Editor's Note: This is the second 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.
I am riding in the back of a Ford Econoline van through the misty highlands of Chiapas, MX crawling down a road pock marked by deep holes. Occasionally we come around a corner to find large sections of the road have given way and we stare down at deep green ravines. Paco is an expert and so far we have avoided any major headaches or fiery disasters. I am starting to regret giving up the front seat of the van to a compa from Maya Vinic and am now bouncing around like a gringo superball in the backseat. I thought that it would bring back memories of touring around the American south -- my mediocre bands always had Ford vans with couches thrown haphazardly in the rear. Instead of revisiting these memories, the bumps, twists and turns have me ready to revisit last night's taco dinner.
Acteal was solemn. The drizzle and low clouds shrouded the little chapel where the Acteal massacre began 14 years ago. Inside bullet holes still mark the walls and ceiling and black crosses have been placed to commemorate the martyrs who died there. The silence in the chapel was complete and there was no sound outside but the gentle rhythm of the rain on the metal roofs. The village is sometimes full of international volunteers staying in the community as observers and to help out with community projects, but today the place was empty except for a few villagers who sat inside the wood-planked community kitchen. They sipped sweet black coffee and huddled by a smoky fire in the back of the room speaking softly in Tzotzil as their kids played on the dirt floor. We are on our way to the far off village of Aurora Esquipulas to visit farmers from Maya Vinic, the co-op that has taken the Acteal tragedy and used it as inspiration to push forward with their work.
Our journey has begun in earnest and the upcoming 1000 miles lay out before me in my mind. By the end I want to have a firm grip on what "fair trade" really means to the farmers we work with. I want to hear and see it all. Once upon a time when we were all new at this -- farmers would sugar coat their responses to questions like "How is Fair Trade actually working for you?" But no more. We have been working together for years and our relationships have matured so that we can say and hear the hard things as well as share the successes. However these things shake out, we will extend you this same courtesy as we travel south.