Cafe Justo: From Coffee Bean to A Cup of Coffee

During our travel seminar to Guatemala and Chiapas, we traveled to a coffee growing community in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico. After having visited the organic coffee growing community of Santa Anita, Guatemala as well as other initiatives such as the Cajola women’s cooperative and the Communidad de Veintinueve, our visit to Café Justo in Salvador Urbina provided an opportunity to continue learning about the possibilities for sustainable community development.

In Salvador Urbina, forty families form part of the cooperative Café Justo. They grow and harvest different varieties of coffee on the mountainside of their community. This productive land, once under ownership by elite landholders, was distributed to the families during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas, between the years of 1934 and 1940. Càrdenas implemented radical land reforms in Mexico, which expropriated lands from the elite, and facilitated the possibility of peasant control over the agrarian production through the creation of these “Ejidos”. Ejidos were often collectively farmed plots of land and were provided with some financial support by the government.

Upon our arrival in Salvador Urbina we were handed fresh cups of coffee and then given a tour of their coffee production center. A member of the cooperative demonstrated to us the stages through which raw coffee goes to be processed. We watched as already dried coffee was sent through a variety of machines that shelled the coffee beans, and then later separated the “oro” kernels by quality. Better quality coffee – the larger and denser beans – was set aside to be stored while waiting to be sent to the cooperative’s coffee roasting processing center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Smaller coffee beans remained for sale within the surrounding community.

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In conventional coffee trade, small growers sell green coffee at low prices to middle men, from whom the commodity passes through a chain of hands before being sold commercially to consumers. However, the community of Salvador Urbina operates under a “fair trade plus model”. The coffee produced by growers does not pass through any middle men: it is sent to the cooperative’s own roaster in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, and is sold directly to its buyers, the majority of which are Christian religious organizations in the United States. Coffee growers in the community of Salvador Urbina are therefore compensated fully for their coffee and all of the profitable stages of coffee production remain within the hands of the cooperative and within Mexico.

One can see the effects of this model throughout the community of Salvador Urbina. In the coffee processing center, we were shown a water purification system, whose construction was facilitated by the profits generated by the cooperative. People from Salvador Urbina can fill their house jugs of water for 3 pesos, with each peso going back into maintenance of the system’s equipment. Profits from the cooperative have also helped improve infrastructure and provide more support for agriculture within the community. Furthermore, various spaces have been opened to visitors, facilitating education of the community to others. After a day of seeing the community and talking to cooperative members, we spent our evening celebrating Mercedes(one of our guides) birthday in a beautiful visitors cabin on the side mountain.

Alisha, Emily and I spent the night with one of the families involved in the cooperative. Our hosts, an older married couple, lived just down the street from Café Justo’s processing center. One of them was born in Salvador Urbina, and worked on a plot of the ejido’s productive coffee land. During dinner, a procession of family members who lived in the surrounding areas stopped by the house to visit our hosts. The couple’s daughter arrived from Tapachula after a visit to her nephew who was hospitalized for a brain tumor. Our conversation turned to the effects of the changing food systems within Mexico. One of our hosts blamed the replacement of local chicken for grocery-bought chicken as reason for increased illnesses such as cancer throughout Mexico. He noted that fewer and fewer people in the community raised chicken, and that the price of local chicken was very high.

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A view from our host family’s house in Salvador Urbina

The chicken conversation along with others that we had in Salvador Urbina, were explicit of both the subtle and pronounced consequences of neoliberal developments in Mexico. Neoliberalism is the globalized economic theory that markets should have no government interference to stand in the way of capital accumulation. Neoliberalism emphasizes “free trade” in which trade barriers, such as tariffs to protect internal industries from foreign competition, are reduced, allowing for the unregulated movement of goods across borders. Mexico, within these developments was pressured to create an export economy that relied on cheap labor and impending low living standards. The “production for export” model moved away from a preceding model of production for internal consumption – families began to stop producing multiple crops or raising local chicken. Instead, communities throughout Mexico have focused recourses on producing single export crops, such as coffee. This has perhaps helped establish a reliance on the imports from corporate agriculture in the United States, whose prices also cannot be competed by small local providers.

Developments that led to increased consumption of chemically mass-produced chicken in Mexico fall under the same category of neoliberalization that has undermined the economic stability that coffee producers found up until the 1980’s. Deregulation under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) included getting rid of a quota system, which had supported a stable coffee market. NAFTA also plummeted coffee prices by opening markets to investment and competition by transnational coffee companies. The community of Salvador Urbina is impressionable, as it has not only created a mode through which to resist the massive destabilization of rural economies, but has also succeeded in resisting loss of its community lands to transnational corporations through privatization, or the transfer of state-owned land to private enterprises. The community continues claims over its ejido land, despite continued pressure to sell it to private interests. Salvador Urbina exercises “a right to stay”, or a right to create and access life chances within its community, thus offering an alternative to the out-migration forced upon most other communities in Mexico.

Just a week and half after we visited Salvador Urbina, we crossed the border once again from Tucson to Mexico to see Café Justo’s coffee roasting center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Agua Prieta has been a significant border town in Mexico, in the past, seeing over a thousand migrants enter each day. Many people traveling through this town were from southern coffee growing areas, with coffee growing knowledge, yet looking for work in maquiladoras or factories on the Mexican side of the border. Many people from Agua Prieta also have left the town due to its proximity to the U.S border. Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry in Agua Prieta and in Douglas, AZ, has long taken note of the dangers that migrants face when attempting to cross the border. Frontera de Cristo was vital to helping develop the Just Coffee cooperative model, as well as in providing a micro credit financing for start up of the business.

Café Justo’s building in Agua Prieta receives raw coffee from Salvador Urbina, as well communities newer to the cooperative in Veracruz and in Oaxaca. Daniel, a member of the cooperative and who is originally from Salvador Urbina, explained that the more the cooperative grows internally, the more space opens for other families to participate in the initiative. The three different locations also complement each other, as they occupy different seasonal areas, and thus are able to provide coffee at different times of the year. Daniel gave us a tour of the machines in which the coffee “oro” is roasted at up to 480 degrees Fahrenheit. In the same room, the coffee is stored in blue plastic bins, ready to package.

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Coffee in Cafe Justo’s Auga Prieta toasting facility.

Smelling different mixes of Robusta and Arabica coffees, I thought back to the coffee trees we had seen in Salvador Urbina. We were all excited to have seen both the beginning and (nearly) end points of the journey that this coffee had taken. Our entire trip had been facilitated by an incredible amount of access, something we were reminded of once again when we walked easily through immigration at the border between Agua Prieta and Douglas, AZ. A trip to Dairy Queen immediately after our crossing, begged to question the contradictions of our arrival and departure in spaces like Café Justo. There were many benefits to a trip that included even more than a frame through which to understand the crisis of neoliberalization in Mexico, or a way to learn about what alternatives to the dominant global model of development are possible. Café Justo also largely values visits as providing opportunities to spread knowledge of and create increasing familiarity with its project. One of the driving factors in placing the roasting center in Agua Prieta was to create easy access for costumers that were supporting the initiative, as part of the pillar of forming sustainable, strong relationships in the cooperative’s ideals. However, the trip to Dairy Queen reminded me of how we are implicated daily in the growth of a world in which the profit accumulation of transnational corporations is favored over the well-being of communities through out the globe. Our cups of coffee carry heavy weights that we must begin to question how we can hold ourselves accountable to.

–Eva Chaitman

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