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Coffee farmers in Mexico struggle with global food price spikes

The Mexican staple of tortilla, made from white maize, makes up nearly half the daily calorie intake of poor rural Mexicans (© Adriana Chow)
The Mexican staple of tortilla, made from white maize, makes up nearly half the daily calorie intake of poor rural Mexicans
© Adriana Chow

In the mountainous regions of Oaxaca, coffee is the main source of income. Farmers here are not self-sufficient in maize and rely on the price they receive for their coffee rising in line with the price of food staples; recent price spikes in maize, Mexico's national staple, have therefore hit them hard.

Nationally, year-on-year tortilla price inflation in Mexico has jumped from five per cent at the turn of the year to 15 per cent earlier this summer. Lorenzo Canseco Hernandez from the village of Chuxnaban explains that two years ago tortillas cost him two to three pesos a kilo (US$0.15 - US$0.20); they now cost 12 pesos per kilo (US$0.90). "The price rises have been dramatic. It is not only maize prices that keep rising but bean prices and everything essential for food and cooking. Price rises just keep going up," says Lorenzo.

There are few things more important in Mexico than the national staple of tortilla, traditionally made from white maize. It makes up nearly half the daily calorie intake of poorer rural Mexicans, who eat it at every meal. In the short-term the rises in maize price mean that people are having to eat cheaper, less nutritious foods and cut back on other expenditures, like health and education. In the long-term this can be hugely damaging to both the wellbeing of people and society as a whole.

"The effect is that everything that we earn, or most of it, goes on food. Other important things we need money for, like our houses, we don't have any money left over for," says Lorenzo, who adds that many people in the village can no longer afford to buy stationery or school uniforms for their children. Ignacio Hernandez, a coffee farmer and community leader in the village, says he fears the struggle to afford even basic foodstuffs will persuade more young adults and families to migrate to Mexico City or the United States.

Price spikes in maize have hit coffee farmers hard (© Tom Levitt)
Price spikes in maize have hit coffee farmers hard
© Tom Levitt

Trapped in poverty

Agricultural economist Ken Shwedel, who works for the Dutch-owned Rabobank in Mexico and has followed the growing food crisis in the country closely, says the problems faced by coffee farmers in Chuxnaban are being felt by farmers across rural Mexico. "The rural poor are probably the poorest of the poor. Their diets are poor and, surprisingly, despite being farmers, they're undernourished, which is typical in a lot of developing countries,"says Shwedel. "You're talking about people who own less than 1.8 hectares per family - not enough to live on and not enough to go into the market and trade which means they are going to have to go to the market and buy maize themselves at some point and suffer the higher prices."

Government programmes to subsidise food are far less likely to reach remote rural areas, which means cash crop farmers who need to buy food are forced to sell their crops at short-notice, putting them at the mercy of unscrupulous traders. "It's normal to find people who wish to profit from this situation," explains Luis Hernandez, a journalist at the well-respected Mexican daily La Jornada. "They buy the coffee harvest in these areas but they are also the traders who sell maize to the communities. So what happens is that the small coffee producers are forced to sell their coffee in advance to these traders, who we call 'coyotes', for prices well below market value, just so that they can buy their maize," says Luis says.

Striving for higher prices

To secure better prices, many coffee farmers are joining organic coffee cooperatives (© Adriana Chow)
To secure better prices, many coffee farmers are joining organic coffee cooperatives
© Adriana Chow

In a bid to secure better prices, most of the coffee farmers in the Chuxnaban area are now members of an organic coffee cooperative, La Organizacion. This has helped them obtain prices as high as 50 pesos (US$3.75) per kg this year. Together with other independent coffee-growers' organisations in Mexico, they are trying to convince the government that smallholder coffee farming can be economically viable and should be supported. But at the moment, Ignacio admits, the higher coffee prices are not enough to protect farmers from spikes in food prices.

Luis argues that tortilla prices in the country should be capped (in recent years the government has preferred not to intervene in the market price) and small-scale maize production should be encouraged in rural communities. In the village of Chuxnaban, community leaders, such as Ignacio, have been encouraging local farmers to plant more maize this year to combat higher prices; however, they are limited by a mountainous landscape not ideally suited to maize production.

The other option would be to stop eating maize and switch to cheaper foods. But Lorenzo says continuing to eat maize tortilla and maize is important not just for a healthy diet but also because of the cultural ties Mexico has as the birthplace of maize. "We have been eating this since we were children. Our grandparents, our ancestors taught us the importance of what this food means to us. It is our lifeblood," concludes Lorenzo.

Written by: Tom Levitt

Date published: October 2011


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