A Parable And Your Cup Of Coffee
issue 251 - January 1994
All photos by DAVID RANSOM
cup of coffee
The south-eastern state of Chiapas is neglected,
hard to live in and wonderful to look at. But those twin
bastions of tradition, the Catholic Church and rural life, have a radical edge of their own in Mexico’s poorest state.
Until quite recently priests were not allowed to wear their robes in public in Mexico, and few do so even now. The Revolution contained a strong anticlerical element (the Catholic hierarchy had largely opposed it) inherited from the nineteenth century and the immense power and conservatism of the Mexican Catholic Church. Chiapas was one of the places Graham Greene came to in the 1930s to write about the persecution of the Church. But some 90 per cent of Mexicans still call themselves practising Catholics. Now there is a growing closeness between church and government hierarchies. The Pope has made three visits to Mexico.
Samuel Ruiz, the Bishop of San Cristóbal for the past 30 years, is a radical and as such a rarity. He is an active promoter of human rights, with a centre based in his cathedral, and an advocate for the largely Maya indigenous peoples of the region – he speaks two of their languages – who comprise a large majority of the population. I wonder how he feels about the new situation. He answers at a tangent.
‘The original Christian evangelization of the continent was – lamentably enough – identified not just with a religion but with a culture,’ he says. ‘The identification of the Christian religion with Western culture meant that a different identity from that of the indigenous peoples was imposed upon the continent.
‘This has generated a kind of schizophrenia. Priests feel torn between two identities, the culture they were born with and a religious identity that can only be expressed through another culture. So now, after 500 years, we cannot express our religious faith through our own culture, in our own way, rather than through the philosophies of Aristotle... But change is coming. The way it comes about can be quite extraordinary, quite unforeseen.
‘About ten years ago I visited a community called Tenango. I can’t honestly remember whether I was on horseback or on foot. You must wait outside such a community to be met. Unfortunately, the more dignified you are the further outside the community you are expected to wait and the further you then have to walk into it.
‘Anyway, I was duly welcomed and went in search of the community. We arrived at the church and exchanged greetings. I asked them – not rhetorically but quite genuinely – at what time the celebration of the Eucharist and the confirmations that were planned would be convenient. They were completely taken aback. They had no idea.
‘Well, to keep things going I made a grotesque suggestion: “Would one o’clock in the morning be OK?”. They laughed, of course. So I said: “At eight in the morning, then?”. “Yes, that’s fine, at eight then,” they agreed.
‘“And is that convenient for the women?” I asked. “Oh, no, señor obispo,” they replied, “that’s when they make our coffee and tortillas”.
‘Well, there followed an altercation between the men and the women, who eventually proposed 10 in the morning and everything was fine.
‘Three years later, when I returned, I was met at the same place and they said: “Well, señor obispo, we didn’t know exactly when to expect you, but we calculated more or less such-and-such a time. We’ll go and have a meal at such-and-such a time. Then you’ll probably want to have a rest. We’ll celebrate Mass tomorrow.” A complete programme had been prepared for me.
‘There was nothing political in this, you understand, but it clearly was an act of great political significance. They knew that their opinions counted for something, that they were the ones who had to make decisions, that the women also must speak and decide.
‘That was an advance. We went on to discuss, for example, how the oppression they suffered did not always come from far away. I remember saying to the men: “Look, my brothers, how strange! How is it that the men have sandals and boots and shoes but our sisters, the women, don’t have anything to wear on their feet at all?”
‘Well, they reacted to that a bit, and started searching around for explanations. “You see, señor obispo,” they said, “we are poor. What can we do? We don’t have enough for everyone. And, well, we have to walk long distances. That’s why we are the ones who have sandals, boots and shoes.”
‘“Oh, I see,” I replied. “And that brother there. That cassette recorder he’s holding, I wonder how much that would have cost?” “Well, we, er... He got some money...” They started to look at each other, at the ones who were in better shape. It was clear that the words “we are poor” did not have an exact or universal application.
‘Then a woman said: “My husband says the men have the shoes because they have to walk a long way to work on the land, where the maize is. But we women also have to walk, to where the water is, carrying heavy jars. We have to make the meals, wash clothes, care for the children. Often we have to walk much further.”
‘There followed a debate. It led on to what you might call an unforced contemplation of the things that weren’t working in that community, a realization that there is such a thing as internal oppression. As one woman said: “It looks as if we’ve got a few things to straighten out here”.’
Travel south to the border with troubled Guatemala, where for a generation the Maya people have faced unaided a new genocidal assault, and you enter what is simultaneously an ecological reserve and an environmental catastrophe.
Billboards tell you that Comitán is a town ‘without rubbish’. Ecological institutes and thousands of white-painted trellis boxes for young trees line the roads. Here, reaching north-east to the Yucatan peninsular, is the Lacandon Forest, the unique density of its cedar woods thinned to a fragile veil. ‘Green’ trees may no longer be felled, so trucks lumber past with logs blackened by the fire-raising that makes their felling ‘legal’. The blood-red wounds of eroded soil scar the skin-tissue of the land.
Just a third of the Mexican population, some 30 million people, still make their living from the land. But that is more than used to live in the entire country less than 50 years ago. And Mexico cannot feed itself.
The answer, says the Government, is to sell tropical fruit to the Americans and buy cheap maize back. But at the low price of American maize no-one in Mexico can afford to cultivate it as a cash crop – and many rural communities depend upon maize for their very survival. There is a crisis in rural Mexico more profound than anything faced since the Revolution.
‘Here the “modern” way of industrial agriculture is not appropriate,’ says José Juárez Varela. He works for the Union de Ejidos de la Selva (the Union of Rural Collectives in the Forest) and we’re talking in his office in Las Margaritas, ten kilometres to the east of Comitán. ‘We have no infrastructure, roads, communications, technical services, and the urban markets are a long way away. The land is extremely delicate and mountainous, unsuitable for machinery.
‘Even agricultural reform arrived here late. It wasn’t until the 1950s that people started leaving the fincas, the great estates, freeing themselves from debt-bondage and setting up ejidos, collective farms. They began to move into the forest and to grow whatever they were used to growing: bananas, maize, coffee.’
The ejidos joined together to form a union. ‘We learned a lot and we had a good time,’ says José, ‘but we weren’t making a living’. The government began to withdraw its assistance programmes. The Union went through a crisis. Some felt like giving up.
José and a small group from the Union toured the country, talking to other unions and consultants. One practical result came from a meeting with a group in Oaxaca, the neighbouring state to the north, who were producing coffee for the Max Havelaar organization in the Netherlands, a trailblazing ‘alternative trade’ operation.
On their return they decided to develop coffee production for ‘niche’ export markets, including Max Havelaar. This meant a very different relationship with coffee buyers, cutting out the middlepeople and obtaining a guaranteed minimum price in exchange for guaranteed quality.
The Union bought an old cotton warehouse in Comitán and converted it into a coffee storage and grading plant. Most of its production still goes onto the ordinary commercial market, but after the collapse of world coffee prices in 1989 the ‘niche’ market kept the Union alive. It’s now beginning production for Twin Trading in the UK and for some specialist coffee traders in the US.
Now I know something of organizations like this, and I know they are small but beautiful things. Theory and practice do sometimes diverge, however, and I’m still sitting in an office. I ask if I can visit the producers, the ejidatarios in the forest.
It sounds like a simple request. But Las Margaritas is at the end of the road. The nearest producers, at Cruz del Rosario, are at least three hours’ drive away over the kind of roads that, well, even a Volkswagen Beetle can’t manage. If I want to go I’ll have to drive myself there in a Chevrolet truck. Cirilo, who is supervising a new move towards organic coffee production, will come with us.
So we set out at dawn the next day and I begin to appreciate just what it takes to get this coffee to market. The road is a series of boulders perched over a succession of precipices, broken only by deep pits of mud.
We must announce our arrival at some distance from the village by blowing the truck horn – a reminder that intruders here are not always well intentioned. I feel as if I’ve spent three hours on a horse, which for me is severe punishment. We are greeted by a group of ejidatarios and eventually descend to the tropical forest in the small valley below, where coffee bushes grow under the shade of forest trees.
The ground is precipitous and has to be terraced. Rocks must be shifted by hand. The move to organic production means that no pesticides can be used to fend off disease – and no chemical fertilizers either. Instead, a special compost is laboriously prepared from animal droppings and leaf-mould. It takes at least three years for a bush to start producing.
I wonder whether all this additional labour, even for a better price, really pays off. There are a few hollow laughs. ‘We are doing it for future generations,’ says Cirilo, who looks with pride on the healthy plants.
It’s a long, long process. Seeds have to be germinated, planted out and transplanted. The bushes have to be tended and fertilized until they begin to produce. In November the harvest starts, the ripe red coffee berries are gathered, the husks removed, the beans washed and laid out to dry on concrete beds. This being the tropics, the drying beans have to be constantly gathered in and spread out again to avoid showers of rain. Then they are bagged up and taken by truck to Comitán and the grading plant, where a series of machines selects out the best beans by size and weight: only 30 to 40 per cent of the original crop reaches the final hand-sorting stage, and then makes its way into boldly printed sacks of 70 kilos each. You’d expect such a sack to be worth its weight in gold: about $120 is the minimum price guaranteed by Max Havelaar.
I say to them that I will write about their work, and perhaps, just perhaps, more people will buy their coffee. I have no doubt at all that what Max Havelaar and Twin Trading are doing here is important. The Union feels it has a real status of partnership and respect – in which, incidentally, quality has become something near to an obsession. I have not the slightest doubt, either, that without them these people’s lives would have been pushed beyond the point of endurance.
But still I wonder how it is that such toil, to produce what one might presume to be some nectar for a royal ritual, costs them their lives and us next to nothing.
For more information on the fair trading organizations mentioned here, contact: Aztec Harvest, Griswold, PO Box 769, Berkeley, Cal. CA94701, USA; Max Havelaar, Box 1252, 3500 BG, Utrecht, the Netherlands; Twin Trading, 5-11 Worship Street, London EC2A 2BH, UK.
Cross of the Rosary
This region was once what we call ‘national commons’, common land. But in practice it had been claimed by a finquero, a big landowner. The forest is vast. Much of the land was empty.
Two men – we don’t know how they met – came here to occupy it. In those days it wasn’t like now, when you have to ask for land, to go through all sorts of formalities. Then you just went and had a look for what took your fancy.
So, about 90 years ago, they began work. After they’d been working for a while others passed by who had nowhere to go. The custom of landowners is, of course, to have their mozos, their ‘boys’. So they began to take on workers until there were 33 of them in all. They divided the workers between them, 17 for one and 16 for the other. The obligation placed upon them was to work at least one day a week for the owners.
Time passed until 1954, when the fight for land after the Revolution began here – much later than elsewhere. Those who took up the cause of revolution had triumphed, and they made it possible for ejidos, state-owned collective farms, to be formed on the land. People began to form colonias everywhere.
But most landowners wanted to go on being landowners and did not want ejidos. Well, in those days people weren’t able to figure things out for themselves. They didn’t know how to go about setting up an ejido.
One of those two landowners here had three sons but preferred one of his nephews. He said to his nephew: ‘I have more confidence in you than I do in my own sons. I can see that they want to create an ejido here, but I can’t afford that. I too am poor. What do you recommend?’
His nephew replied: ‘We are all needy people here. But I don’t want to become a landowner. I want to be a campesino who helps others, so that others can have rights also.’
So his uncle said: ‘Very well, make an ejido here then, if you can get an agreement with the 16 people who are here with me.’
So the nephew, who was my father, talked to the others and tried to convince them. But they weren’t sure. They said: ‘Amado and Clemente, the two owners, they’re not going to want it’. My father told them what Clemente had said. They sent him to talk to Amado, but he would not agree.
Nonetheless they decided to begin proceedings with the Ministry of Land Reform in Comitán to set up the ejido. My father became ill. He hardly slept at all, trying to sort out documents, getting up at two in the morning to make the journey to Comitán. He ended up in hospital and worked from his hospital bed too.
About four months later the local finquero, the landlord Mateus Castellano, arrived in the village himself. He came to make threats against my father. He said: ‘I know you’re trying to form an ejido here, you’re trying to take over a piece of my finca. If you go ahead with this and try to take over my land, make no mistake, we’ll be back here during the night to throw you out.’
So my father said to him: ‘Thank you, Don Mateus. We may be peasants but we are capable of thinking. With your words and your threats you treat us like fools. The time has come to put an end to this. I shall fight until I die for the ejido.’
I would not have known any of this if my father had not told me. I was two years old then. Now I am 37. So I know that it was 35 years ago that this happened. My father says he was born here, and he is 75. My grandmother was also born here and she is 90.
Eventually the ejido was established. Then the fight became less for land than for documents and plans. When final agreement was reached it turned out we had much less land than we started with, and only 23 ejidatarios remained. It was a struggle to survive, against illness too. We lived rather like caged animals. There were no roads, only paths. When someone was ill we had to carry them out on foot, on our shoulders, one or two days to Las Margaritas. Sometimes they would die before we got them there.
We had to go to Mexico City to ask the President of the Republic himself for a road here. The struggle cost us a lot. They say the road did eventually come in 1980 because the Government built it, which is true. But they did not build it because they wanted to, but because we demanded it.
In those days there was a lot more forest. When the road came so did the loggers to destroy the forest. To arrange things better we set up a Union, Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), with other ejidos. This also cost us a lot. We struggled together, for the road, for our coffee, for the rural shops we need to buy our basic necessities.
Then problems began. We employed ‘assessors’ because we realized that to get anywhere we had to deal with the Government. Some didn’t want to talk to the Government, saying it was better to stay independent. Some said, well after all, the Government’s money is our money and we need it. So we separated off the unions, between the Forest and the Valley.
Now the law, Article 27 of the Constitution, is being changed. They’re making it possible for ejidatarios to own their land as private property, to sell it off. But we have made it clear that the only road we want to follow is to keep our land collectively.
Why? Well, all our land is mountainous. We work small plots wherever we can. For example, I have one plot here, near the village, another higher up the mountain, another down in the valley. If we go along with what the new Article suggests, it will be like it was before the Revolution, with Porfirio Díaz.
We remember that history. How the Government was in league with the landowners. All the land was owned by the rich and we had nothing. The Government may want to put an end to the agrarian reforms but we are going to decide for ourselves.
We have more experience now, and we’re working out how best to protect and care for what has cost us so much, for the sake of our children, so that misery never returns to us again. That’s the lesson of the story I have told you. I’m not saying we are rich, or even that we are no longer poor. But there is change. Then we were ashamed. Now we are proud.
One day I shall die, and with me this history that I have told you. But I want my children to know what we suffered, so that they will share things together and not be forced back into misery. If they know this history then they might think: ‘Well, if my parents and their friends fought for this, so shall we’. It’s a long road, we don’t know where it will lead us and we’ll never be certain that we’ve arrived.
So saying he takes a long silver trumpet and sends a faltering blast into the forest. ‘To summon the women,’ he says – to cook not for himself but for me.
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