Posted in Kafevend Blog

Mexican coffee- a potted history

Given our previous topics this week, we thought it only made sense to round things off with another visit to Mexico and tackle its relationship with coffee. Today then we have a potted history for your consideration!

Build it up

Coffee arrived in Mexico at the end of the 18th century. It was brought there by the Spanish from their colonies on Cuba and (what would become) the Dominican Republic, where along with other cash crops such as sugar cane, plantations had long been established. The first coffee bushes in Mexico were grown in the state of Veracruz, a long stretch of land along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Veracruz remains the country's largest coffee producing state, thanks in no small part to the fertile soils and reliable rainfall to be found there.

It took a while for coffee to take off in Mexico in the same way it had out in the Caribbean, as bountiful supplies of gold and silver drew attention away from it. Coffee finally started to be taken up on a larger scale in the middle of the 19th century as parcels of land were sold to Europeans who began establishing large plantations. Following the Mexican revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, reforms saw small scale farming of coffee begin too.

Coffee eventually became a major cash crop in Mexico as the century continued. Recognising coffee's potential importance to the economy, the government set up the National Coffee Institute of Mexico (INMECAFE) in 1973 to support small scale farmers growing coffee. It performed a similar role to the one various cooperatives perform today, providing education, assistance and transportation along with guaranteed purchases. The next couple of decades saw Mexico's coffee cultivation reach its peak, but unfortunately it wasn't to last for long.

Smash it down

In 1989, INMECAFE was broken up, following years of the government slowly withdrawing support as it had to deal with other issues. As if this wasn't bad enough, it coincided with the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement(ICA). This had been set up in 1962 and aimed to keep the price of coffee high and stable. When it failed, loads of cheap coffee flooded the market, driving prices down across the board.

This was devastating for those Mexican smallholders growing coffee. The total value of exported coffee from Mexico dropped from almost $900 million to just over half that a couple of years later. For those farmers still trying to make a living selling coffee, conniving middlemen made it harder still, exploiting the farmers' isolation and lack of transportation and information about the wider coffee market. Thankfully, there was a way out of this mess.

Pick up the pieces

As INMECAFE fell, fledgling cooperatives were able to move into its place and provide the same service to smallholders. Groups such as UCIRI and Mut Vitz have been able to support several thousands of farmers around Mexico. Since the collapse of the ICA (and its subsequent re-establishment in 2006), Mexico's coffee production has climbed enough again to rank as the world's seventh largest coffee exporter. It still has a way to go to retain its past glory however, and the unstable nature of the coffee market means there are still plenty of farmers who are finding coffee to be an untenable crop. Who knows what the future holds for the Mexican coffee industry?


Equal Exchange

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