The Mutvitz cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, sells a portion of its coffee on the growing global “solidarity market.” The farmers, who are part of the Zapatista rebel movement, see the coffee business as a way not just to move forward economically, but to strengthen their Mayan heritage.
Climbing into the mountains with members of the Mutvitz coffee cooperative, one is struck by how hard these farmers work. Most coffee growers in this part of Chiapas, Mexico, live in ejidos; that is, land held in common by the entire community, and worked by individual families. Generally the village is located in the center of the ejidal land, and the coffee fields (usually 2 to 10 acres each) are spread out around it, high in the moutains. Farmers must walk two, three, or more hours over extremely steep terrain just to get to their fields.
The members of Mutvitz (Mutvitz is a Tzotzil word that means “mountain of birds”) do not shrink from hard work. Determined to obtain a better price for their coffee, as well as to protect their own health and that of their land, they abide by all the practices required of them by CERTIMEX, the Mexican organic trade certifying agency. These practices include composting; terracing; using “living fences” of small trees and shrubs to protect their fields from neighboring farms where chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be applied; planting a variety of tree species within their coffee fields to enhance biodiversity; and draining the water used for washing the coffee beans into wells, so as to avoid sending the run-off to mountain streams.
Once, walking to a coffee field with a farmer in central Chiapas, we lost the trail and I followed as best I could as he hacked his way through thick tropical undergrowth using his trusty machete. When we finally arrived at the field, the farmer proudly showed me his work: he’d built individual terraces around each coffee tree to prevent the torrential rains from washing precious topsoil down the mountain. He’d gathered materials for compost – leaves, coffee pulp, animal manure and beneficial weeds – and, after months of turning the huge mounds, had applied several shovelfuls to each tree. He kept the area around each tree cleared of weeds using only his machete. He’d carefully regulated the amount of light by pruning the shade trees at regular intervals. His entire family was involved in the harvest, which requires many trips to the coffee field and back, carrying the 100 pound sacks of coffee fruit (the freshly harvested fruit is about the size and shape of a cherry) on their shoulders. The women often carried a child on their backs as well.
For coffee farmers, the work does not stop with the harvest. Newly picked coffee must be “wet processed” in the community. First, a hand cranked machine is used to depulp the beans, removing the outer fruit from the inner seed. Next, the beans must be soaked and stirred in several changes of water over several days to begin fermentation. Then the coffee is spread out on a concrete patio to dry in the sun. The beans must be raked and turned daily, and sometimes taken up and covered if rain comes. (In the Chiapas highlands it’s not uncommon to have rain ten months out of the year.) Finally the dried green coffee beans are selected, with only the best beans gathered for sale.
The sacks of beans are again hauled on farmers’ backs, hoisted into trucks and taken to the cooperative’s warehouse for further quality checking and weighing. Then they are reloaded onto trucks to go to the beneficio , or dry-processing facility, where the outer husk of the bean will be removed and the coffee will be roasted.
For all the work involved, Mutvitz members and other Chiapas coffee farmers I have met are always willing to take time out to notice what’s going on around them. On the way back from the field that day, I asked the farmer to identify for me all the various bird sounds we were hearing along the way. Appreciative of my interest, he named them all, and also stopped to point out to me something I’d never seen before – a tiny hummingbird nest hanging delicately from an inner branch of a tree. Chiapas is home to 39 of the 55 species of hummingbirds native to Mexico. The coffee farmers, working hard to preserve their livelihood and culture, are also protecting critical habitat for birds.
I once asked Mutvitz farmers how much they thought their work was really worth. What would be a really “fair” price? They could only laugh. Ten dollars a pound? A hundred dollars a pound? In the end it was impossible to put a value on their coffee, and all that it means, grown below a craggy promontory called Mutvitz, mountain of birds.
– Tatiana Schreiber