A Coffee Plantation in Oaxaca

My professor, Dr. Carolyn Dimitri, who is leading our class’s trip to Mexico, asked me to write a guest post on her blog. You can read the original post  here.

Monday was a day of ascents: we rode up the mountain from Oaxaca to San Augustin Loxicha over the course of five hypnotizing hours filled with endless curves, a very big bus navigating the precarious turns of a very small mountain pass road.

A day of descents: once in the village, we followed our guide – one of the five leaders of CEPCO we met in the morning, who made the journey with us from Oaxaca to his home village – as he led us from the town towards a coffee plantation on the side of the mountain, plunging downward on foot for 30 minutes on winding narrow paths into a fog of which we could see no bottom or end. Yet we trusted him and followed him. A black dog from the village joined our group along the way and was a steady presence as he brought up the rear.

It was a day of fog and clarity. The farther down we went, the more humid it became, the more we started sweating and the more viscerally we understood the nature of coffee production in this moment, in this village. The fog was thick and wet – upon arriving back in Oaxaca late last night the smell of it lingered on our ragged clothing. We curved around eerie corn stalks standing perfectly still like phantoms in the fog, we nibbled on coffee berries, we imagined what it must be like to walk up the mountain while hauling bags of coffee beans on one’s back. We looked up behind us every so often, impressed with how far we had come already, conscious of the fact that, (as our guide Octavio said to us all) “what comes down must go back up!” The plantation was always just around the next bend, just beyond the next tree. We walked and walked, our calves and thighs still tight from Sunday’s hike.

We finally came to a clearing with a small shack. We were introduced to a woman who was working there as she slowly and methodically picked cherries off the trees on the side of the shack. After the ripe red berries are harvested from the trees, the berries are left to ferment for 14 hours. They are then skinned, the pulp is removed, and the coffee bean that remains is washed and dried over a period of three to five days. The individual farmer’s responsibility ends here, as the beans are then sent to the warehouse up the mountain in the village, where CEPCO weighs and sorts and then transports the beans.

We began our walk back up the mountain, back into the fog. And we thought about the economics of this whole system: we learned that a pound of coffee is worth $1.90 when sold for export (a $1.40 base price plus a .30/pound premium markup paid by the consumer for the Fair Trade Certification and a .20/pound social bonus markup). This goes to the individual farmer, and when a contract dictates a higher price, the additional pesos go to the farmer as well. This all bodes well for the farmers, as does the fact that the warehouse and the truck are owned by CEPCO itself. Moreover, in allowing for a more sustainable and profitable coffee production business, men have a reason to stay in the village and not migrate looking for work in other Mexican cities or in the U.S. Despite the higher price per pound generated by the Fair Trade certification, farmers still do not make very much money per year: less than $700 per hectare per year growing coffee.

Even though we aren’t the type of people to trespass, we sometimes found ourselves practically stepping over the line into dangerous territory. I had been there before on this trip, inexplicably stepping into a bullfighting ring to try my hand at being a matador. That was my Ernest Hemingway moment, which was fueled in part by the glass of pulque I had before leaping in. On this day, however, the road was so narrow that the bus practically backed up off the mountain trying to execute a 3-point turn. There was also a sense that if it got too dark or too foggy, the bus would simply not be able to navigate the roads to make it back down safely. So time was running short from the start. We could not hold off sundown as long as we would have liked.

Yet every step up and down, every twist and turn of the bus, was filled with increasing wonder, a feeling that we were in the midst of some unexpected adventure unfolding on the side of this mountain, in this small Mexican village, far off the path most Americans would travel in this country. And now we will never look at our daily cup of coffee in the same way – there will always be the fog, and the berries, and the sweat pouring down our faces as we hiked. There will always be an immense respect for the small producers who work tirelessly to provide us with the products we crave and love, and who deserve support from their government, and loyalty from us as both consumers and activists.

Coffee berries
Coffee berries
Phantom corn in the fog

Phantom corn in the fog

Coffee beans in the warehouse ready to be shipped
Coffee beans in the warehouse ready to be shipped

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