“Why don’t you just stay here and farm coffee?”
The Mixtec indigenous community of San Juan Coatzóspam, nestled in the lush, forested mountains of the southern State of Oaxaca, is like many other rural communities across Mexico in two regards. (1) It is a beautiful place, with abundant natural resources, an ancient local culture full of lore and legends, and a spectacular view of the unspoiled wilderness. (2) In the past 20 years, it has practically become a ghost town.
Most people have left Coatzóspam to look for work somewhere else.
People don’t leave beautiful places like Coatzóspam for no reason. They leave because of the macro-economic policies that fuel our own consumer economy.
In the case of Coatzóspam, it all goes back to coffee. For years, the Mexican government provided a stable price for small coffee farmers like the campesinos of Coatzóspam. The government institution INMECAFE provided credits to smallholders and guaranteed a baseline price. Then the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. INMECAFE was disbanded. Mexico’s economy became more dependent on the economies of the U.S. and Canada. And coffee farming became a gamble.
Ever since 1994, the price of coffee has shot up and down. Some years, the farmers of Coatzóspam would spend all year preparing for the coffee harvest, only to find that the price of coffee on the world market had dropped. The market price of coffee—a price discussed in air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away, a price dependent on the fluctuations of the stock markets in London and New York—would drop so low that farmers would actually lose money by farming coffee. A product that used to allow them to provide for their families had become a financial black hole.
So the farmers left.
I wish I could say this story only happened in Coatzóspam. But this is the story of hundreds of coffee-producing rural towns across Mexico. Across Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South America. As neoliberal economic policies were implemented during the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, international coffee-buying corporations like Nestlé and Sarah Lee gained more and more control of the coffee trade, at the expense of small farmers. Rural communities became more and more dependent on the fluctuations of coffee prices on the world market.
I wish I could say this story was limited to coffee.
It isn’t. After NAFTA was signed, millions of smallholding peasant farmers across Mexico were driven off their land, as a result of the lopsided policies of NAFTA. Corn farmers could no longer make a living, as Mexico’s market was flooded with cheap corn from the U.S. And the U.S. corn is cheap for a reason—it’s subsidized with millions of dollars from the U.S. government. While Mexico was required to remove its subsidies for its own small corn farmers as a condition of NAFTA, the U.S. has continued to subsidize its own massive agribusiness. (To the detriment of small corn farmers in the U.S. as well.)
So people have left the countryside. If they can’t make a living there anymore, they leave.
In the case of Coatzóspam, the first time I visited the Mixtec native community in 2006, I saw a visible generation gap. I barely met anybody between the ages of 12 and 65—most of the people of working age had left to look for a source of income somewhere else. I was reminded of a friend who had visited the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and told me he had seen an entire generation of men missing—the men who were killed during Hitler’s invasion in WWII.
In the case of Coatzóspam, it’s not just the men who are missing—working age women and adolescent girls leave as well, looking for employment in the outside world. Mexico City. Sinaloa. Sonora. Baja California.
And many have crossed into the United States. Many Coatzóspam natives are working in the fields of the large factory farms in Salinas, Oxnard, Watsonville, Fresno. Rather than working on the plots of land their families have owned for generations, they are working to support the massive agricultural industry that drove their families out of business in the first place.
The young people come back to town every now and then. Sometimes they come back to visit during Saint John’s Day festivals in the summer, or during the Day of the Dead at the end of October. Sometimes they come back after being deported from the United States.
And many of them come back changed. Resentful. Angry. A slow-boiling rage churns in the bellies of many young men who come back to town.
We’ll look more closely at this anger in the next installment.
This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written byDavid Schmidt regarding his travels in Summer 2012. David is a volunteer with World Relief Garden Grove serving all of Southern California.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants' rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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