Skip to main content

Mayan gold

By Roger Hamilton

Consider the two worlds in a cup of latte. The milk, the bland product of a placid cow, is pretty much taken for granted. But not the coffee. Even its Latin name Coffea arabica conjures up exotic origins. It thrives in rugged terrain, in places that can be politically volatile and environmentally unstable. Connoisseurs quibble over it and commodity traders take it on wild rides through the global marketplace. This is no ordinary bean.

Nor is Isodoro Morales Mauricio an ordinary coffee grower. A member of the Chuj ethnic group in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, the ebullient Morales relishes new challenges even as he strives to preserve his Mayan heritage.

Formerly president of his community of Lagos de Colores, Morales later headed the Indigenous Ecological Federation of Chiapas (FIECH, after its name in Spanish), which was formed in 1992. The group today is composed of 15 organizations. The 1,130 members of seven of these organizations produce organic coffee, typically on plantations of about two hectares each. All are members of various Mayan ethnic groups.

Image removed.Morales' coffee bushes are only one member of the complex biological community that makes up his plantation.Of course Mayan farmers have practiced organic agriculture for thousands of years. But organic coffee is something else. FIECH’s members have had to work very hard to meet the long list of criteria demanded by the mostly foreign-based organizations that have granted their coffee its coveted organic certification.

But the work is paying off. FIECH members can sell their crop for considerably more than uncertified coffee. This became a matter of financial life and death in 2002, when coffee prices went into a tailspin. Many thousands of farmers and coffee workers lost their source of livelihood, an estimated 170,000 in Central America alone. Prices have since rebounded, but increasing numbers of farmers, such as organic producers, have found at least a measure of security against a repeat of this kind of volatility by opting out of the international commodity networks and selling to specialty markets.

In addition to the short-term financial reasons for growing organic coffee, Morales touted some long-term benefits as well. Striding up a steep hillside in his rubber boots, he described how his farming methods help to preserve the land for future generations by protecting the soil rather than wearing it out. An organic coffee producer must truly understand nature and interrelationships among the plants and animals, which is also an important part of the Mayan culture. In fact, here is one instance where the demands of the global marketplace are helping to preserve traditional ways of life, rather than destroying them. Morales would talk more about this later (see sidebar “Coffee cornucopia”).

Image removed.Harvesters select only the ripe berries, just one example of the special care taken all along the production chain to ensure a truly superior cup of coffee.Every so often Morales would stop to rearrange piles of dead vegetation strategically placed to protect the soil. Coffee grows well on well-drained hillsides, but such topography is also prone to erosion. Morales also constructed terraces to help hold the soil in place.

The coffee bushes were laden with plump fruit (called cherries—the beans lie inside the sweet, sticky pulp). In any given bunch, the cherries ranged from shiny green to golden, and finally to deep, mature red. The harvesters will select only the ripe ones, and in quantities that can be processed right away so that the pulp doesn’t start to ferment and give the bean an off taste. 

Organic obstacles. The road to organic coffee was not easy for FIECH and its members. In general, farmers are naturally conservative. In this case, for example, some feared that cutting into the hillsides to create terraces would sever the roots of their coffee bushes and kill them. Eventually most joined the organic ranks.

But once they made the commitment to go organic, the FIECH producers found themselves laboring under some serious handicaps. For one thing, their coffee bushes were producing only about 7.6 quintals (one quintal equals 57.5 kilograms) per hectare because their plantations had a high percentage of old coffee plants that were nearing the end of their useful life and overall too few bushes per hectare. Soil fertility was also a problem. As a result, the typical farm family was earning only about US$1,730 annually from its coffee, which is barely more than the minimum wage.

For another thing, the producers were often unable to make good on promised delivery dates to exporters. The problem was their dependence on independently owned processing plants that are critical in the coffee production chain. It is here where the silvery membrane covering the bean is removed, allowing it to fall into the two familiar halves known to coffee consumers. The beans are then dried to a stable 13 percent moisture content, and are sorted and classified.

In addition to their inefficiency and unreliability, the processing plants were not doing justice to the quality of the coffee the FIECH producers were bringing them. Ninety-five percent of the beans coming out of the processing plants should have been export quality, but the actual portion was only about 78 percent. The remaining 22 percent was sold on the domestic market at a much lower price. As a result, the processing plants were doubly expensive for the farmers.

In 1999 FIECH got in touch with the Mexico City office of the Inter-American Development Bank, and together with IDB staff designed a project that would remove the bottlenecks that prevented the farmers from getting full benefit from their crop. The project would be financed by a US$464,000 long-term loan and a US$188,000 grant. 

The project’s heart is a new processing plant owned by FIECH and located near the Chiapas state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The foundation provided the land and much of the labor required to build the facility. “It’s a terrific plant,” said Javier Rowe, the IDB project specialist who helped to design the project and oversees its execution. Its ample production capacity of 420 quintals daily and its facilities for storing 15,000 quintals is enabling FIECH members to make good on their promised deliveries. The plant also processes coffee (organic only) from non-FIECH members as a source of additional income. The plant’s inauguration in 2002 was attended by a host of dignitaries, including the IDB’s Mexico representative, the IDB’s Mexican and Japanese executive directors and senior Chiapas government officials.

Image removed.Morales will use these seedlings to replace older bushes that are loosing their productivity.

The project also financed warehousing and marketing services so that FIECH could export directly without going through intermediaries. The problem of aging coffee bushes is being solved with the establishment of 36 nurseries that are producing 210,000 seedlings per growing season, sufficient for planting more than 1,200 hectares of coffee plantations. 

Finally, to make sure that these new facilities are operated efficiently, the project is paying for consultants to help FIECH improve management systems, operate the new machinery, and provide technical assistance to the individual farmers.

Today, FIECH directly exports its members’ coffee, mainly to Germany and Austria, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada. Plans are underway to export to Japan. Much of FIECH coffee is not identified as such by the time it arrives at its final destination, and in fact is often mixed with coffee from other growers, even from other countries around the world. But FIECH’s own Bio Maya brand is sold on the domestic market.

The growers are doing better financially also. Typical family incomes have increased by about 40 percent, according to preliminary information. In addition, there is evidence that families are improving their diets and making more frequent visits to health clinics.

But these gains have been overshadowed by the devastating effects of 2005’s Hurricane Stan. Growers in Lagos de Colores escaped unharmed, but at least a quarter of their fellow FIECH producers lost their plantations as well as their houses and other possessions. Even more, the destruction of roads and bridges prevented them from getting the remnants of their harvest to the processing plant in marketable condition. It could take more than five years to recover full production, a major challenge not only for the producers individually, but also for the ability of the federation to meet delivery agreements with exporters.

Short of major hurricanes, organic coffee producers must constantly be vigilant of other threats to their crop. In one incident related by Carlos Abarca Cruz, the administrator of FIECH’s new processing plant, a truck carrying coffee broke down on the way to the plant. The cargo was transferred to another truck, which had previously been used to transport cattle. By the time it arrived, it had picked up enough barnyard odor that the plant had to reject it and the unfortunate farmer had to sell his crop at conventional coffee prices, a full 40 percent less than he should have received. Cruz felt very bad making this decision (the off taste would not have been noticeable in the milk and sugar environment of a cup of cappuccino, he said), but part of his job is to protect the reputation of FIECH and all of its members. For this reason, FIECH producers will not ship their crop in a vehicle that has been transporting products such as oil, gasoline, soap, or food products that could attract rats.

So take another look in a cup of organic latte, and uncover a natural world of beauty and subtlety that lives in harmony with people. And think of Isodoro Morales, a natural innovator, a lover of nature, and a champion of the values and traditions of his people.

Jump back to top