Mexican Organic Coffee Cooperative Seeks Better Prices, Working Conditions

by John Burnett

PLUMA HIDALGO, Oaxaca, Jan. 4, 1998 - This village 1,300 meters high in the mountains of Southern Oaxaca produces a coffee called Pluma Altura, renowned for its delicate flavor and pleasant acidy snap.

The pickers on a mountainside coffee grove who are stripping red-ripe coffee cherries from branches belong to an organic coffee cooperative called Cien Años de Soledad, A Hundred Years of Solitude, named after the novel by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Their coffee is sold in the United States under the Thanksgiving and Green Mountain labels, and used to flavor Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

The 800 growers of Cien Años were organic before organic was cool, not because of any high-minded philosphy, but because few of them can afford pesticides or fertilizer.

In fact, most of the world's coffee producers are small farmers who don't use chemicals. They're people like 69-year-old Nicolas Hernandez, who cultivates a single hectare of coffee - about two and a half acres. His economic status is evident from his his bare feet, his tattered brown jacket and his two advanced cataracts.

"When I began 35 years ago, there was a person who gave us fertilizer," he said. "But it was like when you take medicine and you need more and more and you can't afford it. They took the fertilizer away because we couldn't pay, and then our production fell."

It's been said that organic coffee is today one of the few rewards of poverty. Certified organic farmers earn 15 to 20 percent more for their beans than nonorganic farmers get. By the time their coffee is on the shelves, consumers will pay an average of 35 cents more for a pound of organic. (Organic coffee is the fastest growing segment of the $2.5 billion specialty coffee market, although it still accounts for only 5 percent.)

The price bonus is considered an incentive to encourage organic farmers, and to help offset the additional costs of organic production. For instance, the coop must pay an approved U.S. certifying agent to travel to the farm and establish that it hasn't used pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizer for three years. Certified exporters are also required to segregate organic from non-organic coffee during picking, processing, and warehousing. Organic activists assert that agrochemicals can injure farmworkers, kill off beneficial insects, and poison the soil. But the small farmers of the Cien Años coop know nothing of chemicals. They only know what a difference it makes when they apply a compost made from coffee pulp mixed with animal manure. "We didn't have any resources. We just produced coffee naturally," says Vacilio Salinas, a Pluma coffee farmer and an organics extentionist. "Then we started with organics. We paid more attention to the plants to see that they produced more. We used to get three to five quintales from one hectare, now we get 10 quintales."

Cooperatives sound like a great idea, but they're not always in practice. Peru's cooperative system broke up, in part, because so many directors absconded with payrolls. With its tradition of communal farming, known as the ejido system, Mexico has had more luck with agricultural cooperatives. Organic and non-organic cooperatives are flourishing in states like Oaxaca and Chiapas where isolated, mainly indigenous farmers live under semi-feudal economic systems. Mexico is also believed to be the world's largest producer of organic coffee. Coffee is the only crop in Pluma Hidalgo. And for as long as anyone could remember, small producers were beholdened to big coffee buyers - either coffee plantation owners called finqueros, or intermediaries known as coyotes. In Mexico, these buyers can grow into power bosses, controlling whole regions by loaning money to small farmers and locking up their coffee sales. Growers cooperatives like Cien Años bypass these sometimes benevolent, sometimes predatory intermediaries. The coops buy directly from members, paying them the best prices, then export the coffee directly to importers in the United States and Europe - the two largest organic markets.

Another important feature of the coops is they make low-interest loans to help their members through the rainy season when coffee farmers have run out of money. "There was a big finquero who we used to ask for credit," said Nicolas Hernandez, the 69-year-old farmer, "but he charged us 10-15% interest. And when we delivered him our coffee, he charged us another 10%. With the coop, they only charge two percent." Hernandez said the coop has also distributed free tin roofing to its members whose houses were damaged by Hurricane Pauline last fall.

Cien Años - which now works with growers in 18 communities in Southern Oaxaca - has, according to its directors, broken the grip of the finqueros and coyotes.

"Before 1980, the finqueros controlled the whole region," said Alberto Perez, treasurer of the Pluma Hidalgo growers. "They controlled the coffee, the groceries, the politics. Lately, the communities have been learning. The union has taught them a little. People feel more powerful and now the finqueros are losing control." While organic coffee cooperatives have been making advances in social justice and environmental sustainability, what about the brew itself? There's a fundamental misconception about organic coffee that the industry is not hastening to clarify.

A bin in the coffee department of trendy Central Market in Austin, Texas, reads: "Certified to be grown free of pesticides, herbicides, and other potentially harmful chemicals."

This is doubtless true. But it's beside the point. Organic experts concede that coffee beans are protected from agro-chemicals within a thick, fleshy cherry. And any chemical residue that might be left on the bean is burned off during the roasting process.

So when you buy organic coffee, you're not pouring a purer product into your body. (In fact, doctors would hardly characterize coffee as a "healthy" drink.) What you're doing more than anything else is to support a system of agriculture thousands of miles away that's striving to improve the environment and treat poor coffee farmers more equitably in places like Pluma Hidalgo.

Then there's the issue of taste. Some industry insiders believe organic coffee has for too long emphasized social consciousness at the expense of taste.

About half of all organic coffee is produced by large estates, and the other half by growers cooperatives like Cien Años. Sometimes taste suffers when a coffee is composed of many batches of beans that come from many different growers, whose processing is inconsistent.

"Organic is a method of producing coffee that was initiated by people who were worried about their own health, much moreso than the quality of coffee," said Fred Houk, president of Counterculture Coffee, in North Carolina. "I have to work harder to find a great organic than I do to find a great traditionally grown coffee."

The organic industry claims the quality of its beans has improved markedly in recent years. And some coffee connoisseurs insist that organic coffee tastes better because the plants are tended more carefully.

There's another challenge as well: the certified organic industry has been hurt by imposters. In the pursuit of that premium price, some growers sell coffee from chemically-treated trees as organic, while some exporters and importers slap organic labels on un-certified beans.

Leaders in the organic coffee industry were encouraged in November when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was proposing uniform national standards for all products sold as organic.

Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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