In my previous post I translated two local articles about coffee growing. At the end of the second, I mentioned that the real problem with coffee production lies in coffee distribution: that is, there are few distributors -- companies that purchase from the growers and pickers and sell to the retailers and wholesalers, often in the US -- and that these are the profit-makers. A couple of days ago, the article below appeared in the Veracruz edition of La Jornada, emphasizing the point. You'll note that the thrust of the article is on the conversion of land from coffee to other uses. However the problem for the ordinary worker who works for large land owners remains: low pay ---very low pay-- whether the worker is picking coffee, citrus or sugar.
Neither going through the official means of registering complaints, nor through the infomal route of demonstrations demanding that federal and state agriculture authorities support the coffee sector have had much effect, making clear that there exist strong interests in favor of transnational businesses, the president of the Regional Coffee Committe in Coatepec, Cirio Ruiz Morales, said.
He criticized the fact that in spite of the existence of more than 600 million pesos (50 million dollars, more or less) in the Fund for the Stabilization of the Price of Coffee, federal authorities are sitting on these resources which were approved last year rather than using them.*
Meanwhile, they permit businesses like Nestlé and Café California to dictate economic policy with respect to the cultivation of coffee, letting these companies fix the prices per quintal (100 kilograms), the rules of operating the programs and the varieties of coffee to be planted.
"There doesn't exist a greater authority than these three companies. They decide everything: not only do they fix the price, we now know that there are families of functionaries of Sagarpa [roughly, the Department of Agriculture] who work for Nestlé or for Amsa, and thus they are collecting favors at the expense of the coffee producers," he said.
In the face of this situation, he indicated that they are making a substantial effort to reactivate the movement in which all the producers of the country are involved, although they are faced with serious obstacles. "The [coffee producers] have created an alliance which includes representatives of regional organizations which participate in the National Coordination of Coffee Organizations, in the National Campesino Confederation and other groups which are disposed to tougher protests, when dialogue has failed and the denunciation to the media also hasn't worked," he added.
Ruiz Morales warned that in the face of this sitation, there may be a scarcity of coffee and an unchecked rise in prices, because many producers have opted to abandoned their coffee farms or converted them to the cultivation of sugar or citrus or decided to sell their land.
He emphasized how important it was that the governments of coffee-growing states intervene to reorient the direction of this sector, "considering that it appears that the companies behave as if they are sure that they are going to continue to be supported officially, facts which are clear in their continueing to act with arrogance and voraciousnss in a business which can be of more of social benefit [than when it is strictly in private control].
*If I understand correctly, in the case of Mexican coffee, the government would stabilize prices at a level high enough to sustain what workers are paid. As it stands, Nestlé, et. al. lower prices when the market demands them, and the price stabilization process is supposed to ensure that workers' wages don't also go down. The instability of prices and wages (never high) contributes to the need for workers to migrate. And Americans who drink much of this coffee (sometimes at ridiculously high prices, sometimes sridiculously low) are at the consumer end of this product's cycle, and thus should understand the difficulties of workers at the production end.
There are also other issues: lower prices mean that production processes which make cheaper coffee possible, practices which are environmentally degrading. (I guess it's no secret where I stand).