Thursday Oct 01

EXCERPT FROM Fair Trade Rebels: Coffee Production & Struggles for Autonomy in Chiapas: Coffee Cooperatives Emerge Out of Crisis

Coffee production is not new to Chiapas. What has changed in the intervening periods of production are the social relations of production. International connections made through solidarity with campesinos/as in resistance combined with hostile relations in heterogeneous communities were important to the creation of new cooperatives. Although the existence of rebel coffee cooperatives was not an immediate effect of broader political maneuvering in the highlands, their establishment forms an important component of knowledge building and solidarity relations that extend within and beyond the highlands. The 1996 Accords, as written, supported the demand for autonomy and stipulated linguistic, territorial, and political rights for indigenous peoples in Mexico (Eber and Kovic 2003). However, the government held back the implementation of the San Andrés Accords and began issuing warrants for the arrest of key leaders of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. A low-intensity conflict had begun in Zapatista support base communities. As noted earlier, critical to the state’s strategy is creating divisions in communities through the distribution of aid programs, as well as goods and services to those community members who offer their support to the government; in some cases, arms and training are given in encouragement of community-based paramilitary activity (Solomon et al. 1997; see also Naylor 2017a).

Through government supply and support, armed conflict in the region and the number of paramilitary groups grew. To legitimize this violence, political and economic elites actively constructed the campesinos/as in resistance as a threat to the economic development of Chiapas and Mexico. The most well-known example of this narrative is the January 1995 Chase Manhattan Bank memo, authored by political scientist and advisor to the bank Riordan Roett, that suggested that the Mexican government would need to “eliminate the Zapatistas” to establish their territorial hegemony and demonstrate effective security. This warfare is not only in response to the existence of so-called rebel indigenous groups but is part of the attempted assimilation and integration of indigenous peoples into a neoliberal economy. The low-intensity warfare practiced against indigenous communities in Chiapas goes beyond armed conflict and is a militarization and racialization of the political, economic, and social that is written into the landscape and onto the bodies of indigenous people in Chiapas.

As Mora (2017, 182), who discusses the possibilities of a “life politics” in Zapatista communities, articulates, the low-intensity war and counterinsurgency tactics of the Mexican state were multiple, including burning harvests, destroying crops still in the ground, stealing livestock, and using checkpoints to restrict the movement of people, especially those people making the journey to their milpas or cafetales (which can sometimes be hours away from their homes). Members of Las Abejas recalled the impromptu checkpoints that would come and go in the highlands, disrupting their harvest schedule and instilling a fear that violence may erupt at any moment. These practices remain visible on the landscape; however, the stress brought on by constant struggle and fear of violence also manifests in health issues such as gastritis and depression (Antillón Najlis, cited in Mora 2017, 183). This militarization of everyday life for campesinas in particular speaks to a long history of attempted domination and control through sexual violence and other tortures directed at female bodies.

And so they resist and build their own livelihoods. Along with other cooperative production (e.g., bread, weaving, metal working), coffee-producing cooperatives are a critical locus for solidarity interactions globally and locally. The Zapatista-affiliated coffee cooperatives are supported by a membership of more than one thousand producers, and they primarily sell their coffee to solidarity markets, where it is branded “Zapatista Coffee” or with the name of the cooperative (at the time of writing, Café Zapatista is being sold by Higher Grounds Trading Company). These cooperatives operate in a liminal space as they negotiate market access and government demands. The first cooperative established by the Zapatistas had their coffee-processing equipment confiscated by the state government. In an interview, the former treasurer for the cooperative explained, “The cooperative was closed because of the bad government [Zapatista reference to official Mexican governing bodies], they said we were not paying our taxes, that we owed millions in back taxes.” However, it was not worth the time or effort to remove their coffee plants, which are a perennial crop and represent a long-term investment (decades of production), and so campesinos/as in resistance continued to harvest coffee and looked for ways to maintain their political identities—as in resistance—and form export cooperatives.

Since the disbanding of the first cooperative, two new cooperatives have been established. One cooperative member explained the start of their cooperative in the context of resistance in this way: “We became organized so we could work on our own, but better and so we could continue to feed our families.” These cooperatives maintain organic certification and rely on certification por palabra—or by word of mouth—and their coffee is purchased and sold at fair trade prices by coffee importers in the United States and Europe. Despite the problematic character of trying to maintain autonomy and ignore state processes, Zapatista-affiliated producers continue to work within new cooperatives that have been established. On my last trip to the highlands in 2013, one of the newest cooperatives was in the process of constructing a bodega for processing and storing cooperative members’ coffee.

The Maya Vinic coffee cooperative took a different approach to interacting with me as a researcher, and in one of my first conversations with the leadership of the cooperative, we talked about the efforts of Las Abejas to remain visible to the international community. We discussed anonymity in research and what the result of participation might look like and that I should use the name of the cooperative. This strategy is consistent with Maya Vinic’s efforts to preserve the memory of the violence against indigenous peoples, and particularly those in resistance. The Pillar of Shame, one of a series of installations sculpted by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which I passed on every trip into Acteal, serves as a harrowing reminder of the violence inflicted upon campesinos/as in resistance following the 1994 uprising.

In the years leading up to and especially following the 1994 uprising of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, highland communities experienced fragmentation and conflict over land rights and access to resources (Delfín-Fuentes et al. 2011). The Sociedad Civil Las Abejas (Bees Civil Society) was organized out of two groups, the Sociedad Civil and Las Abejas, in response to land conflict and injustice against women (Tavanti 2003) and a desire to promote a space of pacifist support for Zapatista demands (Moksnes 2012). The combined group was formed out of a need and desire to work collectively in spaces that were increasingly being torn apart through outmigration, land conflict, state-sponsored violence, and divergent community politics. A key piece of the low-intensity conflict in communities that had been declared autonomous was the increased militarization of the highlands both through arms trafficking and the establishment of military outposts. Following the failure of the San Andrés Accords, tensions in the official highland municipality of Chenalhó were heightened (Nash 2001). During 1996–97, there was a series of murders and attacks—more than fifty— perpetrated by and against partidistas (supporters of the major Mexican political parties, e.g., PRD, PRI, PAN), Zapatistas, and Las Abejas members alike (Tavanti 2003, 9). The violence in the municipality caused the expulsion of families from their home communities and significant displacement as Abejas and Zapatistas sought refuge in the newly declared autonomous communities in the highlands.

By December 22, 1997, almost 250 Abejas had sought refuge in the highland community of Acteal (Tavanti 2003), which is located within the official municipality of Chenalhó. On that day, members of a paramilitary group called Máscara Roja (Red Mask) opened fire and visited considerable violence on the refugees in Acteal, killing forty-five men, women, and children and wounding twenty-five others (Stahler-Sholk 1998, 63; see also Moksnes 2004, 2012; Stephen 2002; Tavanti 2003). This gruesome attack is further evidence of the violence on the landscape and on bodies that is deployed to weaken the resistance and prevent particular groups (e.g., women) from participating in political processes (Hernández Castillo 1998; Mora 2017) and furthermore are acts of dehumanization that reinforce racialized hierarchies and colonial–imperial imaginaries of domination and control.

It is important to note that members of paramilitary groups are not generally from outside of the communities that they are threatening with violence. Owing to the violence across the highlands and the horrific events of Acteal, which took place at what would have been the start of the coffee harvest, many Las Abejas members had to flee their homes and abandon their milpas and cafetales. Following the massacre, international attention and pressure led to investigation and some arrests. Moreover, some members of the Maya Vinic cooperative recall international solidarity groups arriving in Chiapas to support their families and accompanying members of Las Abejas, escorting producers into their cafetales so that they could harvest their coffee.

Many who participated in the massacre were either never arrested or have been released from prison on appeal and live side by side with families who lost members in the massacre (SIPAZ 2012). They are additionally surrounded by military encampments and subject to daily patrolling by the Mexican state. It is a particularly painful piece of the history of the Abejas and of Maya Vinic and also their present because there has been no peace, no justice. In 2010, in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, members of Las Abejas gathered to recognize the anniversary of the release of the perpetrators of the massacre from prison.20 In a peaceful demonstration outside the cathedral, members gathered to construct a memorial and to display photos of the children, women, and men who were brutally murdered in 1997. Crosses and pine needles were placed on the cobblestones, and songs of protest sung in Tzotzil filled the square. A banner censuring the government was pinned up in the square outside the cathedral: “Mexico está cubierto de impunidad y sangre de los martires de Acteal” (Mexico is covered with impunity and blood of the martyrs of Acteal). The massacre is ever present as members of Las Abejas seek justice while living under the threat of violence and state intimidation.

At the same time, through events such as the one pictured here, Las Abejas are countering the dominant narrative of the massacre that is perpetuated by the government—the state denied any influence or participation of state actors in the massacre. Indeed, the government perpetuated the idea of the “indigenous problem” by indicating that the massacre was the result of intercommunity resource conflicts that had been ongoing in the highlands (Moksnes 2012). However, through the public censure of the government and continued interaction with solidarity networks, Las Abejas produce and disseminate their knowledge of the event, which challenges official accounts of the massacre.

My conversations with Abejas were less focused on the painful reconstruction of the past and instead reflected hope for the future. When discussing the beginning of the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative with socios (cooperative members) who have been with the cooperative since the beginning, the massacre is an agonizing part of their story:

Maya Vinic was not founded for earning money, but because of the conflict in the communities. Many of us had been in the cooperative of [name removed] but after 1997 there were divisions in the communities and within the cooperative and there were some who had participated in the massacre, which caused many problems. So we talked as Abejas and decided to start our own cooperative.

This approach is consistent with the pacifist character of the Abejas movement and is their constructive response to the horrific events that happened and continue to take place in their communities. As part of our conversation about the founding of the coffee cooperative, one campesino described this moment to me:

When the massacre happened it was very bad. My family, with my little boys, we had to leave the municipality. When it happened there was more violence done to us even afterward. They were robbing us too. We had to leave the municipality for more than five months and when we returned they had taken everything, the wood, and the lamina from our houses, the stored coffee and corn. They had taken the fruit from the trees and had hurt the coffee plants. There was no food. There was nothing. Nothing.

This violence is interwoven with the importance of the cooperative not as a space for development or participating in the market but as a space of memory, solidarity, and resistance. A member of the leadership made this clear: “We need people to remember Acteal, to remember us We want people to see us, here in our communities.”

Others shared similar thoughts and stories of displacement. Some had been forced out of their homes and communities for months, others for years, but they returned. “We came back to our place.” Out of the trauma and violence of displacement, campesinos/as in resistance seek to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in a dignified way. This form of memory and place making provides spaces for reframing what fair trade, cooperative production, and development are in the highlands and for fair rebels. Coffee cooperatives are just one piece of this puzzle, which is now more complex due to the addition of fair trade and organic certification.

Out of the violence, campesinos/as in resistance came together and created their own rebel coffee cooperative to support their community of producers. Maya Vinic was established in 1999 and received fair trade certification from FLO (now Fairtrade International) in 2001; it has since expanded production beyond coffee to honey and, in 2013, claimed a membership of 640 socios representing fifty-two communities in the highlands and eastern Chiapas. The establishment of the cooperative provided three key benefits to members of Las Abejas; first, it provided a shield against the threat of declining coffee
prices; second, it extended and solidified solidarity network assistance established in the aftermath of the Acteal Massacre; and finally, it created an internal network for knowledge gathering (about coffee production and political organizing, for example) and material assistance for coffee growers who were part of the autonomy movement and were no longer willing to claim any form of government aid as part of their rebel autonomy and resistance.

Cooperatives established by campesinos/as in resistance have created connections outside of Chiapas and Mexico to assist with the purchase of their coffee. These connections create an important basis for international support and recognition as well as for cash income in self-declared autonomous communities. In this way, demands for recognition and economic development by indigenous communities in resistance have changed from making demands on the government to generating their own systems of governance as well as economic and social ties that seek to bypass the state and conventional market relations. Campesinos/as in resistance have stepped away from the racialized problematization of their livelihoods as indigenous peoples and begun to build a “world in which many worlds fit” (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional 1996). The importance of the cooperatives notwithstanding, the introduction of fair trade (and organic) standards into self-declared autonomous communities populated by fair rebels deserves a closer look as the income gained from production for the fair trade market is contingent upon compliance with standards for production and community development that do not map onto the livelihood strategies of campesinos/as in resistance.

LINDSAY NAYLOR is assistant professor of geography at the University of Delaware. Fair Trade Rebels available from the University of Minnesota Press


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