Coffee, the Woodsman and the Bear

by Luis Hernández Navarro

The small coffee growers are upset and disappointed with the federal government. They reproach the federal government for unduly granting privileges to the transnational Nestlé. They are also angry that the government has refused to dialogue and agree with them on fundamental issues of the industry.

According to the Veracruz Commission of Price Monitoring for Coffee, made up of the five most important coffee associations in the state, the government’s alliances with the company opened the way for the placement of officials in Sader (Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development)and the Secretary of Economy to promote and protect the interests of this and other consortiums.

Nestlé is the company most exploitative of small coffee producers in the world and gives the consumer inferior soluble coffee, with colors and flavorings, wrote Arturo García, the leader of small coffee growers and advisor to ejido commissaries in Guerrero (https://bit.ly/3Pgi8mK) in an open letter to President Manuel López Obrador.

The President dismissed the remarks made by the coffee growers. At the inauguration ceremony of the transnational’s new plant in Santa Rita, Veracruz, which began a year and a half late, he said: there are always complaints about milk and coffee, but they have not abandoned Mexico and Mexico will not stop supporting Nestlé.

Ten multinationals dominate food consumption in the world. Nestlé is the largest of them. In 2021 it employed 276,000 people (https://bit.ly/3aHAcY4). In its early days, it was established in Mexico as an importing company in 1930. Five years later, it built its first plant in Ocotlán, Jalisco. Nescafé, the world’s leading coffee brand, ranked third among the top 100 megabrands and topped the hot beverage brand category. It is sold in 190 countries (https://bit.ly/3aP7Zyf).

Although it is well below other nations, the consumption of the aromatic beverage in Mexico has grown significantly during the last few years. It currently ranks 56th, with around 1.6 kilos per person per year, compared to 11.6 kilos in Finland. Sixty percent of the cups drunk are soluble coffee. Nestlé is by far its leading manufacturer. The confinement forced by the pandemic caused the trend in whole coffee bean consumption to slow down. Quality was sacrificed for convenience and speed in the preparation of the beverage.

Soluble coffee is made with lower quality varieties, mainly robusta, and other ingredients, including sugar and artificial flavorings. Its manufacturers do not hesitate to use defective, old, fermented, green, over-ripe or over-dried beans.

Robusta is a poor quality, low-priced variety (now $100 for 100 pounds), a mediocre bean. Three characteristics must be considered to appreciate a good coffee: body, acidity and aroma. Although Robusta beans have body, they lack acidity and a refined aroma.

Its production was almost nonexistent in the XIX century. It increased, above all, in the former French colonies, under the demand for lower prices and the expansion of instant coffee consumption. Roasters took it upon themselves to incorporate it into current blends, in new cheap brands, in order to lower prices at the expense of its quality. It was thus proven that, as an attendee to the National Coffee Convention in 1959 said, there is almost nothing that man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.

The cultivation of robusta has an advantage: its trees take two years from the time they are planted until they are harvested and produce more. In addition, it is planted at lower altitudes. On the other hand, Arabica coffee trees take four years to bear fruit.

Various people claim for themselves the title of inventors of instant coffee. However, a Belgian living in Guatemala, by the name of George Washington, was the first to conceive the idea of refining coffee crystals from the elaborated aromatic coffee. In 1910 he began to commercialize his G. Washington Refined Coffee. The First World War boosted the consumption of soluble coffees. The industry grew after the second global conflagration. However, it was in 1950, as a result of the soaring price of roasted coffee beans, when the demand for coffee powder increased. Although its production requires a large original investment, its elaboration costs less than a normal one.

Mexico is a country where high quality Arabica coffees are grown, many of them shade grown (preserving the environment and wild birds) and organic. It produces 4.5 million bags. Despite crises and adversities, those who plant, care for, harvest and process them are mostly poor farmers, many of them indigenous. It is an absurdity to replace their production with robusta varieties destined to supply the manufacture of soluble beverages.

Jorge Castro, an old peasant leader from southern Sonora, used to tell the governors in office the fable of the woodsman and the bear.

A woodsman working in the forest,” he would say, “is suddenly attacked by a bear. He looks all around him for help. He has no success. He is alone; there is no one to help him. Then he looks up to heaven and cries out:

‘Dear God, if you are not going to help me, at least don’t take the bear’s side.'”

A little more than 40 years ago, small coffee growers, organized in self-managed cooperatives, embarked on the adventure of building a fair market, commercializing beans grown without blood and without toxins, appreciated by consumers all over the world. With all due respect, like the woodsman in the story, if God is not going to support these farmers, one would hope that, at least, he would not be on the side of the bear.

This article was published in La Jornada on July 19th, 2022. https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2022/07/19/politica/cafe-el-lenador-y-el-oso/ English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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