Editor's Note: This is the fifth 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.
Las Marias sits back on a curve in the road sitting on a hill overlooking the "El Cerro del Tigre." The fact that Marias overlooks these mountains is no mistake and is very relevant for the farmers of Las Marias. Almost all of the farmers fought here together in the ERP -- a guerrilla group in the revolution of El Salvador that took place from around 1980 to 1992. The FMLN movement -- that they are still a part of -- would almost certainly have won if not for U.S. support of the Salvadoran government. The army massacred thousands in a desperate attempt to stave off a revolution that had deep support in the Salvadoran countryside. Their guerrilla unit fought in these same hills and, when the war ended in 1993, they were given title to the coffee beneficio here along with many of the lands where they lived, fought, and died during the conflict. The regional signing of the peace accords happened on their drying patios and the UN observers stayed in a little casita between the patios and the warehouse where they make their organic fertilizer. It is not a stretch to say that this is a historic place.
Marias put down their arms in 1992 and picked up machetes. They cleared the brush from many of the places where they camped and planted coffee. But their revolutionary views did not change. They developed their organization over the years and they began exporting coffee to the U.S. selling to a conventional importer. Two years ago, just after we met them, they had signed a closed contract with the importer when coffee prices spiked. The price that they agreed on was well below what the market price was when the coffee was processed and shipped. Even though it was a "certified fair trade" transaction, the importer refused to amend the contract to give them a better price. The importer then turned around and sold the coffee for a much higher price realizing a windfall profit on their coffee. This type of "fair trade" deal was not lost on Marias and it has loomed large in their understanding of fair trade and its marketing in the U.S. Last year Co-op Coffees bought their coffee for the first time and this year Just Coffee was able to use it in our "Revolution Roast," which seems completely appropriate.
Las Marias is incredibly dedicated to the sons and daughters of their members and has made developing opportunities for their kids a major piece of their co-op. El Salvador is home to "maras" -- ruthless street gangs whose leaders were deported from the U.S. in the eighties and nineties after learning how to organize in the streets of L.A. In a country with a lot of guns, a hangover of violence, and a high level of poverty, the maras have grown like an aggressive fungus reaching far out into the countryside, even to the remote villages. Las Marias is purposely keeping their children close, getting them involved in growing coffee, teaching them how to grow tomatoes and other plants, and even starting an onsite cafe where the kids are learning how to be baristas. Some are also training to be "tecnicas" learning all aspects of coffee so that they can have a marketable skill. The programs are already paying off as the "jovenes" are very present, focused, and involved. They even have young women on the board of directors of the co-op to represent the young people.
Yesterday several of the farmers led us up into the Cerro del Tigre to see their fields and to take us up higher to the places where they camped and operated during the war. For most of them it was the first time they had returned since the fighting stopped and we took breaks often as they explained what had happened in each place. As we walked they showed us the spring where they got water and the caves that they dug to hide their arms. Twice as we walked we found discarded uniforms, one from the guerrillas and one from the army. It was very powerful and I can't overstate how honored we are that they shared this with us. One farmer, Marina, took her 13-year-old son Kevin with us as she returned to the area for the first time. It was very moving to see her explain to Kevin what had happened and to watch how he took it all in.
Las Marias 93 is fairly small with 63 members, 22 of them women. They are planning and working for a future for themselves and for their children. A plant disease called "la roya" has affected their coffee significantly and production is down. However, Marias has a plan to use more resistant plants and to have them producing in the next 3 years. For the farmers of Marias there is no quick fix and there never has been. Change happens very gradually, but it is measurable and real. I am proud of having them as partners as our organizations work together to build a "fair trade" that is real, movement-based, and in direct opposition to "business as usual."
Part 1: Returning to Chiapas for the start of a 1000-mile Jeep ride through Central America
Part 2: Our journey begins in earnest from solemn Acteal
Part 3: What is really a "fair" price for coffee?
Part 4: Taking stock at the halfway point