in Chiapas, we meet with Peter and Susan who founded Schools for Chiapas. At its core program Schools for Chiapas aids autonomous indigenous groups with their educational needs. In realty they do a little of everything in Chiapas and are an integral part of the Zapatista movements around San Cristobal.

Through our discussion, we get a larger picture of the cultural complexities in Chiapas. Differences in language, nuances in culture and implied meetings all create higher barriers for communication. Governmental pressures create a sense of fear and paranoia. On the positive side there is a matrix of NGOs, grass roots organizations and individuals working hard to give a voice to the indigenous groups — many of whom are coffee farmers.

These civil liberty struggles are often embodied by coffee farmers around the world. If we begin to understand the causes and opportunities here in Chiapas we can continue to help other people in more places. It's at this point where I worry less about the smoking roaster and more about the people who are growing the beans. Viva Zapata!

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