History of Coffee in Mexico

Mexico is one of the largest coffee-producing countries in the world, and the largest producer of organic coffee, accounting for 60% of world production in 2000. The vast majority of Mexican coffee, and particularly organic coffee, is grown by small farmers in the southern-most states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. These two states also happen to be the poorest in the country, and not coincidentally, have the largest indigenous populations. Coffee is one of Mexico's most lucrative exports and close to half a million small farmers and their families rely on the crop for their economic survival.

Coffee did not arrive in Mexico until the late 18th century, when the Spanish brought plants from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Its commercial cultivation began decades later when German and Italian immigrants relocated from Guatemala and other Central American nations. In the 1790s, when the first coffee plantations began to appear in the southeast state of Vera Cruz, Spanish colonialism was already deeply entrenched in the region; the Aztec empire had long been conquered - and decimated by disease - nearly two and a half centuries earlier. Mexico's vast mineral deposits meant that, for many years, coffee and agriculture took a back seat to mineral exports like gold and silver (and later to oil, currently the largest contributor to the Mexican economy). Unlike the islands of the Caribbean or what would later become "Banana Republics" in Central America, Spanish magistrates were slow to survey and distribute land. This discouraged investment in coffee cultivation and allowed indigenous farming communities to retain small plots of land or communal land-holdings in the remote mountains and isolated countryside of southern Mexico long after colonialism ended.

While independence from Spain brought some improvements to the rural populations in Mexico, factionalism, civil wars and international conflicts with Texas, France and the United States stripped the country of the stability required to develop or instigate social reform for the next 70 years. It was, however, during this time that coffee cultivation in southern Mexico began to flourish on plantations. Border disputes with Guatemala led to the first widespread land registration in the 1860s. This allowed a small number of wealthy Europeans to purchase extensive tracts of previously "unregistered" land and to feel secure investing in nurseries and long-term cultivation. Granted a large degree of autonomy, local landowners and politicians slowly began forcing small farmers further into the mountains in order to secure their land, and then enticed indigenous men back as indentured servants to work on the land they had once occupied.

Only after the Mexican Revolution did small farmers begin to invest in coffee cultivation in a serious way. Agrarian Reforms in the post-revolutionary period granted thousands of small plots of land to indigenous groups and laborers. Labor laws, like Ley De Obreros of 1914, freed many of the county's "serfs" and indentured servants - many employed on coffee plantations - who in turn brought the skills and seedlings to cultivate coffee with them back to their communities. The rise of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in the early 20th century also saw the development of INMECAFE in 1973 - the National Coffee Institute of Mexico. The slightly more populist and development-minded government saw coffee cultivation as a valuable contribution to the national economy, not only funding social development in the rural sector, but also generating much-needed foreign capital for investment in cities and industry.

INMECAFE was developed to support coffee cultivation among small farmers. The organization provided farmers with technical assistance and credit, guaranteed purchases, provided transportation to market, and collaborated with the ICA in order to sell the coffee on the international market. (The ICA was a collaboration of coffee producing and consuming countries based in London, organized to stabilize volatile coffee markets. Through agreements, quotas and subsidies, they succeeded for almost two decades.)

During this period, from 1973-1990, with the support of INMECAFE, coffee production exploded in the rural countryside, multiplying by almost 900% in some areas. Government support did not, however, extend to services beyond coffee production. Farmers in Chiapas and Oaxaca remained among the most marginalized in the country lacking municipal support or the most basic of government services. It was in these areas that some of Mexico's strongest social organizations flourished. Agrarian movements organized to demand further land distribution, labor organizations played a major role in advocating for workers rights and ending debt peonage, and indigenous groups began to reassert their claim to the land and resources they had inhabited for centuries.

In the 1980s, the Mexican government - due in large part to heavy foreign borrowing and a steep decline in the price of oil - defaulted on its loans and was forced into the beginning stages of neoliberal reform. Over the next decade, the Mexican government slowly ended its support of coffee farmers and farming, with INMECAFE collapsing entirely in 1989. This occurred almost simultaneously to the collapse of the ICA (precipitated by a flood of cheap Brazilian coffee dumped on the international market and a rapid decline in the market price). The effect on coffee farmers was devastating.

Coffee, which had previously accounted for $882 million of agricultural exports in dollars in 1985, quickly dropped to less than $370 million in 1991. The price for coffee at the farm gate plummeted, credit dried up, and farmers had no way of selling their crops. Predatory coffee brokers, or coyotes, quickly filled the vacuum left by INMECAFE, exploiting farmers' isolation, lack of access to information, credit or transportation. The years that followed saw a spike in migration to the city and immigration to the United States. The fate of small Mexican coffee producers had never been bleaker. Even before the official demise of INMECAFE (waning government support met the corruption and bureaucracy that had plagued the organization for years prior) the need for civic organizations to replace government support was clear. The role of social organizations in weathering the storm of Mexican political and economic instability is immeasurable. For centuries, communal land tied families together and provided support and innovation; after land privatization, social organizations based on common values, economic stakes or ancestry would replace them. Out of the intersection of various labor organizations and agrarian movements, and often with the support of the Catholic Church, arose the first coffee cooperatives in Mexico. Groups like CEPCO and UCIRI in Oaxaca were crucial to the survival of thousands of coffee farmers in the early 1990s.

Cooperatives were formed to replace the transportation, processing and marketing arms of INMECAFE, saving farmers from the exploitation of coyotes. They began to share information on organic certification (the price for organic coffee being much more stable than conventional coffee), and decreasing dependence on capital-intensive inputs like fertilizer. Co-ops contacted European "alternative trade organizations" like Equal Exchange began successfully exporting fairly traded coffee, securing a stable price and pre-harvest financing for their members.

These co-ops have survived not only to replace INMECAFE and become powerful players in the organic coffee industry, but also to extend their purview to economic diversification, environmental initiatives, and to provide and lobby for social services like school and hospitals. They have come to represent islands of self-determination within a political spectrum that barely recognizes their existence. The model and success of Mexican co-operatives and civic organization has laid the groundwork for some of the most compelling social movements in the world.

Sources:
  • Navarro, Luis Hernandez and Elena Poniatowska. Cafe Organico-Mexico/Organic Coffee-Mexico. FONAES, CEPCO, UCIRI, Union Majomut; Mexico. 2000. Page 20. li>Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 12.
  • Navarro, Luis Hernandez and Elena Poniatowska. Cafe Organico-Mexico/Organic Coffee-Mexico. FONAES, CEPCO, UCIRI, Union Majomut; Mexico. 2000. Page 29
  • Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 8.
  • Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 51.
  • Navarro, Luis Hernandez and Elena Poniatowska. Cafe Organico-Mexico/Organic Coffee-Mexico. FONAES, CEPCO, UCIRI, Union Majomut; Mexico. 2000. Page 30.
  • Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 54.
  • Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 4.
  • Country Data
  • Martinez-Torres, Maria Elena. Organic Coffee- Sustainable Development by Mayan Farmers. Center for International Studies; Ohio University Press. 2006. Page 80