Leaders of FEMCAFE, an all-women's coffee cooperative in Mexico, say, "for us women, each grain has a face and history.”
“This means so much more to us than just money and capitalism like it does for the men,” says Gisella Illescas to teleSUR.
Illescas, director of the women-owned coffee company FEMCAFE based in Veracruz, Mexico, and 156 other women coffee-growers are running their ‘bean to cup’ business, going against the grain in this male-dominated industry.
“Coffee allows us to have a relationship with our environment and gives us a cultural identity. For us women, each grain has a face and history,” she asserts.
Since 2015, the women of FEMCAFE have produced, processed, and sold their fresh grounds in Mexico at fair prices, while safeguarding the environment and their families.
“We carry our kids in the fields where they play, and you can see the birds and swim in the river,” Illescas explains about working in her family’s two-hectare coffee field in Ixhuatlan del Cafe, Veracruz. Coffee lets the women continually reassert their connection to family and ancestral land.
But the women aren’t just romanticizing their venture. FEMCAFE has disrupted gender norms, triggering push-back from the men in their villages; like any new business it has had its risks, and now they face economic and environmental challenges from ‘big food’ and Nestle.
FEMCAFE grew out of VIDA, a gender and environmental rights organization Illesca and over 150 rural families formed in 1990 to support one another’s coffee production in Veracruz, a state that pumps out 22 percent of Mexico’s Arabica beans — the shade-grown variety enjoyed in cafes around the world.
For decades, VIDA members sold their raw beans to intermediaries, or “coyotes” as Illesca calls them, at cut-rate prices during the November to March harvest.
“If you sell the fresh beans during the harvest to intermediaries you can make money then,” she explains, but then ‘lean months’ always follow and families run out of money—and food.
An international ‘coffee crisis’ hit Mexico in the early 2000s, caused by market liberalization 10 years earlier, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), and made the problem worse. Rural malnutrition rose and coffee farmers, whose income dropped by as much as 70 percent, became desperate and began to abandon the bean.
By “the early 2000s people were starving and cutting down their … coffee trees ... to put in cattle,” says Rose Cohen, Research Associate at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at the University of California and Executive Director of the Community Agroecology Network (CAN), a non-profit organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
CAN seeks to “sustain rural livelihoods and environments in the global south (using) agroecology-based research (and) education,” and began collaboration with VIDA in 2003 to increase food security and sovereignty among members.
Over time, VIDA women diversified their crops and now grow much of their own fruits and vegetables, making them less dependant on coffee sales to feed their families.
While participating in CAN-conducted workshops, members of VIDA—men and women—began to notice how each gender defined their reasons for producing coffee.
“We realized that the way men and women saw coffee was different,” Illesca told teleSUR in a Mexico City cafe that sells FEMCAFE products.
“For the men, coffee is a way to create capital,” she explains. “The women are in it to be closer to their roots, men for the money,” adds Denisse Garcia Moreno, FEMCAFE leader.
“Coffee gives (women) a relationship to the environment and a cultural identity,” Garcia explains. She points to how the coffee trade for them is “intergenerational” — they gained rural-based knowledge from their parents and grandparents.
“A lot of women say they learned … a love of the countryside from our grandparents,” Illesca says. “We get our food from the same land that our grandparents and parents worked,” remarks Illesca.
Around this time, VIDA’s women farmers became more assertive within the organization, demanding more say in the cultivation and sales process.
“When we put this on the VIDA agenda, to make women more visible in coffee culture, the men saw us as competition at first.” They were responding to a gender role reversal within the patriarchal systems of both Mexico and farming, generally.
Worldwide, women provide 70 percent of the labor in family-run coffee operations, but men make 70 percent of the decisions, says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
With CAN’s support, in 2010 the women growers found a stable market for their raw beans in the UC Santa Cruz dining program, which serves thousands daily.
Five years later, the women launched FEMCAFE. The men of VIDA, who are also the women’s partners, neighbors and family members, pushed back, again.
“They didn't understand why we wanted to roast our own (coffee) and sell it in Mexico if we could sell to intermediaries that export,” says Garcia. They thought controlling the production chain to sell domestically was a waste of time and money.
“At first, our husbands kept selling their raw beans to the coyotes,” Illesca tells teleSUR.
As sales steadily grew, the men started to “recognize” the women’s achievement.
“Now, we get a good price exporting through CAN and a good price processing and selling the coffee in Mexico,” Garcia asserts.
“Before we held the weakest position within the sales chain. But now, if you buy FEMCAFE coffee, 70 percent of the sales come back to us,” a significant increase over the few pesos per pound offered by middlemen.
“We manage the funds and now have money to pay for our kids’ school clothes and supplies,” states Garcia.
Given FEMCAFE’s ability to manage decisions and funds, says Tihui Campos, a rural sociology professor at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, makes it critical “to make women’s role in coffee production more visible,” and tangible.
A faithful FEMCAFE customer, Campos buys FEMCAFE coffee because she knows it's organic, high quality, and sold at a fair price, and the money goes back to FEMCAFE families.
A semifinalist in the quality flavor category at the Premio Sabor Expo Café in Mexico City in 2016 and 2017, FEMCAFE has restructured gender roles within VIDA and its families.
“There’s been a power structural change, giving (women) more power in VIDA and within families,” says Illesca. “We’re making a product that supports women,” she adds.
FEMCAFE leaders say: “Women have always been included in VIDA, but after many years the women direct the organization.”
The system isn’t perfect, however.
Economics still force FEMCAFE families to sell about 60 percent of their crop to intermediaries.
To process all their own beans would bring greater profit but the required pulping, fermenting, washing, drying, roasting, and grinding takes months and FEMCAFE members can’t maintain enough cash flow throughout the year without selling some beans to coyotes.
“You have to have money to live on because processing takes time,” says Illesca. “You can’t sell the coffee immediately.”
Regardless, Garcia and Illesca say they “are living a dignified life” and can remain on the farms started by their forebears.
“We don’t have to migrate to the city (for wages). We want to continue to live in the country and have our kids stay there,” adds Garcia.
“Our way puts food sovereignty first. It’s a fight for sustainable farming, the defense of life and the land, against the major food corporations, like Nestle,” punctuates Illesca.
Just after his inauguration last December, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) gave his blessing to Nestle Foods to build a factory in Veracruz State that would produce tons of instant coffee annually.
Illesca doesn’t agree with the plan based on past experience with major food corporations in Mexico.
She says the factory will not only flood the market with low-quality Robusta beans, but that FEMCAFE “families, specifically women, will lose out on the use of water that will be contaminated by the chemicals used to produce the coffee.”
The over 20,000 other small-scale Arabica coffee growers in the region concur.
Last February, the National Movement for the Defense of the Mexican Coffee Industry emerged to prevent Nestle planned factory.
Cirilo Elotlan, a leader in the group, says Nestle's lust for Robusta beans from plants which require full sunlight, would not only incite massive deforestation, but would bankrupt Arabica growers in the region.
"We’re told (Nestle) is coming to plant 150 thousand hectares (of Robusta). This would practically eliminate Arabica coffee,” said Elotlan to local media in April. Reports suggest the multinational will pay farmers five pesos (about US$.25) per kilo for raw beans.
Illesca adds, “transnational companies expropriate land and water, impacting communities environmentally and economically, and they support a new kind of slavery because small-scale producers are at their mercy.”
The women of FEMCAFE resist by growing their businesses, cultivating beehives and honey. Under the brand name, Mujer Que Sana, the women are also crafting and selling soaps and lotions made from plants in their own gardens.
“Health is very important for us,” Illesca says and these products help the women stay healthy in spite of all the hard work. Illesca says what mainly keeps FEMCAFE going is a shared history and a sense of community.
“We are members of FEMCAFE, which isn’t a business, it’s a community organization. VIDA has been around for 29 years, during which time we have dreamed and worked as a collective. Coffee is just an excuse for all of this, for community.”