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Mayan Coffee Farmers Push Fair Trade in the Midwest

In Search of a Fair Deal: Mayan Coffee Growers Share their Story

October 26, 2004

Robert Downes
Northern Express


Life in the coffee plantations of Chiapas, Mexico is anything but easy. For
more than a decade, the Mayan descendents who live in this remote province
of jungles and mountains in southern Mexico have been caught up in a
rebellion with the federal government over land reform and labor issues.
In between encounters with Mexican troops and paramilitary goons which are
humiliating at best and sometimes deadly, the indigenous people of Chiapas
struggle to make a living through subsistence farming or by growing coffee.

Last week, participants at the Bioneers Conference in Traverse City learned
firsthand of the struggles of one small village when Fair Trade dealer Chris
Treter of Higher Grounds Trading Co., brought Macario Arias Gomez and
Jose` Perez Vasquez some 2,000 miles north to tell their story.

Macario is president of the Maya Vinik organic coffee cooperative in
Chiapas while Jose is president of Las Abejas ("The Bees"), a non-violent group
seeking a better life for the residents of Chiapas through faith-based
resistance.

With Treter serving as an interpreter, the two described their efforts to
create a better life for their people. Their story starts with the massacre
of 45 people, mostly women and children, who were praying in a chapel at
a refugee camp in Acteal in 1994 when some 70 paramilitary thugs surrounded
the building. Although the chapel was only a 500 feet from a Mexican
military post, the troops did nothing to prevent the butchery, which
included cutting open the stomachs of four women to kill their unborn
babies. Fifteen of those murdered were children.

At the time, Zapatista rebels were fighting the Mexican government and
its paramilitary death squads. "The Bees, an indigenous rights organization,
stood up and said they didn't support violence, but did support the goals
of the rebellion," Treter says. "As a result, they were targeted by the
paramilitary, beaten, assassinated, and forced to live in refugee camps."

"The difference is that the Zapatistas are an armed struggle, while we
are a peace organization that supports the same ends," Jose` notes.

"Our people struggle for dignity, justice and liberty, but the weapons we
use are faith and the word fo God," Macario adds. "When there is a conflict,
we fast and pray rather than taking up arms."

An international outcry ensued after the Acteal massacre, and the rebellion
itself has tapered off, but survivors of the war were faced with the
difficulty of trying to make a living in an exploitive global economy.
Unscrupulous middlemen called "coyotes" made it nearly impossible for the
people of the village to make a living.

"Before 1999, we were selling to the coyotes and not making enough to eat
and were extremely poor," Marario says.

That year, however, the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative of 476 families was
launched, raising organic coffee which is purchased by dealers such as
Treter who are dedicated to the Fair Trade principles of providing
indigenous people with a living wage.

"Now, we're the largest buyer of Maya Vinik coffee in the U.S. and one of
our goals on this trip is to find other buyers who will support the
village," Treter says. He adds that he and his wife Jodi underwrote the
costs of bringing their guests to Northern Michigan in thanks for the many
times they've been received in Chiapas. The two have also arranged for
Suttons Bay to be the sister city of Acteal.

Treter says that the Higher Grounds brand is the only 100% Fair Trade coffee
in Michigan that works directly with native growers. Typically, the coffee
is shade-grown and organic (poor growers can't afford pesticides), raised
by families on an average of two acres of land.

Both Macario and Jose` have seen the rough side of their country's struggle.
Macario was beaten in 1997 because he was promoting health and education
reforms in the area. Jose` continues to endure threats, intimidation and the
possibility of jail for heading up The Bees. Both had friends who died in
the massacre.

But life is slowly improving for the people of the Maya Vinik co-op as
word spreads on the importance of buying Fair Trade products. Locally, you can
buy Higher Grounds coffee at the Grain Train, Oryana, the Cedar Market,
Java to Go, and various restaurants in the region.