Arnoldo sings Mexican love ballads as we navigate the sweeping curves above Putla’s rugged mountains on our way back to Oaxaca City. Arnoldo is from Huatulco, which is a tourist coastal town about 7 hours from Oaxaca City. He has been our driver for the past three days and has been quite animated in his story telling and information about Mexico and the region. Emma, a young intern from a local exporter company laughs at Isabela’s quick one-liners. They both work for one of the newer and more interesting coffee importers in the world. We have been working with them since the late ‘90s. Our suburban, now named Fletcha or “arrow” cuts through and pounds down the backside of the pass that splits our drive in half. The mountains here are dry, with dark grey rock formations, pine forests and numerous paddle cactus and other high elevation, dry plants suited to this craggy environment. Another trip wraps up, another coffee origins visit-now guessing somewhere in the 40s or 50s since my first in 2003. Ironic in that my first was to Oaxaca and now 8 years later I am back where I started.
This trip began on January 5th starting in Denver and leading me down to Colombia. There I worked in Cauca, visiting small producers of organic coffee near the town of Popoyan. I had not been to Colombia to see coffee farms since 2008 and it was yet another trip full of intrigue and fascination with all of the challenges coffee producers face in a world that is less and less interested handcrafted agriculture and more possesses by the industrialized and the new wave of obsession with technology. The world is clearly split in two: those who do not want to get their hands dirty living in the earth and the have-nots who muster a life of poverty and day to day survival. Colombia, though very advanced and sophisticated in its coffee production and industry is still dominated by coffee farmers who produce on less than a hectare (4.2 acres) and who subsist on beans, rice, plantain and their only cash crop- coffee. Most of the countryside is riddled with farmers who have just newly acquired electricity and running water. Most kitchens and toilets are still outside of the house and are of the most basic design.
As an American I am both fascinated and in love with the old world- the world of making something out of your own hands, of growing something from a seed and being able to thrive from its flowering gift. Yet, it seems the circle is tightening, the stomachs of the children less full, the gap widening. What is now apparent in both Colombia and Mexico is that the generation has hit a wall. Most farmers that I met in both countries at cooperative meetings were either elderly men or elderly women who husbands’ and children had left for the US to make money and fulfill a dream of leaving the fincas and the toil of hand labor for something better; even leaving the Pueblos of Mexico for the big city to work in textile mills or industrial parks that have been shipped to China, Vietnam or other areas of Asia where there is cheaper labor. Wider gaps between wealth and the severely impoverished. The big money of the world has found a new way to better serve the stockholders while passing over the have-nots for even more profit, even more destabilization. Now we wonder why Latin America has played towards the left. Colombia and Mexico are textbook examples of dream gone sour. America has sold its soul due its demand to no longer get its hands dirty. Our farmers are relics of the past and now we are a nation of demand and not of production and innovation. Our innovation is all about a thirst we will never quench and potentially create further consequence that will spin many other nations out of control for want of what they rightly believe to be the path of just means.
Am I helping by buying organic coffee and trying to help create a new market that is focused on creating programs for women at risk in these communities, pay well above fair trade minimums. Are we part of the on-going problem or are we a solution? I feel torn after many meetings (some lasting over 3 hours) and hearing from countless farmers that they are forced to sell to multi-nationals who are intent on busting their cooperatives at any price to then later beat them up on price once the coffee cooperative is fragmented and the community loses its central focus. The coffee cooperative was a beacon of change in these communities that were fighting the coyotes (those who pay cash in hand for fresh cherry or parchment, coffee that has been milled and dried). In many cases the coyotes truly prey in a market that fluctuates due to forces around a commodities market that has no interest in stability of farmers at risk and instead is focused on hedging option contracts in a world of electronic money being moved for the interest of index funds, money markets, mutual funds and coyotes in suits that prey in the cyber world of pennies made and lost. The financial crisis showed us many things; we can all lose if we let go of what matters most. Sure, many of us lost value in our homes, our IRAs, even our jobs-but in Latin America, Africa and Indonesia-those who produce coffee have endured generations of loss and hardship. Now, we are at a finite point, a critical point where the loss maybe more than many can bare. And I have t ask myself, am I having an impact, can we help to make change with our dollars in the communities and Pueblos of Mexico and in the villages of Cauca? I’d like to think so, but the vote has not been cast, the dice not thrown down quite yet.