The other day, over our ritual lunch of beans, tortillas and coffee, in
the highland town of Acteal, Chiapas, Don Mariano
spontaneously asked: "So, is it that there are two kinds of money? One that we call dinero and the other economia? What is the economy?" he asked. What a question, I thought. My friend hesitantly attempted an answer. If money is the coins and bills we use, the economy is like
invisible money. The larger it is, the more invisible money it has acquired. It's like the coffee market. For example, you harvest and sell coffee beans to the "coyotes" (their name for middlemen) for approximately $1 per kilo, and they in turn sell them for three times that to a distributor abroad, until they end up in foreign supermarkets or restaurants where people pay $1 per cup. Don Mariano nodded knowingly, making me wonder whether this was a rhetorical question. Of anyone, he knows best the meaning of the economy. He understands it from
the ground up. It lives through him. Literally.
In this southernmost Mexican state, Mariano's relationship to coffee is not simply described by market relations and monetary value. But there is another aspect of invisibility proscribed by the economy: the lives, like Mariano's, that are narrated by the same coffee we abundantly drink.
In Chiapas, this has a very particular meaning. Today, 70,000 troops
or one third of the Mexican army occupies the state of
Chiapas. Low intensity war has been the government's response to an indigenous rebellion led by the Zapatistas-which came to the fore in
1994-and the increasing organization of peasant communities in opposition to the government and their neoliberal economic interests. In Chiapas is the evidence of the coercive nature of the PRI (the ruling party that has been in power for over 70 years) and its desperation to maintain their political and economic reign-forcefully. As part of its strategy to annihilate the opposition, covert organized armies or pro-government paramilitaries proliferate-recruited, trained and funded by the Mexican military.
Coffee is the second largest
import of the United States, next to oil; it is also the sole source of
income for Acteal. Mariano and I were
chatting one day outside his store, while he anxiously waited for his wife and children to return from his field, and he explained to me that in a normal year, a family can grow enough corn on the typical hectare of land to feed themselves for three months. The rest of the year their food supply is mostly purchased, during which time they are reliant on the little income they can make from coffee. Actually, coffee is more like the sole source of subsistence for Acteal.
Today, coffee is a central target of the government's low intensity war
strategy. Last month the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights
Center in San Cristobal, Chiapas reported that in the region of Las Margaritas,
boxes containing rats, snakes, insects, or mere
chemicals, had been found falling out of the sky into the coffee fields of peasants, killing the crops and eventually the animals. This is exemplary of a tactic whose aim is to slowly deplete a population by attacking their sole source of income instead of their immediate food
supply. I saw the implications of this coffee centered strategy on the face of a young man in Acteal. He spent an entire afternoon and evening
sitting motionless on a rock in a tranquilized, somber state, outside the room where I was staying. I was told that he had just discovered that
morning, upon returning to his coffee field, that paramilitaries from the neighboring village had cut down the trees that provided shade for his
coffee crops. Without this shade, he would lose his crops as they burnt from the penetration of the sun.
Increasingly his story is the repetition of others. Like many families
in Acteal, he has recently been displaced from his original
town, due to the growing organization of pro-government paramilitary troops in their communities. For these families in particular, coffee
harbors the story of being forced from their homes and estranged from their land simply because they refuse to support the government and take up arms. Today, displaced people in Acteal cannot return to their abandoned homes and coffee fields without the accompaniment of human rights observers for fear of confrontation, terrorization and kidnapping by the paramilitaries. Many people that have returned have found their homes and/or crops burned, their land poisoned, or the trees that gave shade to their coffee plants cut down. In fact, peasants often find that, in their absence, their coffee has been harvested and sold by the paramilitaries-one of many strategies to acquire the funds to buy their weapons.
Acteal is one of 32 communities in Chiapas that are members of the civil
society association, Las Abejas, or The Bees. They
are a pacifist, devoutly Catholic group that was founded in 1992 after 5 innocent men were imprisoned following a violent family dispute over a woman's right to inherit a portion of her family's land. Mariano explained to me that their name is a metaphor for the way they are
organized. Like a colony of bees, their Queen Bee is Dios todo poderoso, the all mighty God, and the Sun, Toltik, the Maya Tzotzil God.
When a delegation of aids to U.S. congressmen and women recently visited
Acteal, Agustin, a community representative, explained
that Las Abejas, since its inception, has been struggling against an unjust government. Furthermore, "we have been struggling against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)," he said, "the agreement that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed with your country, the United States, and with Canada. But how do we benefit from this agreement?" he asked these future politicians. "The agreement enables more oil and coffee to be taken from our land in Chiapas and sent to the north. How do we benefit from this oil?" he asked. "We don't use it, we cook with firewood. But that's our land they take the oil from." He continued to explain that the government refuses to grant them the permits to export their coffee directly, meaning that only the 'coyotes' or the middlemen are capable of selling it abroad. "They control the market" he says, and stated that, although they are the ones who harvest, pick, shell, rinse, dry, and grind the coffee, the coyotes pay them between 7 and 11 pesos per kilo (the equivalent of about $1), and then sell it for 3 or 4 times that.
What mostly draws foreign delegations like this one, or human rights observers
like myself to this community, is that in Acteal
on December 22, 1997, 45 men, women and children were massacred in an onslaught by paramilitary troops that lasted approximately 8 hours. State police stationed only a few kilometers away, were advised ahead of time of the planned attack, but did nothing. The massacre was the culmination of months of terrorization by paramilitaries in the municipality of Chenalho, leading to large numbers of displacements from communities in which these armed groups were operating-hence the recent immigrants to Acteal. In fact, in Chenalho alone, it is estimated that about 8,000 people have been displaced due to paramilitary activities since 1994. In Acteal, truckloads of armed paramilitaries from neighboring communities spent the months before the fatal event, daily shooting up the highway that passes through the community. Indeed, Agustin explains to the young politicians, they wore the same uniforms as the Mexican army and carried the same weapons. "They're paid 1400 pesos a month," he said, about $130, "to carry a gun, to be organized in this covert arm of the Mexican military and to be made enemy of their neighbors, friends and family members." Poor and often landless young men, without any religious or civil society organizational affiliation, becoming a paramilitary not only means money, it means land too. After they scare off their neighbors, they can take over their fields and harvest their crops, most likely their coffee.
Becoming a paramilitary also provides a sort of social organization with
which to belong. "Viva Chenalho!" the paramilitaries
screamed after their successful slaughter. Mariano had sat in the middle of it, frozen in the spot where he and the rest of the community prayed when the armed men attacked from behind. Paralyzed and eyes a glaze as body upon body fell upon him, he recounted the clarity with which he saw the eyes and faces of every one of their assassins through their ski-masks and bandanas, the faces of neighbors and family members. "Viva Chiapas!" they shouted. "Viva Mexico!" For who, I wonder? For those who can be bought off by a manipulative government, desperate to maintain the upper hand in a state that bears the fruit of NAFTA and (someone else's) economic prosperity.
So this is the cost of coffee, I think-both theirs and ours. Our cost is also the expense of these lives, the unnecessary poverty, the struggle for a democratic country, where indigenous peasants are respected as people not fodder for their neoliberal economics. Mariano reminds me that we pay approximately $1 for our morning cups, while he is paid $1 per kilo of coffee he sells. In a good year, most families can make 200 dollars from a year's harvest, that is, without being displaced or suffering the threats and destruction by the military or paramilitary. Imagine a yearly salary of 200 dollars for a family of 10.
Recent efforts to enable coffee profits to directly benefit indigenous
peasant communities in Chiapas have been organized by
such U.S. fair-trade organizations such as Equal Exchange and The Human Bean Company. Due to the inability of Chiapan communities and coffee cooperatives to acquire the permits from the state government, that would allow them to export directly, these organizations have stepped in to enable this distribution and the majority of the profits to go to the farmers themselves. But the persecution on this side of the economy is relentless. A month ago, Kerry Appel, the founder of The Human Bean Company, was expelled from Mexico with the restriction that he may not return for 3 years. This marks the second time he has been expelled; the first time he was forced to leave was in 1996. It's no coincidence that this was the year he started his company working with Chiapan coffee cooperatives. He was the first foreigner to be expelled unconstitutionally for his activities in Chiapas, initiating a campaign the government has since waged against foreign human rights observers to curtail the number of foreign eyes that witness the activities of the Mexican military in Chiapan communities. Clearly, Appel's case illustrates the pervasiveness of this strategy. He, too, has been isolated as a threat to a specific kind of economy-a specific kind of
politics, a specific kind of war.
I asked Mariano at lunch about the flavor of coffees. Every element of its growth and production affects its taste, he explained. There's the coffee grown in tropical climates or tierra caliente, the coffee grown in the mountains or tierra fria, and the coffee grown under shade. It's that which is grown in the "coffee belt"-a region like the equator that wraps around the planet-that is the best kind, he says. I start to think of the other countries included in this "coffee belt": Colombia, Indonesia, Guatemala... I am struck by another element that Mariano didn't explicitly mention. Coffee's bitter savor is also the product of what remains an invisible economy, an unrecognized reality. Call it the taste of poverty, war and struggle; the taste of blood and dirt. Or call it the flavor of lives lived by, determined by, its demand. "The coffee we grow," Mariano says with pride, "is without doubt the best coffee in the world."
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