Visiting Just Us Coffee in Chayotepec, Mexico

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This post comes to us from Mark Butler.  Mark is Policy Director at the Ecology Action Centre and likes his coffee with plenty of organic and fair-trade.  Ask for the same.

This past February I joined a tour to the coffee-growing community of Chayotepec in Western Mexico organized by Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op for its employees and adventurous customers.  Ya, I went for the sun and molé but also to get the story behind the labels shade- grown, organic, bird-friendly, fair-trade, and small-producer.

I am also a birder and Mexico has over 1000 species of birds including quite a few of ‘our’ birds. Each fall, millions, no billions of Canadian birds, from the ruby-throated hummingbird to the broad-winged hawk, head south to Central and South America to avoid our winter—the original snow-birds, if you like. My hope was to see some of these Canadian birds in the forests surrounding Chayotepec.

On our first morning in the village, we learnt about the labels shade-grown and organic in a truly hands-on way.

After a great breakfast of tortillas we strapped baskets to our hips and headed out to pick coffee cherries. Under the shade of big trees, their boughs covered with ferns, lichens, orchids and bromeliads, we slithered and slipped along the steep slopes, trying to strip the bright red cherries from the upper branches of the coffee bushes.  Later the farmers showed us how they mill the cherries to extract the beans for drying in the sun.

Two types of coffee are widely grown, Arabica and Robusta. Chayotepec farmers grow Arabica for its superior quality and also because it prefers shade, allowing farmers to leave the forest intact.

The forests around Chayotepec are protected. In the 1980s villagers, all too familiar with the impacts of industrial logging, convinced the government to create a 3500 hectare. Here, they can continue to grow coffee and are pursuing ecotourism opportunities.

I did see some Canadian birds, including the black-throated green warbler, a bird you might encounter on a summer stroll in Point Pleasant Park. I also saw some flamboyant Mexican birds, like the Turquoise Browed Motmot and the Elegant Trogan, which were so beautiful, so startling that my heart almost stopped beating.

The other label a growing number of Canadians are looking for on their coffee is fair trade—40% of Canadians now recognize the fair trade label. We want farmers to get a fair wage. No sweat shop coffee. In Mexico, small-scale coffee growers have been able to escape the clutches of local buyers, known as coyotes, by joining up with caring consumers in Mexico and overseas.

Individually they could not have done this but through the creation of a cooperative they had the capacity and volume to work with large buyers. The Coop has gone on to make improvements in health, education and transportation in the villages.

Chayotepec is not a paradise. The forest was heavily cut by an Italian company fifty years ago, and, according to the farmers, it hasn’t fully recovered. Because of the diminished forest, farmers can’t grow enough coffee and are looking for extra sources of income, such as ecotourism.

In addition, the world of fair-trade is in turmoil, fracturing over differences of opinion about whether plantations should be included under the fair-trade label and concerns about the stringency of certification. In reaction, small-scale farmers in Central and South America have created a producers’ group and logo (www.spp.coop) to distinguish their coffee.

Yet in saying good-bye to our generous hosts on the last morning all of us felt a deeper appreciation of what the farmers of the South and caring coffee drinkers of the North have been able to do together. And as we drove away I expected my fellow Maritimer, the black-throated green warbler, to commend me on my decision to only drink coffee that protects his winter habitat but instead he recited the Halifax forecast for the following day and said see you in May.

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