Writer Joseph Sorrentino has visited a group of Mexican coffee farmers in the past. Now, the farmers in the Cuetzalan countryside have become organic fair trade, so Sorrentino has returned to see how their lives are different.
In Cuetzalan—a six-hour bus ride from Mexico City—I contacted Tosepan Titataniske (Nahuatl dialect for "together we will overcome"), a fair trade cooperative. Tosepan provided me with guides to take me to the villages. It's important to have guides because some of the villages are remote and all are indigenous. Campesinos don't always appreciate strangers—especially unaccompanied ones carrying cameras.
There's no denying that life in el campo—the countryside—is hard. Cuetzalan is covered in mist or light rain most days from November to March, and coffee is harvested from October through January. Mud is everywhere, and walking is tricky—especially on the many hills. When the sun does shine, it's hot and humid (though gorgeous). Throughout Mexico, campesinos typically farm just a couple of acres. And here, coffee plants are grown in the shade of tall trees and scattered among other plants, not lined up in neat rows. Harvesting is done by hand.
Bags of dried coffee can weigh 110 pounds. I asked one man how he got his bags to market. He said he took a bus to town. When I asked how he got his bags to the bus, he smiled and tapped his back. In other villages I visited, farmers carried 70-pound bags on their backs along a seven-hour hike through the mountains.
All of the campesinos I interviewed in the area belonged to the fair-trade co-op Tosepan, and all grew organic coffee. A study by researchers at Tufts University found that fair trade doubles a campesino's income; in Cuetzalan, in what was clearly a much less rigorous study, I estimated that fair trade pays campesinos between 40 and 60 percent more. Every campesino I met believed in fair trade.
"We're grateful to fair trade because it gives us a better price," said Martha Hernandez Julian, who grows coffee in Xalcuahuta. "Those working in non-fair trade are much worse off." There's also an appreciation for the idea of sustainability. "We live better because of Tosepan and fair trade because they're preserving the environment. We use only organics; it's better for us, our families and our children."
I returned from Mexico convinced that fair trade can make a difference. I saw the improvements in people's lives. People proudly showed me their houses built with low-interest loans and stores opened with Tosepan's guidance.
The money alone might not be enough to completely lift campesinos out of poverty. But as David Blas of the fair trade Mexican Vanilla Plantation put it to me, "It's a start."