In this latest edition of our Field Notes series, we hear about how COVID-19 is impacting small-scale fair trade coffee farmers in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. See other conversations in this series.
CESMACH was founded in 1994 by small-scale organic coffee farmers living in and around the buffer zone of El Triunfo cloud forest, a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve located in southwestern Chiapas, Mexico. After years of selling their coffee to local intermediaries at low prices, a group of ecologically-minded farmers decided to organize themselves into a cooperative and find solutions to the problems they faced: low prices, lack of technical assistance, financing, market access, and control over their product and business. Today, the co-op has grown to just over 600 farmers who sell their high quality, organic coffee both nationally and internationally.
One of CESMACH’s innovations has been to develop a robust internal market for their coffee. They roast, package, and sell their coffee to cafes, restaurants, and hotels throughout Mexico, and have opened their own coffee shop in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. This has enabled the producers to share locally grown, organic coffee with residents, government workers, visitors, and those doing business in the state capital, while diversifying the co-op’s income streams.
On April 21st, and again on May 7th, I spoke with Silvia Roblero Torres, Sales Manager, for CESMACH (Cafe Ecológico de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas) to see how the cooperative was doing and how its members were holding up. The following are excerpts from our conversations.
COVID-19 Breeds Fear, Uncertainty
The major cities in Chiapas have been hit hard. Mexico has now entered Stage Three [the most serious stage] and the situation is worsening. Tuxtla Gutierrez (the capital of the state of Chiapas) and San Cristobal have been labeled red because there are many cases and it is getting worse. Fortunately, so far there have been no positive cases reported in Jaltenango [where the CESMACH office, processing plant, and cupping laboratory are located], or in the communities where the producers live. However, neighboring municipalities have started to see a few cases, so their level has gone from green to yellow. We are expecting to reach our peak here in July or August.
At first, there was tremendous panic. No one was sick yet. But most people get their news from the TV and the news was very sensational. It was causing widespread panic so everyone was trying to buy like crazy and to stock up for fear that there would be no food or supplies.
The producers live in 5 municipalities. To date, three of those have not had any Covid-19 cases. But we are very worried, because in the rural areas, we have one doctor for every 2000 people. We don’t have health clinics. The only hospital able to treat COVID cases is in Tuxtla, so if we get cases here, we will be in big trouble.
The restrictions are in place in those three municipalities until May 17th, and in the other two municipalities until June 1st.
Farmers’ Cooperative is a Source of Trustworthy Information
Farmers were harvesting the coffee when news of the virus began to circulate. Many wanted to sell their coffee as fast as possible to whoever was willing to buy, so that they could get money to buy food. Those were the individual farmers who were not organized in any fashion. The farmers who are part of cooperatives are also very worried – there is a lot of false information out there – but at least they know that the cooperative is looking out for them. Much of our role, especially now, has been to provide the farmers with trustworthy information. So far, the co-op members have continued to sell their coffee to the cooperative.
The most important thing is that people are healthy. None of the members are sick. In that sense, we are all doing fine. Things aren’t really that different than usual.
You could say that the pandemic itself has not yet reached Jaltenango. We are trying to figure out how to run our business during this time and to prepare ourselves for when it does hit. It is all very complicated, but we are managing.
Building Food Sovereignty at Home
In the past, when we had hurricanes and other natural disasters, we responded by organizing self-help groups. Then producers who were less affected, banded together and brought supplies to those in worse condition. This time, it’s very different: rather than banding together, we can best help by keeping our distance.
One thing that is helping however is that CESMACH has worked with other organizations to start food security projects at the household level [Learn more about this joint project between the University of Vermont, the Community Agroecology Network, and Grow Ahead]. The families planned the type of project they wanted—animal husbandry, gardens, fruit trees, bee-keeping, etc.—and then got trained. They are now in the third stage – implementation. Fortunately, this is all happening in the communities and will help provide them with additional sources of food and nutrition, without needing to leave their farms.
Coffee Harvest Needs Many Hands
Fortunately, most of the farmers have already harvested their coffee, otherwise we would have been in serious trouble. Right now, we are focused on the collection process: things are moving slowly, but we are figuring it out. The farmers are letting their coffee dry on their farms [rather than bringing it into the processing plant]. Then when they do bring in their harvest, they do so in accordance to a strict plan we have set up so that only one comes at a time. The main entrance to the warehouse is closed and there is a schedule posted with strict guidelines to ensure safety.
The biggest problem for the farmers will be in June, because that’s when they need extra help to work in the farms. It’s really critical that when the harvest is over, the farmers make sure that all the coffee is off the trees (and the ground) so that you don’t attract insects that can damage future harvests. You also need to do a lot of maintenance to keep the coffee trees and soil in good condition. This is very labor-intensive work and the farmers need extra help to get it done in a timely way. Due to social distancing, they won’t be able to get that help.
Social Distancing Slows Farmworkers’ Migration
Our farmers rely on seasonal labor because the work must be done quickly or the farms will suffer. In this area, we are close to the Guatemalan border, and the farmers here pay higher wages than they do in Guatemala, so we often rely on migrants to help in the family farms. This year no one will be allowed to cross the border and there are police and checkpoints everywhere to ensure that no one is circulating out of their communities. So, the farmers are worried about these post-harvest months, and then are already anticipating the next coffee harvest and the extra help they will need at that time.
We will need to ask the national and state governments to allow workers to come do the “labores culturales” (pruning, weeding, etc.) on the farms, but in the meantime, the work will have to get done by hiring extra help from within our communities.
Fair Trade Cooperative Adapting to Changes Big and Small
Our big worry for the cooperative, as a business, will come in July when we are trying to pack the coffee for export. We are not exactly sure how we will do this with the restrictions that are in place. It’s complicated, but we are figuring out how to do this.
Another issue is rising costs. For example, typically when we send our coffee in trucks to the port in Veracruz, the trucks return packed with cargo they bring in from incoming container ships. But now, Tuxtla is empty and there is little coming in and so the trucks return empty. This means they need to charge us more for their costs.
Our co-op manager and other staff people practice social distancing in the office. We only have one cupper, whose job it is to taste the coffee before it is sold. So our quality control lab is okay, he is able to isolate in the office. He is from Oaxaca and [due to travel restrictions], he can’t go home to his family anyway, so he is here until the restrictions ease up. Originally, the government said that the restrictions are in place until the end of April, but they have just extended everything through the end of May.
Local, Online Coffee Sales are Another Strategy to Maintain Income
So, things are moving slowly, but so far it has not been that big of a crisis for us. Of course, this year we had planned to sell 20% of our production to restaurants, cafes, and hotels here in Mexico. But this will no longer be possible as our coffee sales to cafes are down 70% and supermarkets are down 60%. We had to close our coffee shop in Tuxtla Gutierrez, as that is the city in Chiapas with the most severe outbreak of the coronavirus. So the only sales we can do within Mexico are the sales of packaged coffee through small distributors. Fortunately, we had just launched an online coffee sales program a few months ago, and we have seen an increase in online coffee sales. That’s probably all we will be able to do until the restrictions lift.
We are doing what we can. Please know that we are continuing to work. We are communicating with our members through WhatsApp and by phone so that they have reliable information about how to keep safe and how we will modify our business practices. We will keep producing and shipping our coffee, because we know that many people need this beverage.
CESMACH’s coffee, along with that from many other small-scale farmer organizations, is available from many of the roasters listed on our Mission-Driven Brands page.. While demand at supermarkets is up, many coffee companies are seeing demand drop as coffee shops and universities close—now is a great time to support your local fair trade roaster.