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Mexico’s Puebla: Colonial Charm & Exciting Coffees
Part I

By Maja Wallengren

Thanks to a series of government programs, the Puebla coffee producers have started their way out of crisis towards a more sustainable future, concentrating efforts on reforestation and quality improvement programs. From the remote northern mountains in the Xicotepec region, this two part article will take you on a journey to meet some of Puebla’s least known yet most dedicated and hardworking coffee producers. Maja Wallengren reports.

The capital of central Mexico’s Puebla state is worldwide famous as the “City of Tiles.” Its hundreds of houses and churches are decorated with colorful hand painted tiles and its more than 1,000 colonial buildings are among Latin America’s best preserved colonial legacy. Small colonial towns are found across the state, each one of them telling intriguing and fascinating parts of modern-day Mexican history, with indigenous groups lead by the Nahuatl Indians proudly dominating the landscape.

But despite a long list of famous tourism spots, an exotic and spicy cuisine and archeological sites boosting the largest pyramid in the world, few people know that Puebla is also Mexico’s third largest coffee producing state. It’s home to about 18% of total national output, with an average harvest of annual production of up to 800,000 (60-kg) bags, or almost the size of the entire crop in Nicaragua or Tanzania.

“I think Puebla has done a very good job in choosing the right places to grow coffee,” said Roberto Giesemann, executive president of the Mexican Coffee Council. “The local producers are very active and have been coming with us to international fairs to learn, and I think there is definitely potential for a couple of good nice areas.”

The first coffee farms in Puebla were started by German migrants at the beginning of the century, but the development of coffee on a commercial basis is relatively new. It did not arrive until about 50 years ago, when the highway between Mexico City and Poza Rica in neighboring Veracruz was completed, according to Rafael Corona Borbonio at the Coffee Council’s local Puebla office.

“Practically all of the first to start cultivation of coffee here were foreigners, who came in mostly from Veracuz where coffee was already established on a large scale, and some also came from Chiapas. The indigenous groups started growing coffee at a much later stage but today are spread out over the entire state and include the Nahuatl Indians, which are the biggest group, followed by the Totanacos and Olmecas,” said Borbonio.

Finca Progreso, in the Zihuateutla municipality of the Xicotepec de Juarez region, was among these farms and is today owned and run by third generation remnants of the early migrants to Mexico.

“My grandfather, Guillermo Hinzpeter, was the one who first came to Mexico. My father, Carlos Hinzpeter Castellano, was one of the pioneers when they first opened up this region to coffee. Back then it was all forest, there was nothing, and then between 1949-50 the authorities invited 11 people to come and invest and buy the land in the zone,” tells Enrique Hinzpeter, now owner at Finca Progreso.

Today, he has 75 hectares left of the original farm of 150 hectares and grows about 80%, the variety caturra at a density of about 2,500 trees per hectare, with the balance made up of bourbon, catuai and mundo novo.

At an altitude of 700 to 800 meters, Hinzpeter has had his share of damage from frost, which northern Puebla’s coffee belt is particularly prone to, and only 20-30% of the farm has been renovated since the last major frost 15 years ago.

“In the big winter of 1989 we had the snow in addition to four major continuous frosts. Everything in the entire region was covered by snow, and that was at the same time that the international coffee agreement fell apart. It was a disaster, because all the cherries were green and still on the trees when the big frost hit. Between 80-90% of the farm was destroyed. It was a very tough economic blow to the entire region,” he said.

But this year the crop is looking good, in part thanks to the different credit and quality improvement programs the Mexican government initiated in 2001 in the wake of the coffee crisis, which has allowed for basic crop husbandry and renovation.

“We have just had the fourth flowering of the year and the crop really does look good. As for the next crop, things do look better,” said Hinzpeter.

In addition to the main government program -- a credit-based stabilization fund which allows for producers to receive up to $20 dollars per 100-pound bag (quintals) for up to a maximum of 400 quintals -- the government last year launched a “quality improvement” initiative.

In the quality improvement program, producers living within areas identified as having the potential to grow high quality coffee can receive up to 900 pesos, about $80 per hectare, in order to ensure that basic crop maintenance is undertaken in addition to applying some fertilizer.

Producers not living within the high-quality producing areas, primarily identified as areas at altitudes below 600 meters, are instead offered financial assistance toward diversification projects, which in the long term will lower their dependency on coffee.

“Thanks to these programs we are eating three meals a day and the children are going to school,” said Hinzpeter, who has seen production at Progreso drop from a 1995-96 record of 942 metric tons of parchment coffee to an all-time low of just 250 tons in the past two years when the crisis hit the hardest.

Maria Antonia Lomen (with author Maja Wallengren) of the Tosepan cooperative at her organic lot in Cuetzalan.
Coffee Reforestation Program Now Underway
“These last couple of years we haven’t been doing any renovation, we haven’t applied any fertilizer, we haven’t been able to do much at all. With the prices where they were and cost of production at between 70 and 80 cents per pound, we were forced to abandon a lot of work but now it’s looking somewhat better,” said Hinzpeter.

“It used to be that our average was about 40 quintals per hectare. In the last couple of years we have been at between 10 and 15 at the most. We were just barely meeting the costs of production in 2002-03. But now we are seeing some level of recovery and we expect to reach between 350 to 400 tons in the 2004-05 harvest,” he said.

Walking the farm on a sunny June day in the humid afternoon heat, another program is seen starting to take shape on Finca Progreso, as lush tropical trees including pink and red cedars and native caova are spreading their dominance in-between the coffee, reminding the random visitor more of being in a dense rainforest than on a coffee farm.

“Look at these pink cedars, they have only just passed two years. Four years ago when we started looking at diversification, forestry was really one of the few alternatives that we could see working here,” said Hinzpeter.

Under the coordination by Mexico’s Environment Ministry, an ambitious reforestation program was initiated in 1999, in which the government contributes about 80% of the financial cost of the investment to producers willing to make their land available for the project.

Commercial forestry has for some time now been identified as the perhaps most ideal crop diversification in many of Mexico’s coffee producing areas, as tropical forestry using native trees goes hand in hand with traditional living patterns for the large indigenous coffee producing communities.

Global demand for hard wood is expected by industry analysts to continue to rise, hence causing an increasing threat to the last existing pristine rainforest reserves. Commercial forestry is seen not only as providing impoverished producers with an attractive additional income source, but at the same time provides a buffer zone between the existing forest and urban areas, thereby helping to minimize the threat of illegal logging.

“It’s part of a government reforestation program which primarily is under the environment ministry, under which you have to plant a minimum of 625 tropical indigenous trees per hectare. Ten months down the road the ministry will verify and evaluate that there is the right number of trees, in which case they pay you 2500 pesos ($220) per hectare, and from the next year through the seventh year you receive 700 pesos per hectare ($62) a year,” explains Hinzpeter.

“That there will be less production yields is obvious with the excess shade, but we are expecting the quality of the coffee to improve, as the cherry will develop and grow slower and with more density so that the aromas are more conserved. So yes, you will have less production as a producer, but of a higher quality,” he said.

With the project still in the initial phase of implementation, given the 8-10 year time frame before any trees under a strictly controlled government exploitation program will be allowed, already 120 local producers in the Xicotepec coffee area have enrolled in the reforestation project with a total of 1,700 hectares registered as of late 2003.

“It’s really still very new, and many people who have enrolled in the program have yet to actually start the planting. Once we start commercial use, the government forces you to leave at least 15% of the native species like the pink cedar and caova,” said Borbonio.

“A natural forest is very different because it’s all done and there already, and you don’t have to administrate it, but this is hard work. In Mexico you have to get a permit before you can even plant trees and then another permit to start exploitation of the trees in order to control the entire process and avoid illegal logging,” said Borbonio.

Nahuatl Indian workers on the way home from a day in the field at Finca Progreso.
Labor Shortage Concern as Migration Continues
At the neighboring Finca Puebla, one of Mexico’s largest coffee farms with 1,469 hectares of cultivated area, production and maintenance has continued largely un-interrupted despite the crisis, in part due to government programs and in part to efficient management and a high social profile.

“Each year we try to renovate about 20% of the farm area in order to maintain a young tree population. We have an annual production of about 35,000 quintals green coffee and we have been able to maintain this average even in the last couple of years. What really helps us is the pruning we do. We have also continued to invest in our coffee despite the low prices,” said Jose Luis Perez Campos, administrative manager.

Growing mostly the Catimor variety, a cost efficient, high yielding and disease resistant Arabica hybrid, and then exporting all the farm’s coffee directly to Switzerland has helped Finca Puebla survive within the parameters of economic viability.

Despite growing all the coffee at only 550 meters altitude, Finca Puebla manages to maintain a high average quality.

“When we talk about the future of Finca Puebla, the objective is definitively to improve quality. If we don’t have a quality product we are never going to be able to compete, especially since we are below 600m meters. We really have to ensure that all parts of the processing is followed rigidly for a prime washed coffee and 80% of our coffee obtains European Preparation grading,” said Perez Campos.

But as elsewhere in Mexico for the last three years, manual labor for the medium to larger sized farms is becoming an increasingly permanent problem. Whole villages have been left abandoned by the work-age men, who, amid the growing social suffering and rising unemployment that the coffee crisis has brought, have opted to try their luck as illegal immigrants in the U.S.

“Everyday it’s becoming a bigger problem to find manual labor. They have all left and there is not a lot of labor available. The migration we have seen this last year is tremendous,” said Perez Campos.

The recently completed coffee census for Mexico found that Puebla has 45,574 producers with a total of 82,274 hectares of cultivated area.

According to Jose Luis Romero, the Mexican Coffee Council’s chief local representative in Puebla, about 15,000 hectares, or 18% of the state’s total coffee area, have been abandoned during the last three years due to low international prices.

Mexico’s 2003-04 coffee harvest in Puebla ended with about 406,333 (60 kg) bags, down 30% from total production of 582,667 bags in the previous 2002-03 harvest in central Puebla, said Romero.

The decline was attributed to the lack of fertilizer and crop maintenance applied to the coffee farms in Puebla, which traditionally used to produce about 800,000 bags in an average crop cycle. This mirrors the effects of the crisis seen on a national level, where mass migration from the rural areas is taking an increasing toll on production.

“The Xicotepec municipality has 35 communities of which 30 produce coffee. Each of them has at least 50 known people who have migrated to the U.S., so from Xicotepec alone at least 1,500 people of a population of 20,000 people have gone -- or 7.5% of the local population,” said Rafael Corona Borbonio.

“While there are about 8,000 permanent coffee jobs here, during the harvest season there is an additional 30,000 jobs. Since the crisis, unemployment has been running at 60%, and up to 80% at its height,” said Hinzpeter, adding: “Look around you, here just in the neighboring areas are farms which since three years ago haven’t been worked on at all, weeds are growing at two to three meters tall and the harvest wasn’t even picked.”

At Finca Puebla, a staff of 60 people are working permanent jobs in administration in addition to 200 people on a daily basis in the field, but during the busy harvest season from October through February the total reaches 2,000 people on a daily basis.

Being a farm with high average yields also enables pickers to harvest much more in a day that on most farms. Pickers at Finca Puebla earn between $5-12 a day, depending on volume, compared to between $2-3 dollars on other farms.

“What is really important is the social treatment. We offer our workers good food, access to medical treatment, nice sleeping quarters; in short we offer the people a decent social treatment,” said Campos.

“The farm is well maintained, it’s clean, the plants are young and even the most lazy pickers can pick 70 kilograms a day, while the most efficient and hard working can pick 200 kilos a day. So despite that we only can afford to pay $0.70 peso a kilo (against the going rate of $1), the workers will be able to pick at least 60-70 kilos at our farm, while elsewhere they will be able to pick only 30 kilos a day,” he said.

Although Perez Campos worries that finding manual labor will be an increasingly difficult challenge for the local industry, he believes that offering good social standards goes a long way toward avoiding a labor crisis.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in next month’s issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.

Tea & Coffee - August/September, 2004
Theta Ridge Coffee


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