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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Fair Trade Chronicles: Returning to Chiapas for the start of a 1000-mile Jeep ride through Central America (video)

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of dispatches from Matt Earley, co-founder of Madison's Just Coffee Cooperative, who is traveling through Central America over the next two weeks. Earley's goal with the trip is to visit coffee communities he's been working with to see what "fair trade" -- a controversial term many feel has been highjacked by corporations and maligned in the media -- has actually accomplished over the years.

Looking around the Houston airport, I see the same mussed-up hair and red eyes and nondescript black carry-ons you'd find at any airport. And of course the same Starbucks on every terminal corner because all Starbucks are exactly and unfortunately the same. Some people actually enjoy airports. Others despise them. To me, they are a means to an end, places to exit one part of my life into another that is dramatically different in many ways.

After a long day of touring America's airports I will find myself on the ground in Chiapas, Mexico, a place that has had an incredible impact on my life and on the way that I understand the world. Just a little over 14 years ago I traveled to the highlands of Chiapas for the first time to work with other international activists to build an autonomous school in Zapatista territory. Or at least that is what I thought we would do.

On December 22, 1997, as I was packing my bags to go, I received a phone call telling me about a massacre in the mountains of Chiapas in a village called Acteal. 45 members of the pacifist group Las Abejas had been killed by paramilitary forces while praying for peace in their community chapel. I called the organization that was putting together the school construction project and found out that the killings had taken place very close to where we would be working. They also told me that the trip would not be canceled.

I was terrified and I considered opting out of the project, but something made me want to go despite the danger. I flew to Texas and bused from Matamoros to Mexico City where, after considering the situation, I decided that I should return to the U.S and forego the rest of the trip. I went to see the others off in the Zocalo and, thanks to an impromptu pep talk from the late great John Ross, I decided to get on the bus to Chiapas. A week later my life would be changed forever.

When we arrived at the Zapatista center known as "Oventic," we decided that we could not in good conscience spend our time and resources building the school when the survivors of the massacre were only 30 minutes away and suffering. We made the decision to go there and take them what we had in an attempt to comfort them and to let the army units who had surrounded their camp know that "the world was watching." We loaded three buses full of people and proceeded to the place where they had fled.

When we arrived we found total misery. The valley where they were being hosted by members of the Zapatista movement was encircled by Humvees and heavily armed soldiers. We entered the camp and met the survivors. We listened for hours to their testimonies of how they had seen loved ones killed and how they had fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. At the end of the day they asked us to confront the military and demand that they leave. We walked up the hill and found the commanding officer and told him that the people did not want them there and that they needed to go. After a tense stand-off, the armed soldiers piled into their trucks and rolled out. I was ecstatic until one of the activists from Mexico City told me that the road was a dead end and that they would certainly return as soon as we left.

As we returned to Oventic the militarization of the entire area was evident as army units poured into the mountains. We were stopped at check points and harassed three times in the short ride back. On the night of January 1 -- the night before we were to leave for home -- we were awakened and told that we needed to leave camp immediately and go into the hills. We were accompanied by armed Zapatista "regulars" and we marched through the darkness, mud and rain deep into the mountains. After a sleepless night we were brought back to the buses and told that we had to leave at once for our own safety.

I arrived back at the Texas border 36 hours later with a bad case of bacterial bronchitis, a backpack full of mud-encrusted clothing and a deep conviction to never return to Chiapas again. It took me about three weeks to begin planning to go back.

The Acteal massacre, Las Abejas and the Zapatistas changed the way that I see things. I learned that I can and should try to make a difference in people's lives with whom, on the surface, I have no clear connection. I also saw the incredible strength of communities full of people who have much less than I do in a material sense, but who have a culture and a worldview that is very rich and vital.

And I learned that much of the Mexican coffee that we drink every day comes from Chiapas and that there is a rich history and culture of resistance everywhere that coffee is grown. So our lives are connected in a very real way because when we buy coffee from Chiapas, we financially support the way that coffee was grown, harvested, processed and exported.

As it turns out, many survivors of the Acteal massacre started a coffee growing cooperative called Maya Vinic. And some of the Zapatistas I met were coffee farmers who started a cooperative called Yachil Xolobal Chulchan or "Yachil." In order to continue relationships with these people, some of us in Madison started a cooperative coffee roaster called Just Coffee. And we continue to work together today.

I look forward to getting out of this airport and into the hills of Chiapas with my friend Chris Treter from Higher Grounds Trading Company, another activist with a great company that has deep roots in Chiapas. Stepping into the night in San Cristobal de las Casas makes a six-hour layover in Houston palatable. I look forward to going out to Maya Vinic communities and talking with them about what "Fair Trade" means to them as well as looking at the work we've done together over the years. I hope that you all will come along with us.

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