I was planning on spending the weekend in Acteal reading, writing and catching up on some sleep. I found a ton of resources the other day about Venezuela and a bunch of important people and events in Latin America the other day on the Alo Presidente website and I haven’t been doing much reading lately so I thought that it would be a good chance over the weekend when there is little action for the mesa directiva and I had no work pending. But things don’t always go as planned, instead I got an invite to visit Bajchen a small community up the hill from Chenalho the muncipal centre.
We left at 8am saturday morning for Chenalho where the judge had a meeting booked with the municipal authorities for conflict disputes. Although the market was full as you would expect for a saturday morning the authorities aren’t working because of the swine flu outbreak which has led the government to close everything they have the authority to close. The swine flu outbreak has been another reminder of the incompetence and lack of connection between the state and the people who the state belongs to. They had to send the blood samples to Canada and for some reason it took days to confirm the first cases and still a lot of doubt remains over exactly what the disease is and what we are meant to be doing to avoid it. We waited for about two and a half hours for those who aren’t working to arrive and tell the judge they aren’t working. A new date was set and we went for breakfast.
Living in Acteal where the judge and his wife are living every meal consists of beans, tortilla and coffee apart from festivals. There is often some sort of accompanying plate such as fried rice or local wild vegetables or pasta shells along with chili and salt. In Chenalho you can get anything so I had steak for breakfast while the others had a beef stew unfortunately the only drinks available are from the coke range. I can already start to feel my insulin resistance going up (early stages of diabetes which is to a large extent reversible with the right diet). After that we got a few things from the market and made our way to their village 15 minutes up the hill. Just before we got on the back of the collective ute we were invited for another coke which is a sign of respect and shouldn’t be refused. Coke products have replaced alcohol in a lot of religious and business occasions in this region.
When we got to the village it was a 20 minute walk down a trodden path to their house. Along the way I noticed the difference in vegetation compared to the other places I have been. It’s amazing the differences create by altitude. In some parts coffee is the essential crop for survival but then 10 minutes later coffee plants won’t grow and I’m seeing apple, pear, peach and plum trees. This is what most families live off in Bajchen, they can also grow their staples of corn and beans but it takes 6 months for crop to mature and you only get one a year unlike in some neighboring villages of lower altitude where corn requires only 3-4 months to mature and can be harvested 2 or 3 times per year.
In terms of agriculture many of the people here are living the life I see for myself. Their lack of access to education and health services and the poor quality of water and housing however I don’t wish to be a permanent feature of my life or anyone else’s. The biggest problem that I see with their agriculture system is their dependence on the market. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and price fluctuations.
The primary way that this is occurring the everyday buying and selling. Because of the lack of access of the producer to the consumer the intermediary is making all the money, whether this be at the local level or international. For example when these families produce their peaches, which are generally a sort after fruit, the amount that they produce is not enough to interest large sale vendors. Their neighbors are likely to also be growing the same product and thus don’t want to buy or exchange for their goods. This leaves them the option of nearby markets. The closest market is likely to be flooded when these fruits are in season meaning prices will be kept low according to the law of supply and demand. If the vendor wants their product to reach a bigger market where a higher price may be possible they either have to pay a transport fee which will be a large portion of the gains. They rely on private transport because almost nobody has their own vehicle. Or alternatively they can sell their product at wholesale to someone local who has the capital and transport to sell on a larger scale thus bringing the relative transport costs down. Whichever way the producer tries to live off his produce he is likely to receive only a fraction of what it’s worth. If they sell a box of peaches to a wholesaler and then go to the market with that same money to buy peaches they will receive about a third of the quantity of peaches they had initially. Two-thirds stays with the transport and retailers.
Coffee is another good example of how the reality of Chiapas (and many other parts of the world). Here in the region of Chenalho there is a coffee cooperative called Maya Vinik (Mayan men). The cooperative was set up to decrease the vulnerability of the local producer to the “coyote” who would consistently do what I described in the peach scenario. His access to transport meant that he could set the price and the producer had few options to get his product to the next place for processing. Maya Vinik produces various grades of coffee primarily for european and asian coffee markets. Their customers encourage producers to use labour intensive means to maintain their plants to avoid use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Maya Vinik generally pays an extra peso or two per kilo than the coyote, this year it was $2.50 AU per kilo instead of $2.40 AU. The product will then be further processed and packaged to be sent to it’s final consumer where it will be sold at many times the cost of what the producer receives. Even more still if it is sold by by the cup.
In the afternoon we visited a few other families and then cooked up some rice and lentils on an outside fire. I should mention that the judges wife is from Mexico city and moved to the region almost 2 years ago to get married. They now have a child and form a rare occurrence in this country where everyday poor indigenous migrate to the city to look for a better life. In this case a mixed race woman who was studying in one of the countries most prestigious universities has moved to one of the poorest places in Mexico for love. We ate lentils because she likes a little more variety of food than most locals who are often reluctant to try anything away from the staples or the meat stew saved for special occasions. We cooked outside because of the intensity of smoke in the kitchen which had us all in tears. The judge’s mother is 54 but has definitely suffered the effects of four or five ours a day over a fire. We had dinner and went to bed.
In the middle of the night I heard a tapping noise that I dismissed in my slumbering haze as soothing taping on the nappy of the baby. When I woke at about 6:30 I realized that it was the women tapping away making tortillas. They got up at 4 am to start and weren’t able to go to church because they still had preparations to make at eleven O’clock. Today they were hosting anyone from church who wanted to come to pray for a the judges nephew to stop having diarrhea. 25 of us in a small room got on our knees and went through a ritual that was a mixture of catholic and mayan practices. I added my best wishes for the youngster despite not being of affiliated with either group.
We ate beans and tortilla then went to pick some peaches. This years crop isn’t as good as last. It rained less. We got a box full of those that were nearly ready and headed home for a coffee before bed.
Monday morning and the judges 2 brothers who live at home left at 5:30 amto pick avocados which are abundant at the moment. I got up at 5:15 am and went looking for a good place to use as a bathroom and and see what else I could see. We left at 6:30 am to make the steep up hill journey to the collective pick-up which would bring us back to Acteal. I stood up on the back of vehicle with one foot on the back bumper and one on the tray. This is one of the things that I enjoy most about Mexico. It may be for a good reason that you would get a big fine in many countries for doing what I was doing but I love travelling this way.
When we got back we had breakfast together with the mesa directiva. After breakfast I headed off to use the internet at the coffee cooperative. On the way there was a broken down truck on the narrow winding road. There are hundreds of trucks zooming between concrete and block depots and construction or road construction or stabilization projects (which also prepare the way for the impending military invasion when the time is right to attack the Zapatistas and whoever else stands in the governments way). I had a chat with the driver who spoke about the misery of being a driver and trying to look after his family. He probably earns 5 times what most in the region earn but it’s still not enough to provide the basics in Mexico. He went to the city as a youngster hoping to continue his studies but it was too expensive so he started work. He’s had 20 years as a truck driver and supports 4 kids on his wage. The truck he was driving is owned by someone who doesn’t have to drive it to make money. The truck had a number of wooden parts bearing load which would have been metal at an earlier stage in it’s life. He broke off a nut which he was tightening by hand. The spare he put on was bald and it was the only one he was carrying. No other truck drivers stop or slowed to check if he needed help. He asked if I had a use for two or three kilos of weed which he said the people here were having trouble getting to market. I politely refused without asking any of the questions I would have liked to have asked but which would have no doubt increased his determination for a sale. I helped him lever the tire onto the roof and then took a lift about 2km up the road to where I was heading.
He dropped me off and I wished him all the best.
The thing that keeps going around and around in my head is how to get away from this dependence on the market and realize that money must be used sparingly and replaced wherever possible for tangible goods.
Wages aren’t rising but expenses are. Staple foods and transport continue to become more expensive at the whim of market forces. These trends must be overcome.