Fancy Coffee Brings Hope To Chiapas...And Planting Trees May Help, Too

In his 63 years, Jose Suarez has raised six children, endured the ups and downs of farming, and witnessed a revolution. But since the social upheaval that accompanied the Zapatista uprising has so far failed to make his life better, Suarez is pinning his hopes on an unlikely savior: gourmet coffee drinkers around the world. Two years ago, Suarez converted his 1 1/2 hectares in San Fernando from conventional to organic coffee production. Most of his neighbors did so as well. "We have suffered much," says Suarez. But organic coffee "is something special. I think our future now is more secure."

While Chiapas' political stalemate drags through its fifth year, neither the rebels nor the government have found a way to improve the lives of poor farmers. The reason is that there is simply not enough land in the rolling highlands and sweltering valleys to support the people who live on it. As generations have multiplied, small plots have been cut into even smaller ones.

Mexico City's answer to unprofitable farming is consolidation. Since 1992, reforms have encouraged large-scale private production in the hope that small plots will give way to bigger, better-capitalized operations. But that, say the Zapatistas, will destroy Indian communities. "It was after the reforms that the Zapatistas began a referendum in indigenous villages on armed rebellion," says Andres Aubry, a Chiapas historian.

That's why the shift to organic coffee production could be important. There are already at least 3,000 certified organic producers in Chiapas, most of whom farm between 1 1/2 and 2 hectares of coffee, says Victor Perezgrovas of the Union Majomut cooperative. "There will be 2,500 more within the next two years," he adds. That's still a minority of Chiapas producers, but many are concentrated in the poorest villages.

Most of the impetus is coming from the farmers themselves, who have formed cooperatives and unions to pay agricultural technicians to teach them how to turn cow dung into fertilizer and mushrooms into insecticide. It takes two to three years to make the transition from traditional to organic, but Suarez and his neighbors say it's worth it: At current prices, they get about 20% more for organic. Revitalization of overfertilized soil also is lifting yields. A two-year study done for the Rockefeller Foundation found an average production increase of between 10% and 15% after farmers switched to organic methods.

SONS AND DAUGHTERS. And the market is booming. In the past three years, U.S. sales of organic coffee have risen quickly to nearly 5% of the $2 billion specialty coffee bean market, says Patty Vincent of Green Mountain Coffee Inc., a Vermont wholesaler: "We expect it will be 10% by the end of next year."

But perhaps most important to Chiapas producers, organic coffee requires more labor instead of fertilizers and insecticides. That allows sons and daughters to keep working--and to preserve communities and traditions. "That's a big benefit," said Perezgrovas. "It gives the people more of a possibility to stay and work on their own land."

In the mountains north of Ocosingo, small farmers are planting trees as part of an experimental project funded by Scotland's Edinburgh University that could boost incomes and help the environment as well. Because the trees absorb carbon dioxide, the farmers earn credits that can be sold to polluters looking to offset restrictions on carbon output that are part of last year's Kyoto agreement on global warming.


The problem so far is that costs threaten to outweigh profits. Credits are priced in tons of carbon captured. In Chiapas, the cost of planting trees is about $8 for every ton of carbon they capture, at least four times what credits are fetching in sales held recently in Ecuador and Brazil. The answer, according to John Taylor, one of the project's coordinators, will be to convince polluters that it's worth paying more for credits that also bring long-term benefits to farmers. "These other projects are selling carbon credits for very low prices, so there is no local benefit," Taylor says. "Do companies want to be associated with that, or do they want the publicity that says they've also helped families put a roof over their heads?" The right answer could help bring peace to Chiapas.

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