Mexico coffee co-op, with border operations, helping ease immigration pressures

2013-03-25T00:00:00Z 2013-03-25T09:49:24Z Mexico coffee co-op, with border operations, helping ease immigration pressuresPerla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In the late 1990s, residents of a coffee-growing town in southern Mexico began noticing something unusual.

Women were representing the household in community meetings.

The men had migrated north, either to work at a factory along the Mexican border or to cross illegally into the United States. Daily buses took people north to Tijuana and Agua Prieta.

A decade later, things have turned around in at least one town in Chiapas.

Men have returned to their home village. People are building concrete homes. There's a phone in each house and access to water.

It can all be attributed to Café Justo, said Daniel Cifuentes, 45, who left his village to work in a maquiladora in Agua Prieta.

Café Justo is a cooperative that tries to address one of the root causes of migration: money. The idea is for coffee growers to have full control of their product all through the process - cultivating, roasting, packaging and exporting.

So far, it has worked.

Sales have grown to more than 50,000 pounds a year, and the co-op is supporting 115 families in two Chiapas communities, one in Veracruz and one in Nayarit.

It also has seven employees in Agua Prieta and three in Chiapas, most of them from where the coffee is grown.

Sales are mostly through word of mouth, but Café Justo is ready for its second phase. Those involved want to expand sales into restaurants, coffee shops and health food stores.

The goal is to sell another 30,000 pounds of coffee this year, which would add 30 families to the co-op.

SHARING A VISION

Three men from very different backgrounds coming together brought the idea of the co-op to life.

There was Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister from South Carolina who moved to Douglas and Agua Prieta in 1998 to work with Fronteras de Cristo, a binational border ministry of the Presbyterian Church.

Then there's Tommy Bassett, who moved to Agua Prieta from Minnesota in 1992 to manage a maquiladora.

And Cifuentes, a third-generation coffee grower from Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, who was pushed to leave his community in 1996 as coffee prices dropped.

Faith and a desire to do something about the migrants they saw defeated because they were deported or learning about those who didn't make it back brought the trio together.

Fronteras de Cristo gave the co-op a $20,000 startup loan in 2002, Bassett helped with the logistics of running a business, while Cifuentes provided the product expertise.

After overcoming skepticism from many, including the coffee growers, the co-op now ships to clients in all 50 U.S. states and Canada.

GROWERS TAKE CHARGE

The growers in Chiapas set the price and decided demand will dictate the expansion of the business.

Growers get about $1.45 per pound of coffee when a middle-person is used, Cifuentes said. Through Café Justo, members get up to $2.50 per pound and health insurance.

"Families are not worrying about what they are going to eat tomorrow anymore," said Elvia Carrillo, 32, from the western Mexican state of Nayarit.

Her family and 14 others benefited from the expansion of Café Justo in 2010.

Her husband, a coffee grower, is one of the paid employees, and they hope to return to their hometown in two years.

"Ever since I was a little girl, my grandparents would take me out to the fields to pick coffee," she said as she packaged the golden bags of coffee, each with the name of the coffee grower on a green tag. "That's what we love to do."

When Cifuentes left his community, coffee prices had dropped more than 70 percent, in part due to greater supply and decreasing quality in the market. Growers were getting about 32 cents per pound.

"Yes, I had enough to eat, land to grow beans and corn, but not to do anything else," he said.

He couldn't afford to expand his house or to clothe his family, so he and his wife decided to try their luck up north.

Cifuentes, who is in charge of production in Agua Prieta, has land in Chiapas and hopes to return one day with the backing of a business that he knows will take care of him.

MORE THAN IMMIGRATION

"When you leave your country, you don't leave full of joy," Cifuentes said.

"You know you are leaving only to suffer, to work for a bed to sleep in at night, and that you are leaving your customs and your culture behind," he said as he carried two plastic buckets with freshly roasted decaf coffee beans grown in Veracruz.

For Adams, the success of Café Justo goes beyond men being home for Christmas and farmers being able to retire knowing their children are there to take their place.

"It's about bringing folks together," he said.

Immigration is such a divisive issue, it's hard to see people from opposing sides agreeing on anything, he said, but it happens when it comes to the co-op.

"People who want to see big walls built and walls torn down can come together around a good cup of coffee," Adams said.

Bassett will focus exclusively on U.S. sales and education.

"There's all that talk about migration, but not too many folks are talking about addressing the root causes of migration," he said.

He plans to get his message across to U.S. customers looking at more organic sustainable products and reach out to everyone from hotels to universities.

"Café Justo is just a grain of sand in the world's beaches," he said. "I'm hoping it becomes a bucket or even a barrel of sand."

WHAT IS CAFé JUSTO?

• A coffee cooperative that started in 2002 to address the root causes of immigration.

• Growers in Mexico send their coffee beans to be roasted in Agua Prieta, Sonora, across the border from Douglas.

• More than 100 families in Chiapas, Nayarit and Veracruz are members of the co-op and ship coffee to all 50 states in the United States and Canada.

• Visit justcoffee.org for more info.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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