Return to Origin: Mexico, Part One

Part of the return to origin series.

The story of coffee in Mexico is unique.  As one of the country’s primary exports, the Mexican coffee industry mirrored the country’s economic prosperity, social struggles, and environmental tragedies. But the common theme that runs through this story, is one of colonialism and its legacy. 

This multi-part examination will focus on how the Mexican coffee industry was nearly destroyed by a fungal disease known as Leaf Rust (La Roya) in the early 2010s. More specifically, we will look at how the industry has begun to bounce back and how a decolonized mentality can help Mexican producers flourish again. But first, a brief overview of the historical context ought to prove useful in understanding Mexico’s contemporary struggles.

Coffee has been around in Mexico since the 1790s, however, it was never really cultivated as a major crop until the 1860s. Land disputes between Mexico and Guatemala led to large amounts of unclaimed land (as far as European settlers were concerned) that became available in Mexico. As such, many wealthy German and Italian immigrants bought up large amounts of land, invested in infrastructure, and began developing coffee into a major export.

Of course, such “purchase” of “unclaimed land” was in fact forced removal of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. As the European settlers absorbed more land, more and more people were pushed into the mountains. Eventually, as the industry developed, labour became scarce. This led to indigenous peoples being coerced back to work on their stolen land, often as indentured servants. Yet there was push back in the form of The Mexican Revolution (1910-1924), which emphasized the aboriginal rights to the land. This saw the redistribution of land to indigenous peoples and the liberation of coerced plantation workers who returned home with coffee cultivation knowledge.*

For the next 50 years, land redistribution saw the rise of Mexico’s small-holder coffee industry; which saw thousands of small family plots create a modest national industry. However, as the Mexican mineral extraction created a lot of capital for investment, the government created the Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Cafe), or INMECAFE in 1973. The INMECAFE supported coffee producers via cheap credit, infrastructure investment, and subsidies. This led to rapid expansion, leading to some areas production increasing by 900%.

Yet, the 1980s saw a steep drop in global oil prices. This resulted in a shift of government spending, and the eventual collapse of the INMECAFE in 1989. Credit for coffee growers all but dried up and buyers became scarce; this left a vacuum in Mexico’s centralized coffee industry. As such, predatory coffee brokers came to fill the gap. These “coyotes,” as they came to be known, were profiteers—exploiting producers isolation, lack of access to information, credit and transportation, as well as undercutting farmers and selling their products high.  Not only was the economic situation dire for the farmers, the quality of the coffee suffered as there was no capital left for fertilization, pest control, and little to no weeding or farm management.

However, in an attempt to save their industry, producers would form collectives of small landholders to take over some of the responsibilities of INMECAFE. This included: collective purchasing, operating coffee mills, transportation, political lobbying, and even assisting in developing relationships with foreign buyers. This process developed during the 1990s, and was heavily informed by a tradition of labour solidarity and agrarian organizers supported regions the INMECAFE passed over. These cooperatives were a grassroots effort by small-land holders to eliminate the “coyotes” and save Mexican coffee production as a whole.**

Toward the turn of the century, Mexican co-ops began sharing information on organic certification amongst themselves. As an industry, they were still isolated from government assistance, so decreasing a dependence on expensive fertilizers and pesticides was intriguing to many. Thus organic coffee production took off, leading to 60% of the global organic coffee production coming out of Mexico. 

Mexican coffee co-ops became powerful players in the organic coffee industry; even extending their influence to environmental issues, advocacy for local social services, and activism. The story of Mexican coffee is a harrowing journey of struggle and perseverance. Yet, the threat of fungus (La Roya) threatened to unmake not only the Mexican coffee industry, but the entire global coffee industry. 

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Next week, we will discuss the damage caused by the La Roya leaf rust disease, and both the local and foreign attempts to exploit, abandon, and save the Mexican coffee industry.

 

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Footnotes 

* This was a provision of the law known as, Ley de Obreros of 1914.

** This is because all these pressures laid at the feet of Mexican coffee producers led to farmers switching to more lucrative crops. 

Sources used:

James Hoffmann, The World Atlas of Coffee

https://equalexchange.coop/

Cover image: Counterfire.org

Worker among coffee trees, La Esperanza, Mexico: web-books.com

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Charles Procee
Charles joined Rabbit Hole in the Fall of 2020 as a creative consultant. He has been both a professional photographer, videographer, and writer. After completing his MA on the History of Racism, he strives to be socially engaged in all aspects of his personal and professional life. When writing, he follows the mantra of Dr. Cornel West: “bear witness and speak truth to power.”   IG: @2plus2isfive


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