There's an article in the Arizona Republic about "Just Coffee". It's a co-op that attempts to keep the coffee prices in Chiapas from dropping below livability.
The problem is that without livability, people migrate north, and risk their lives to cross into the US. More than 350 people die of thirst crossing the southwestern deserts each year. Just Coffee is trying to help sove the problem by reducing the need for migration. People would much rather stay with their families and friends.
This past summer my son and I went to Aqua Prieta and met with Mark Adams and Daniel Cifuentes, both mentioned in the article. We saw the roasting operation, heard the stories and learned about the border town first hand.
We also went into the desert with a group called No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths) to fill tanks with fresh water. This trip was on the Mexico side. They do the same north of the border. The groups isn't political, per se - it doesn't take sides on the question of immigration: either the US should institute a guest worker program, it should build a big wall (right now it's just a line in the sand), or do something to change the situation. Having people die in the desert is not an acceptable solution.
The trip was the highlight of my summer vacation. It was a real eye-opener - especially for my 17-year old son.
Buying from Just Coffee or some other Fair Trade coffee organization is one way to use the market as a positive force.
BTW, a fresh cup of Just Coffee tastes great!
Coffee co-op percolating
Douglas-area activists rescue Mexican town's industry
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Dec. 21, 2004 12:00 AM
SALVADOR URBINA, Mexico - A decade ago, plunging coffee prices sent farmers in this Mexican village fleeing north toward the Arizona border in search of other jobs.
Now a handful of those refugees have set out to rescue their hometown, forming a cooperative to ship Salvador Urbina's coffee beans over the border to Douglas, then sell them throughout the United States.
Their story - and that of Salvador Urbina, the economic disaster that befell it and the Arizona connection that the farmers hope will save it - began in the southernmost corner of Chiapas state.
It is a place of brilliant colors, full of bright-green plantain trees and purple flamboyan flowers. But most importantly, it is full of coffee plants. They are not planted in rows but sprinkled throughout the jungle like wild raspberry bushes. The falling leaves from surrounding trees provide all the fertilizer they need.
For decades, Mexicans and their Guatemalan farmhands in this town of 7,000 made a decent living off of those coffee plants, picking the red berries from October to January, processing them and selling them to wholesalers in the lowlands.
"We used to do pretty well here," said coffee farmer Reynaldo Cifuentes.
But it is time-consuming, costly work.
The Arabica coffee "cherries," as they are called, are picked by hand, then fed through a depulping machine to strip off the fleshy skin.
The white beans inside then are washed in water three times to remove the sweet pulp around them.
Next the beans are spread on a patio under the tropical sun and raked until the husks around them dry out. A handful crushed between the hands yields the beige beans. That's pure, unroasted coffee or what the farmers call "gold."
Until the mid-1990s, a 100-pound sack of unhusked Arabica beans fetched about $100. Then the government relaxed its controls on coffee prices, and imports started arriving from automated, chemically fertilized farms in Colombia, Brazil and Vietnam. The price per sack dropped as low as $40.
Salvador Urbina was devastated. Thousands of men stopped growing coffee and headed north to the United States, looking for jobs. So did the Guatemalans who used to work on their farms.
Like so many other Mexican towns, Salvador Urbina became a village of women, children and old men.
Then some of the refugees got an idea.
It began in early 2002 with Daniel Cifuentes, Reynaldo's cousin. He had settled in Agua Prieta, Sonora, just south of the border from Douglas.
Bouncing from layoff to layoff in maquiladora assembly plants, Daniel Cifuentes began talking about his hometown with a Presbyterian minister, Mark Adams. Adams works for Frontera de Cristo, a ministry in Douglas and Agua Prieta.
"We started talking about why people immigrate to the north, and I told him why we had to leave our town," Cifuentes said.
"Then I started thinking of a way for our people, the ones who work the soil, to sell our coffee directly, without middle men."
Other Mexican villages, even some near Salvador Urbina, have tried to tap into the U.S. appetite for gourmet coffee by forming similar cooperatives. But many of them end up selling their crops to U.S. companies because they don't have a way to get it to customers. Other efforts have failed because they're organized by American activists with little business experience.
Cifuentes and Adams enlisted the help of a former maquiladora manager, Tommy Bassett, and came up with a business plan. They would form a company called Just Coffee Inc., roast Salvador Urbina's coffee in Agua Prieta, send it over the border to Douglas and sell it directly to Americans through an Internet site, justcoffee.org.
"You had a couple of coffee farmers, an old business guy who wanted to try something new and a pastor who didn't know anything about running a company," Adams said. "But with a lot of prayer, we managed to get it off the ground."
With a $20,000 loan from the Presbyterian Church, they bought a roasting machine and grinder and began organizing friends and family back home. Eventually, 26 families in Salvador Urbina and three relatives in Agua Prieta signed on.
Word of the effort spread through Presbyterian churches, and the orders began flowing in. Sales began in November 2002.
Just Coffee's goal was to sell 800 pounds of coffee in its first year, Daniel Cifuentes said. It sold 32,000 pounds.
The farmers recently bought a dehusking machine to speed production. Bassett's 23-year-old son, a Northern Arizona University forestry graduate, has moved to Salvador Urbina to work on the farms.
The farmers now send about 20 sacks north every couple of weeks, said Reynaldo, the cooperative's secretary. Each one brings in about 1,300 pesos, or $114, nearly twice what the wholesalers are paying in town.
That works out to only about $100 a month per farmer. But it's a start.
"Without this, I would probably have to leave coffee entirely and head up to the border," Victor Barrios Pérez, 64, said as he raked a bed of Arabica beans on his patio.
Eventually, Just Coffee wants to expand to include the entire town, Daniel Cifuentes said.
"The goal is to rescue our town from this crisis," he said. "But the vision is also to create work and reduce the rate of immigration to the United States."
That prospect drives older farmers like Arnufo Lopez Perez, 76, who has five children in the United States.
He dreams of working with them again among the coffee trees and the flamboyan flowers.
"I would like to see them again," he said. "I would like them to come back."