Monday, 3 November 2008

Discover the real meaning of Fairtrade in our interview with Fidel de León Pérez, a Mexican coffee grower and a founding member of the CESMACH coffee cooperative.

It's Fairtrade Fortnight from 6th -19th March and this year's message is 'Make Fairtrade Your Habit.' Over 1500 products now carry the Fairtrade Mark, making them more accessible than ever.

We spoke to Fidel de León Pérez, a farmer directly involved in the Fairtrade movement in Mexico, to find out what Fairtrade really means to the producers.

Forty-six-year-old Fidel is a founding member of a coffee cooperative called CESMACH based in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The cooperative began life in 1995 and today consists of 207 farmers, all of whom live and work in and around the “buffer zone” of the El Triunfo Biosphere - an area of great ecological significance with fragile ecosystems housing numerous rare and endangered plant and animal species.

"When we started there were 30 members," Fidel, now the organisation's President, explains.

"For three years we just got together informally and sold our products, but from 1994 onwards we decided to form a cooperative and have since been legalised and properly certified."

"The cooperative is run democratically and we meet once a month. There is no force involved; people do things willingly."

"We make sure that all information is clear and available, so we as producers know what the buyers want from us, and so we can decide as a group, how we will supply them."

The cooperative incorporates twelve communities which cover four local government areas, yet these are small producers who have between thee and five hectares each.

"Five is the maximum anyone of us has so we are small producers, but farming organically we work the land better and have a greater production form the land."

The problems these small farmers were facing before the cooperative stems directly from the collapse of the 1989 International Coffee Agreement which left small coffee farmers defenceless in the international coffee price war.

Today, coffee is the fifth most commonly traded commodity in the world. In the UK alone, an estimated 29 billion cups are drunk annually, yet the price of coffee has fallen by 50% in the last three years to a 30 year low. This, Oxfam estimates, is currently destroying the livelihoods of 25 million coffee farmers around the world.

In contrast, the four big roasters dominating the global coffee market - Kraft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee - who control the major brands and between them buy over half the world's coffee beans each year, made profits worth over $1 billion in 2001.

In 2000, Mexico was the 6th largest global producer of coffee, with 80% of it's coffee being produced by small farmers like Fidel. Today Mexico produces 35-40% of the world's organic coffee, in addition to supplying around 25% of the world's Fairtrade coffee.

However, the international price of coffee is only half the cost of production, and this is forcing many farmers to leave their rural communities and seek work across the border as cheap labour in America's urban areas.

Those that do continue to farm are forced to sell their product at local markets where they are at the mercy of the local middlemen known as 'coyotes', and the prices they are prepared to offer - a situation Fidel is only too aware of.

"At first we didn't know how to sell our product because we are just peasants. We used to get together and sell it in markets but 'coyotes' would try and buy the product at a lesser price. So then we decided to organise ourselves to sell our product directly to fair trade companies like Cafe Direct, and at a good price as well."

The coffee which Fidel's cooperative grows goes into Cafedirect's Medium, Rich, Espresso and 5065 brands. Cafédirect was founded in 1991 by Oxfam, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange and Twin Trading in response to the collapse in coffee prices, to help strengthen the influence, income and security of coffee growers and link them directly to the consumer in the West.

They have had partnerships in Mexico since 1991, and have been working with CESMACH since 2003 when it joined forces with three other cooperatives in the Chiapas region, under the name COMPRAS.

Fairtrade enables farmers to sell direct to companies who are prepared to pay triple the price they would receive from the 'coyotes'. Cafe Direct also forms close relationships with the farmers, and their Producer Partnership Programme (PPP) provides the growers with opportunities to equip themselves and their organisations with practical, agricultural expertise and advice on developing business skills.

The company also helped the four cooperatives in COMPRAS to develop their own brand of coffee, the Palenque coffee, launched in the UK in 2004. Cafe Direct worked closely with local growers on all aspects of the product's evolution, from original concept through to the pack design, choosing the product name and providing training to ensure that the coffee was of gourmet quality.

Since being paid a fair price for their coffee CESMACH has been able to initiate a number of community projects including a credit and savings bank; education for the communities children; improving infrastructure by building a meeting hall and a community shop; and starting a women's project to show them how to rear chickens and garden organically.

"We have what we call a social premium which is one pesos for every kilo of coffee sold, and that's goes into a central savings account for the community, and we decide democratically how the fund should be used. Recently we have used the money from the social premium to support the these local projects. There's 200 women in the project altogether who are the wives' of the members, and they rear chickens and garden organically."

CESMACH has also pioneered organic agriculture and are deeply committed to working in harmony with the natural environment. In 2003 they won the Ecological Merit Award from the Mexican government for their efforts in protecting endangered plant species.

"We make our own organic compost, and pile three kilos on each terrace where the coffee is grown. This gives the coffee lots of quality and flavour. We run courses to learn how to take better care of the environment and to educate farmers. We also sow new trees to protect the environment."

In October 2005, the farmers of CESMACH suffered terrible damage at the hands of Hurricane Stan. In what the locals describe as the worse climatic disaster in memory, thirty-six people died, machinery was lost and 65% of the coffee fields were wiped out.

"During the hurricane we lost land, hose pipes, drying patios, the tanks to store the coffee in, and there were 800 inhabitants altogether taking refuge in various warehouses."

"The communities were badly affected by it but we have had help from our buyers and they have helped us purchase cement, and the machines to take the skin of the coffee beans. It will take over a year to build everything again because the government is not showing any interest in helping us."

Fidel says that forming the cooperative and working with Cafe Direct has empowered the members and individuals in the ownership and participation of their organisation, and a decent wage has enabled them to spend money on improving their communities.

"Things are much better for us. Before, when we didn't have an organisation, the growers did not make any profit out of coffee. In the future, working with coffee will be better for our children than it has been for us. We are not going to abandon our product though, because we believe we have something good, and something worth selling."

Cafe Direct sell Fairtrade coffee, tea and cocoa. To learn more about the company or to buy their products visit

To learn more about the CESMACH cooperative and how they produce the coffee visit

Rachael Hannan: Interview 2006
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