We arrived in Chiapas, Mexico late on Sunday, January 10th, 2016 and stayed in the region until early the following Sunday, the 17th. Amavida Coffee’s founder, Dan Bailey, operation manager, Colt Austin, my fiance, Mischa Pawlik and I were there on a delegation with the nonprofit On the Ground Global (OTG). We were there to visit one of the water systems installed with the support and funds raised through Project Chiapas. While we were on this journey we witnessed so much more than a successful water project.
As OTG describes, “While the role of these delegations is to observe and inform, anyone who has been a part of one in the past can tell you, each trip transforms into something more.” Over the course of the last two years, working with Amavida Coffee, Dan has tried to help me understand – it is more than us helping them, rather it is we who are learning from our producer partners, along with emphasizing the importance of our interdependence. I discovered what he meant as this delegation transformed into something more, and so did I. The purpose of making trips to origin, working with cooperatives, and tying our overarching mission as an organization to the work of OTG is to fulfill Amavida’s vision to build long-lasting, caring relationships with our customers, farmers, environment, suppliers, employees, and finally our community. The purpose of this writing is to continue the pursuit of this vision and promote lessons learned about coffee farming communities and their culture, as well as to share my discovery of how as a collective we can create meaningful change through even the smallest daily decisions, like the choice of coffee or tea enjoyed each morning.
Here is a reflection of my experience in Chiapas, descriptions of connections made through coffee, and the stories of the people and places we visited which have a pivotal effect on our world and shaped my view of it.
Monday morning began by meeting the collective group at “La Casa de Tomas” where for at least a decade, several delegates have gathered as we were that day. Here introductions are made, expressions of intentions and interests for the journey ahead are shared, relationships are built, and lessons are learned while conversing around cups of coffee. Present were a collection of coffee roasters, members of Cooperative Coffees, and representatives of OTG, in addition to a coffee buyer, supply chain analyst, and a family with a sustainable farm of their own. A group of about 12 coffee enthusiast in total.
My personal intention on this journey was to witness the beating heart of Amavida’s existence and do my part to build a bridge from these communities to our own home community. Amavida got its start in 2004 with a mission of helping our producers better their lives through continued support and trading practices inspired by connections made here in Chiapas by Amavida’s founder, friends from Cooperative Coffees and other organic roasters. In fact, following delegate introductions and a breakfast of fresh bread, we went to visit a group of these producers at the Maya Vinic Cooperative’s roasting facilities.
At the roaster, we were given a brief tour and then our group was invited to participate in a meeting with the Coop’s board. Here we learned about Maya Vinic’s history, that there are as many as 600 members and farming families who are supported by the organization, the environmental and social practices that guide them, and the challenges they are faced with both culturally and through climate change.
Major challenges culturally, which have also had a major impact on the coffee industry, result due to lack of support from government and availability of resources. “Coffee has always been a staple” in Chiapas they explained. Before the events of December 22nd, 1997 that displaced 10,000 refugees and ended with forty-seven dead, other local communities, like Las Abejas of Acteal, bought coffee from Maya Vinic Cooperative. However, they could not continue after the devastating massacre that day.
By 1999, there was a generally civil society. In the aftermath, “trying to find their feet again” on their first coffee sale since the massacre, Maya Vinic was crossed and the money owed from that coffee sale was never paid. Bad business deals like this have created a great level of mistrust and made getting their product to market even more challenging. Often times producers end up selling to “coyotes” outside of the cooperative’s structure for an unfair price to the producer. Individual farmers are tempted to make deals like this because it guarantees they get paid, and their families, like ours, depend on that. For these reasons and more the producers of Maya Vinic expressed how grateful they are for loyal, long-term relationships like ours. It’s important to make these visits and continue to create this goodwill in our industry. I now better understand why gaining, and also giving, trust and loyalty are a vital part of Amavida’s existence.
Over the last two years, the producers have encountered environmental challenges caused by global warming’s effect on the seasons. The warmer weather, particularly in regions like Chiapas which are relatively close to the equator, has caused a spreading of “La Roya”, a rusting of plant leaves caused by humidity and lack of airflow which suffocates the plants. La Roya makes production estimates unpredictable. Solutions are being found in the diversification of productions and planting new crop varieties, like producing honey (131 members keep bees) and farming macadamia nuts too. Also, some producers are saving seeds from resilient strands (400 members are doing this) for a Coop Resilience program.
The next stop, on Monday, was a Zapatista paradise called CIDECI, or Universidad de la Terra (Earth University), founded in 1989. When we first arrived we were greeted by Dr. Raymundo Sanchez-Uniterra Barraza. After our tour, I understood more why he described being “just a shadow” when I asked permission to take a photo as we were introduced. Another way I’ve heard the principle he was demonstrating put is, “We are all bricklayers building a cathedral which we may never lay eyes on, the construction of which may not be complete in our lifetime. But we are building a foundation for the next and future generations. So they may live in a sanctuary like this.” The Zapatista movement is one bigger than he, you, or I.
CIDECI is more than a University, it is a true trade school and community center. At CIDECI training is provided in trades and crafts and also the following subject areas: Contract Law, Vernacular Architecture, Agroecology, Hidrotopografía Administration and Community Initiatives Projects / Collective, Electromechanics, Intercultural Analysis Systems-World Studies Post and Decolonization and contextual theologies and philosophies. Crafts range from looming thread and cloth, to producing fresh baked goods, building furniture, to designing shoes and printing books. This community is completely self-sufficient.
One way to depict the people here, and of the Zapatista culture, is in a story of their resilience. CIDECI once did have electricity available to them but it was cut off by local governments. What did they do when their power was taken? This community came together to create and generate their own power. Something they have reinforced cannot be taken away. They will live in a struggle with dignity and provide for themselves to their fullest ability, giving no consideration to often tempting offers of hegemonic group demands or expectations to gain easy access resources. Seeing the generator that powered the community at CIDECI was a highlight and a powerful reminder of what we can achieve when we work together while living by and protecting our values.
Following this was a brief visit with another producer cooperative at Yachil. Here we heard of similar challenges to those of Maya Vinic and learned of their aspirations to roast one day as well. We also purchased our first two kilos of lemongrass from Yachil. Upon getting home and brewing it up we are working to offer regularly in our cafes. (I highly recommend to those of you reading this you stop by and get a cup of tea, or get a bag to take home and infuse for yourself. It’s delicious!) So cool to be there and witness how, as an importer and a cafe, we can support the development of new markets in the communities of coffee and tea producers.
This day ended where it began, back at the cozy room at Tomas’ home. Long time friend of OTG and Chiapas native, Julio joined us and spoke about the Zapatista culture, growing up in Chiapas, and of the struggles that are ongoing in the communities there. He then shared with us an opportunity, he invited us to walk the path with the Zapatistas, explaining “you don’t have to be Mexican to be Zapatista.”
Tuesday we had a small breakfast with a few of our fellow delegates, who staying where we were staying at the Pasado San Cris, and we spoke more in depth about our backgrounds and aspirations for the future. Then we regrouped at Tomas’ and set out to Maya Vinic’s processing center. Here we were toured, step-by-step through the green bean preparation process. While there we also saw some of the things they told us about the day before, like the macadamia nuts and a few other crops they are growing, as well as, organic methods the cooperative is experimenting with to resolve the challenges presented by La Roya. They explained in depth how the labor intensive manner of creating and distributing a fermented fertilizer that has been showing some promise and strengthening the coffee plants works. This combination of organic materials acts like a multivitamin producing a healthier more resilient coffee plant.
I learned a lot here about the importance of organics and how Maya Vinic is aiding fellow producers who are not already 100% organic in transitioning to organic, eventually supporting their coop members in earning their own organic certification. There are no words to described what an incredible difficulty the certification process is for these farmers working with so little resources. Often times these producers are growing organically but have little access to technology, like phones or computers, to arrange appointments for certification, nor do they have the funds to support the application and other costs. It is mention-worthy that the support the Maya Vinic Cooperative offers its members is quite impressive.
Following this, we visited Acteal, the site of a triggering event, and one of the many injustices against the indigenous people of Chiapas. We heard from the brother of the man who heads Zapatista cooperative, Maya Vinic. He was there the day of the massacre and shared from the heart what had transpired and has since. When their story caught up to the present he invited us to be a part of sharing their history and keeping the Las Abejas culture alive in the world. Las Abejas differ from Zapatistas in their principles of peace and “necessary” violence, however, they stand for the same general values.
As CIDECI is a Zapatista community full of talented craftsmen and women, so is the community of Acteal for the Las Abejas. In fact, here we purchased several bracelets supporting a cooperative of indigenous women. We have started selling these bracelets in our cafes and continue to purchase more from the female cooperative in Acteal. The profit from each bracelet purchased will be given to OTG to support water projects in the region. Supporting markets like textiles, jewelry, and similar merchandise help grow new industries that are sustainable with the resources available to the people here and creates opportunities for the communities and the families that form them.
Early Wednesday we headed toward the peak of the trip, we set out to visit A Matias Castellanos, where one year ago a water project was kicked-off and is now complete. After a five-hour bus ride out of San Cristobal, we arrived at the community, were warmly greeted, shown some of the coffee plants that were producing, and where taken to the end of the gravity water system that arrives in the community. Then we were served a generous meal before assembling with the majority of the community to discuss our visit and hear of their life changes since the completion of the water project, as well as, discover other ways we might contribute the sustainable development of their community.
A prominent male figure from A Matias Castellanos introduced the community at this gathering while Bruno, with OTG, and Dan Bailey, of Amavida & OTG, introduced the group of delegates. The first few to speak after this were women from the community – man, was it powerful! While each person contributes to the community, it is usually the women and children who are tasked with acquiring water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. This means, while the men of the community are contributing elsewhere, the females and their kids are walking three kilometers, more in some communities, each way to get water and back home. They make this trek up to three times a day, taking nearly four or five hours. The women who spoke to us expressed extreme gratitude to OTG and the supporters of Project Chiapas that helped provide the resources for them to successfully complete construction on this water system. From the bottom of their hearts (I kept hearing the words “gracias” and “corazon”) the women described their delight in being at the assembly this year, as last year when the delegation was there they would have still been hiking for water, rather than being a part of this and other critical community conversations and their children would not have gotten to go to school as they did that day. It was beautiful to hear, but even better was the hug one woman gave me as we said goodnight to the group. I wish I could share the depth of that hug with each person who reads this.
The following day we journeyed to the source of water for over 80 families (about 600 people). The walk was grueling and hot. When we reached the water the air was cool, the ground was cool, and all of us were smiling. It was peaceful. We sat and I tried to put myself in the place of the men and women and children living by this path and could only see a glimpse of a lifetime of what they’ve had to do to survive. I thought of my sister, my ten-month-old niece, my sister-in-law and her teenage daughter, my best friend, and myself making the hike multiple times a day. We are so fortunate not to know this struggle but so far from being connected as a community as those who do know it. We don’t have to struggle to learn from it. The long hike back to the community plus the five-hour bus back to San Cristobal gave us time to reflect on the lessons learned from witnessing the struggles and triumphs of the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico.
Friday was the group’s final, full-day in Chiapas together. So, we gathered for breakfast and explored the city of San Cristobal. We visited the Maya Vinic Cafe’, shopped, and gathered groceries to contribute to the feast to be served that night at Tomas’ home.
We wrapped up the delegation where we began, in the cozy room with the fireplace at Thomas’, gathered around two tables that were pushed together, with our cups full but with wine instead of coffee this time. Around dinner, Tomas asked the twelve of us to each name one misconception we had on the trip and one lesson we learned. He instructed we throw our misconception into the fire and forget about it and move forward into the world with the lesson in our heart.
I must admit my greatest misconception was that visiting Chiapas was the same as walking in the shoes of the people who live and survive there. Even after literally walking several kilometers on the path to and from a community’s water supply and back to the homes of its inhabitants, I still cannot see or know what it is like to live in their world. In my misconception, I learned a lesson. Here I learned that it is through our differences that we are stronger and able to survive, and eventually, together build communities that thrive.
The experiences I had during this delegation taught me how this lesson carries into all our lives, both personally and professionally. If you are like me then you live in a place full of necessary resources and luxuries alike, a place full of opportunity and an abundance of options. Turns out, the choices we make every day truly affect the world around us. When making purchasing decisions, for example, a cup of coffee, and choosing to support fair trade, organic producers, one enriches the environment and supports a more sustainable world. When creating relationships with business partners, suppliers, employees, and customers alike, choosing to build caring and lasting relationships one creates a stronger, more sustainable industry as a whole. When supporting gender equity, access to resources, entrepreneurship, the arts, and education in one’s community and the communities of those where their goods and services come from, one creates more prosperous economies and sustainable societies. All in all, no matter where you live or what business you may be working in, you have the power to impact the world, to live different. There is no action too small to drive big change. I invite you to join us on this path friend’s.
A final recommendation for those of you who want to support clean water projects with OTG… though there are several ways, the simplest is to bring your own reusable mug when you visit any of Amavida’s cafes. When you bring your own mug and reduce the waste created by using a to-go cup a $0.20 donation is made to Project Chiapas. If you are interested in participating in a delegation, or you want to donate directly to On the Ground Global, then follow the link to their site below.
Thank you for taking the time to share this experience. Cheers to making coffee and the world better!
Learn more with these links:
On The Ground Global’s Project Chiapas
Maya Vinic & Coop Coffees