In December 2012, 8th Avenue's Noah Welch spearheaded our relationship with some farmers in Chiapas. Noah and Coffee Director Fury just returned to organize a contract for this upcoming year.
We arrived in Tapachula, the bustling city on the border of Mexico & Guatemala after a six hour bus ride. We spent a night eating tacos and popsicles, and woke up in the morning to a knock on our door from Candido, a representative of the social organization CASFA that helps small farmers in this region process and export their coffee. Candido drove us up to Bella Vista, where the Tacana volcano towers over everything else, and sat down for a meeting with the 13 coffee producers from whom the Mexican component of Think Blend comes.
Bella Vista is a small mountain town, home to a few hundred people of Mayan descent. They have potable water, everyone has a patio for drying coffee in the backyard, there's a bumpy stone road leading into town. In December, I went to Bella Vista to start a relationship with these producers. They had a coffee that I wanted to put into Think Blend, but I had to verify their environmental & social responsibility. I did, and we're very happy with Think Blend now that Bella Vista is there to thicken it up.
This time, we returned to spend a thorough and productive time with the Bella Vistans to see if there was more to do in terms of improving quality of life or general happiness. Fury and I proposed our basic desires: to help them out, buy more coffee for next year, to allow Think to be more than an invisible ﬂow of money into their bank accounts. The producers were excited, if a little overwhelmed, by our being in town and offering them our friendship and our business, together.
We asked to see each person's land, and they generously started to take us around: across a few rivers, up and down some sharp and steep mountains, over some of the most slippery leaves and red soil that we've been . We saw the 13 "parceles" in 2 days. It was an amazing jungle of coffee, unlike anything we've seen before. The land is incredibly biodiverse, home to all kinds of naturally growing plants. The coffee grows wild and productive, without much trimming. As Galileo, the son of producer Epifanio, walked us around, he would occasionally stop and pick a plant and make us eat it. "This is MonteCristo, we use it for pastries." "This plant closes when you touch it." "Smell this fresh epazote." Over the course of our various hikes, he'd take little bundles of leaves and bring them home for cooking. This isn't just a coffee farm, this everybody's garden, their place to sit and relax. It's really as much their home as it is their source of income.
Over the course of walking around the mountains with these producers and their kids, the main desire that everyone expressed to us was very simple: "we want to be paid consistently for our coffee." Last year, the Bella Vistans had trouble receiving payments, and it made their ability to fulfill basic needs much more difficult in the non-harvesting months.
So, Fury and I devised a simple plan: we will pay the farmers monthly for the coffee that they will produce at the end of the year. We'll buy the same amount from each producer, so as to be just, and pay them all the same price, every month, for the next three years. We held one final meeting, where the 13 producers graciously accepted our offer. It means a lot to them to be heard. It means a lot to us how they embraced us, let this pair of gringos stay in their homes with their families, cooked for us, listened to us.
The work we do isn't typical development work. We work on what the people who grow our coffee ask. It's not charity; it's a relationship. The most important part of buying coffee is communication. We talk, we listen; they talk, they listen. While one producer wanted a better road, and another wanted a different source of water, when we asked the rest of them, they basically said "no way, that stuff is fine, we just want to be paid." So, the farmers of Bella Vista are going to get what they want. And so are we. This is the start of a long, honest, relationship.