Indigenous Coffee Farmers Self-Help Efforts in Oaxaca, Mexico

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, indigenous coffee farmers have organized to improve their crops and better their lives. In response to the severe land and market crises of the past twenty years, Mixteco, Nahua, Zapoteco, Mazateco and other indigenous farmers created CEPCO (State of Oaxaca Coffee Producers Network) in 1989. The group is composed of 45 member cooperatives, representing 23,000 farmers and their families. The average family tends two-hectare plots, yielding about 280 kg of coffee each harvest.

CEPCO confronts the poverty and dislocation of the coffee and land crises on many levels. First, it assists its members to produce a better crop and to receive a higher market price for their coffee. This is accomplished through workshops and field assistance in technical aspects of coffee preparation (including organic production), joint marketing and direct export to increase the value added that stays with the farmers. Yet CEPCO recognizes that coffee farming is not a way out of poverty, and that it has actually contributed to a destruction of local culture and sustenance. Jaime Hernandez Balderas, Marketing Director of CEPCO, states "For the past 80 years, coffee has provided an income for farmers in this region. At the same time, it has displaced traditional agricultural practices which had always supported the family and the community, and which were an integral part of the culture." To counter this disintegration, CEPCO works in a variety of ways to reestablish local autonomy and self-control. It provides pro bono legal assistance for members to defend their lands and protect their interests, and acts as an advocacy group on the regional and national level to obtain better infrastructure (roads, bridges, electricity) and social services from the state and federal governments. The farmers have also used CEPCO as a vehicle for grassroots development aimed at the health and economic welfare of their communities.

Several years ago, CEPCO started its own bank and credit union to provide its members with loans for coffee production outside the rapacious local financial system of banks and coyotes. This quickly evolved into a source of funding for local projects to support communities beyond their coffee crops. CEPCO funds microenterprises through its member cooperatives, where the women of the communities raise pigs, chickens and other livestock for sale to their communities. Other projects include a commercial honey enterprise for national and international distribution, and flower growing for use in local religious festivals. The members of CEPCO also seek a return to traditional practices in food and herbal medicine for the family and for local sale, hoping to restore their threatened indigenous socio-economies.

For the indigenous coffee farmers of Oaxaca, CEPCO has been a vehicle to regain a measure of autonomy in an export-oriented economy whose dynamics are contrary to indigenous survival. Although CEPCO has helped these communities stay intact and on their lands during the past twenty years, the economic and social gains of any year can be swept away by another steep fall in world coffee prices, by a natural disaster or by government edict on land ownership. As long as coffee is the overwhelming source of income and the major connection of these communities to the world economy, there is little hope of significant improvement It is for this reason that CEPCO works in two worlds to better coffee income and at the same time to rebuild traditional community.

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