Growing coffee is both backbreaking and unprofitable. The Economist's south-west correspondent visits some farmers in Chiapas ...


Much of the world’s coffee is grown by small farmers. The work is backbreaking. Each individual bean must be grown, picked, hauled down the mountain, shelled, dried, hulled and sorted before it can be sold. Over the past two decades it has become even harder. Worldwide production has soared and prices plummeted as new countries (notably Vietnam) have entered the market. A pound of coffee fetched about $1.60 the mid-1980s; it commands less than half that today.

But Mexico’s coffee farmers—of whom there are about 500,000—can’t very well go back to farming maize. For one thing, the market is glutted with American corn, which will forever be subsidised by politicians who dream of a rendezvous with destiny at the Iowa caucus.

Coffee farmers in Chiapas scrape by. Some of them rely on travelling “coyotes” to buy their coffee cherries and sell them up the supply chain. Others have joined co-operatives such CESMACH, which was founded in 1994. Octavio Carbajal, who organises the community-development side of things for CESMACH, worries that rural villages are losing traditional values such as tequio, or working for each other—helping neighbours with planting, for example, or collaborating to build a road. Being part of a co-op helps revive that sense of solidarity. In one village, the associates used their dues to buy part of a building that they use as a meeting space. In another the men all come to a meeting wearing a uniform of sorts—enormous white cowboy hats.

coffeeCESMACH has about 350 members and some big contracts, including Green Mountain. They grow organic coffee and are fair-trade certified, so their coffee has a price floor of $1.26 per pound. But this is barely enough to survive, especially during the “thin months” of the rainy season. That prompted Green Mountain to partner with Heifer International. The coffee company provides some of the CESMACH villages with fruit trees to supplement their food supplies; Heifer donates some pigs, rabbits, sheep and even horses as requested by the communities.

The animals are en route, but the fruit trees are already here. In one village several kids run ahead to show me their avocado, papaya and lemon trees. They bring me some leaves that pop loudly when you snap them in half—their version of bubble wrap.

In the mountaintop village of Rio Negro, an associate named Darinel Perez tells me that he spent some years in the United States as a mojado—that is, “something wet”, a Spanish version of an American slur. While many migrants head for nearby Texas, which has well-established migratory networks, Mr Perez’s reached Jefferson, North Carolina. This afternoon he is laughing and smiling and whacking his machete against a wooden bench. He says that since he joined the co-op things have improved and he plans to stay in his village (to the delight, no doubt, of a lot of Republican voters in North Carolina).

After leaving Rio Negro the Heifer truck stops in a village called El Capitan to deliver a few pigs. They dislike being handled. They are oinking and screaming. A voice at my elbow notes, “That’s not a good sound, is it?” It is a doctor from Harvard Medical School, trailed by two medical students; one has a cold compress clamped to his neck to bring down a mosquito bite. The doctor explains that he has been coming to Chiapas for years with Partners in Health, a group dedicated to promoting good health in poor communities around the world. In Chiapas epilepsy is a particular problem, partly because people often fall down the mountains and sustain head injuries.

As we talk a small black bug buzzes around Rick Peyser, the head of coffee-community outreach for Green Mountain. The doctor says that those bugs carry onchocerciasis, or river blindness. He advises us to find a doctor who can give us a dose of ivermectin after we get home; otherwise, about six months later, having had no symptoms in the interim, we might find a bundle of worms on our backs. Mr Peyser and I start to panic and roll down our sleeves, even though the doctor says the risk is low. Later we spot a mural depicting a bug with a worm for a moustache and begin to panic again.


Picture credit: Selma90, Jeff Kubina (both via Flickr)

(This is a correspondent's diary about coffee farmers in Chiapas, published on Economist.com.)