Fair Trade and Rural Stability in Mexico

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View from an agave plantation during a Fair Trade Towns trip to Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico

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Fair wages. Access to new markets and consumers. Training and capacity building. Fair trade customers and advocates are familiar with these often-celebrated benefits of the fair trade model. Eager for insight on the benefits and realities of fair trade from the perspective of artisans and farmers, I traveled to the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico with a delegation of Fair Trade Towns advocates.

The trip taught us that fair trade is sometimes the difference between disintegration and survival for rural communities. For small farmers and artisans in Mexico, fair trade addresses the need for viable economic opportunities that enable producers to remain in their communities and retain ownership of their land.

Over the course of our trip, we explored the conditions that perpetuate impoverishment and create a need for fair trade. A visit to a small family-owned agave farm and mezcal distillery on our first day in Oaxaca provided a snapshot of the challenges that small farmers and rural communities face.

Mezcal is a traditional Mexican liquor that is distilled by hand in a labor-intensive, artisanal process. “There are no schools to learn how to become a mezcalero. You learn through practice,” explained Graciela, our host, whose father is a master mezcalero.

In their town, just a handful of young men are apprenticed to master mezcaleros to learn the trade. Understanding of the mezcal production process skipped an entire generation of 30 to 50-year-old men who left the agave fields of Oaxaca to seek work in the United Statees. Graciela explained that this trend manifests itself in the makeup of the Oaxacan economy today: despite strong demand for mezcal, Oaxaca’s primary source of income is remittances sent by relatives working in the United States, followed by mezcal and finally tourism. Farming to grow food for local consumption is no longer one of the top income-generating activities.

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Jesus Salazar from CEPCO leads an informational session on coffee farming in Mexico

Effects of the “lost generation” phenomenon followed us throughout our trip. The next day, we met with Jesus Martinez Salazar, director of organic coffee at the Coffee Producers Cooperative of Oaxaca (CEPCO). CEPCO is a large cooperative, with 4,100 small farmer members organized into 38 different regional groups. Amazingly, CEPCO’s membership has plummeted since its formation in the 1980s. Initially, the cooperative had 21,000 small farmer members. We asked Jesus what happened to the 14,000 farmers who left the cooperative during the 1990s. Where are they now? “They left their coffee farms to work in the U.S. or in the cities,” he told us.

Life as a small, rural coffee farmer in southern Mexico has never been easy, but the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 dealt a serious blow to small farmers. Farmers previously grew food for their own consumption and planted and harvested coffee as a secondary source of income. After NAFTA, an influx of cheap corn grown in the U.S. by heavily subsidized industrial agriculture flooded the Mexican market, undercutting local farmers and pushing them out of farming.

A visit with Miguel Pickard of Radio Zapatista, an alternative media collective in Chiapas, provided some perspective about the Mexican government’s role in the crisis that indigenous farmers face. Miguel told us that in Chiapas—Mexico’s poorest state, and also the state with the largest indigenous population—many government services, including schools and healthcare, are provided in urban areas only. A change in the Mexican constitution in the early 1990s abolished the communal landholding system that had been practiced by indigenous people for many years, and introduced the option of land privatization. Grassroots political organizations in Chiapas have mounted a resistance to land privatization, but many small landowners, confronting desperate circumstances, have been forced to sell or abandon their land.

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Dalia at Nueva Vida demonstrates the process of making natural dye materials

Though this mass migration has disrupted the fabric of communities, it has also generated unexpected opportunities. The next day, we visited Nueva Vida Cooperative, a group of fourteen women weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, a town famous for traditional Zapotec woven rugs. Dalia and Silvia, two of the cooperative members, told us about the cooperative’s origins. In years past, men were the primary weavers, earning money by weaving rugs on looms in their home and selling them in the local market or to a middleman exporter. After men began traveling to find work in the U.S., they left weavings half-finished on their looms. Women, left to support their families alone, picked up what the men had left behind and started weaving in order to make ends meet.

When Nueva Vida first formed, they met with opposition and backlash from within their own community, where people were not accustomed to women earning income outside their homes. Now, that attitude has changed: “The role of women in Teotitlan was very degraded. Women now have more power, and are protecting their own liberty,” explained Dalia. Through the turbulence of mass migration, Nueva Vida has found a foothold in a local economy that previously had no place for women as entrepreneurs.

The holistic promise of fair trade is to provide an opportunity for marginalized people to earn a decent living through trade connections. My trip to Mexico underscored the vital importance of that basic tenet. In Chiapas and Oaxaca, fair trade brings income generation and economic activity back to marginalized communities that are otherwise excluded and eroded by the currents of the global economy. Fernando Rodriguez Lopez of fair trade coffee cooperative Union Majomut said it best: “We know that we won’t be rich. We won’t become millionaires. But in growing high quality, organic coffee, we won’t have to leave our lands. We won’t have to migrate elsewhere.”

- Madeline Kreider Carlson

FTF’s Membership and Program Manager, Madeline Kreider Carlson, traveled to Chiapas and Oaxaca in July 2013 with a group of 16 Fair Trade Towns advocates from New Jersey, Colorado, Wisconsin, California, Texas, Minnesota, and Vermont.

For more information on Fair Trade Towns, visit Fairtradetownsusa.org.

For Madeline’s photos from the trip, click here.