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Fraying At The Seams: The Challenge Of Fair Trade Coffee In Mexico And Guatemala

photo: Lorne Matalon

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Paulino Agustín and Sinael Altamirano prepare ground in the mountains of Chiapas state, a prime coffee growing region in Mexico. They are digging before planting coffee trees which typically don't produce coffee beans for three years after planting. (Lorne Matalon)

CACAHOATAN, Chiapas — The lives of thousands of small-scale coffee growers in Latin America and Mexico are better off because of fair trade. But the system is fraying at the seams in one of the world’s most important coffee-growing regions because of a perfect storm defined by low prices, a damaging fungus and unscrupulous middlemen.

Central America and southern Mexico are major parts of the fair trade coffee mosaic and 80 percent of the world’s fair trade coffee comes from Latin America.

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“They pay well,” said coffee grower Pedro Pacheco in Spanish in Chajul, Guatemala referring to the foreigners who buy his fair trade coffee beans. He is a member of a fair trade coffee co-op in which coffee growers sell their beans together sharing risk and reward. He said his co-op works well because its foreign buyers pay a fair price that is locked in and doesn’t change even if market conditions do.

César Ulises Roblero (R) and Carlos Galves Hernandez (L) sell beans they acquire from growers from this small processing plant near the Tacaná volcano, a source of rich soil that imparts a distinct aromatic taste to coffee produced near here. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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