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Origins of Organic Coffee Cooperatives in Chiapas

Photography by Fanni Blas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Cultural knowledge passed from generation to generation is among the most valuable things the world has to offer. Not only does this intimate act preserve the ways that a community expresses its origins and beliefs, but it also promotes the ways in which humankind’s relationship with the earth can be nurtured for the sake of the future. We believe that creating opportunities to connect, exchange stories, and educate each other is vital, and in order to fully appreciate the work and coffee that we enjoy, we must acknowledge the experiences undergone by indigenous farmers.

The mountainous region of Chiapas contains approximately one-third of all coffee agriculture in Mexico, making it the leading producer of high quality organic coffee within the country for the past three decades. The history of organic farming cooperatives in this region is built on more than political and economic motivations. It’s also heavily influenced by the strength of the indigenous community, who faced failing crop productions and land ownership controversies, and banded together to reclaim customary agricultural practices and beliefs. 


indigenous Chiapas

The story begins as a dramatic drop in crop value hit Mexico’s agricultural market in the 1960’s. With a reliance on exports to the United States, revenue began to plummet as the states started growing their own produce, effectively making Mexico’s crops less valuable. This marked a period of hard times for small-scale indigenous farmers, as many had to make up for lost income by moving to urban centers, while others struggled to find a new farming alternative. Many farmers transitioned to conventional coffee production for a variety of reasons. For one, there was more profit to be made than other crops at the time, as global food and beverage corporations sought after large amounts of affordable coffee. Further, conventional coffee farmers were supported by the Mexican Coffee Institute, who often provided education and free fertilizer to promote the growth of coffee in the country.


coffee farm

After a decade of promise and prosperity, it was unforeseen that the value of conventionally grown coffee would soon drop internationally due to the non-renewal of the International Coffee Agreement, which had previously helped regulate international coffee prices in order to balance supply and demand. An increase in demand for organic coffee eventually forced farmers to leave behind conventional methods and revert back to the traditional farming practices of their ancestors. The indigenous community’s strong cultural ties to collective land ownership and social values allowed for the natural adaptation of small farmers to come together and form cooperatives in order to build their organic coffee businesses.


The rise of organic coffee was reflective of a shift in consumer awareness, bringing economic opportunity to the newly-formed cooperatives. This led to the return of a more culturally-reflective practice amongst the cooperatives and independent farmers. The methods used by the organic coffee farmers in Chiapas rely on agro-ecosystems, which are focused on mutually beneficial relationships between native plants and crops. There is a low level of human involvement in these ecosystems, as protection from pests and disease is found in the strength of diversity in plant species. This agricultural practice had been part of the indigenous Maya community of the Chiapas region for hundreds of years prior to the organic coffee boom, and found its reestablishment in society as farmers moved away from conventional coffee methods.


In addition to being supported culturally, organic coffee production is more sustainable to the land of these indigenous families and allows for the continuous rotation of crops. Crop rotation keeps the biodiversity of the land plentiful and the soil fertile, and  reduces the need for cutting down additional trees to create more agricultural space. It also allows for family farms to benefit from additional crop harvests. Agro-ecosystems maintain a balanced state of moisture and nutrients, which retains the quality of soil while avoiding the use of harmful chemicals that may cause irreversible changes in soil quality. These practices preserve the fertility of the soil over time, allowing for generations of farmers to rely on their land without fear of soil-depletion and crop failure.


coffee production

Unfortunately, cooperatives are often heavily reliant on outside sources leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by big businesses and political influence. When Ruta Maya’s Founder, Tim Sheehan, first arrived in Chiapas in the early 90s, he was faced with a volatile environment due to discord surrounding land rights and his desire to pay farmers directly instead of through a middle-man, which was standard at the time. The idea of paying farmers directly was so unusual, that the bank in Chiapas refused to release Ruta Maya’s first payment to the cooperative because they couldn’t understand why someone would conduct business this way.

Our commitment to purchasing coffee directly from independent coffee cooperatives, rather than from third-party importers or exporters, allows farmers to operate their own businesses with more control and be paid fairly for their work. By supporting these communities, we support the preservation of indigenous knowledge, as well as the conservation of natural resources.


organic coffee

To read more about the histories of organic coffee production in Chiapas, we encourage you to read the following:

Folch, Albert; Planas, Jordi. 2019. "Cooperation, Fair Trade, and the Development of Organic Coffee Growing in Chiapas (1980–2015)" Sustainability 11, no. 2: 357. 

Rosalva Aida Hernandez Castillo; Nigh, Ronald. “Global processes and local identity among Mayan coffee growers in Chiapas, Mexico” American Anthropologist; Mar 1998; 100, 1; SciTech Premium Collection pg. 136

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