The finest grade of Mexican coffee is called “Altura,” which means “high-grown.” In coffee industry higher always means better and the high-grown coffees of Mexico are considered very high-quality and among the best produced in Americas.
Though coffee entered the scene in 1785, when Spanish colonizers introduced it in Mexico from Cuba and Dominican Republic, its popularity and commercial operations were limited. Things began to look up only in the early part of the 20th century. Agrarian reforms initiated after the Mexican revolution brought back small farmers. Indentured labor with extensive experience in coffee plantations got their own land where they started cultivating coffee. In 1973, INMECAFE (National Coffee Institute of Mexico) was started which with the support of the government saw a spurt in coffee related activities. INMECAFE provided small coffee cultivators with technical know how, credit, transportation and also an opportunity to export coffee to international markets. Such pro-active measures made the years 1973-1990, the golden age of coffee in Mexico.
But the things started to collapse in the late 1980s when the coffee prices plummeted because of the dumping of cheap Brazilian coffee in the market. The times were so drastic that coffee exports in 1991 stood at just $370 million as compared to $882 million in 1985. INMECAFE also shut its operations leaving poor farmers at the mercy of coffee brokers. ICA’s collapse also had a catastrophic effect on the coffee industry. The already improvised small coffee farmers faced greater hardships as prices went south, credit was no longer available and had no access to market for selling their produce. The years saw an intervention by labor organizations, agricultural movements and the church to form coffee co-operatives in Mexico. Groups like CEPCO and UCIRI in Oaxaca provided great assistance to coffee farmers in the early 1990s. Their emergence saved the Mexican coffee industry from getting wiped out completely.
Co-operatives took over the duties like transportation, processing and marketing which were earlier handled by INMECAFE. This meant greater stability and good prices to the farmers. Co-operatives also promoted organic certification and advocated less use of fertilizers. Co-operatives also tied up European Equal Exchange to export coffee, securing a stable price and pre-harvest financing for their members.
The co-ops also emerged as the backbone of the village communities by supporting environmental measures and setting up schools and hospitals.
Now, Mexico is the largest producer of organic coffee, accounting for 60% of world production. Most of the Mexican coffee, and particularly organic coffee, comes from small farmers in the southern-most states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Chances are that that coffee you drank while sitting in the café on the 5th avenue in Playa del Carmen may have come from the Mexico itself! Over half a million small farmers rely on coffee and its export for their livelihood.