Seeing it Firsthand: Board Visits Oaxaca, Pt. 2

Coffee Kids Board Member, Bill Mares. recently traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to visit one of Coffee Kids’ partners and learn more about our efforts. He shares a bit of his visit below. Coffee Kids Board President Guy Burdett, who traveled on the trip, also contributed a blog entry here.

imageTwo weeks ago, several Coffee Kids board members tagged along with staff to watch how one of our partner organizations works with indigenous farmers in a remote region of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

CAMPO, the acronym of the 20-year old group, began as a quasi-political entity to help indigenous people fight social and economic oppression at the local and national levels. Ten years ago they switched their focus to technical assistance, environmental protection and women’s empowerment in some 60 rural communities across the entire state.

In a poor land, CAMPO works with some of the poorest. Illiteracy is over 40 percent. The average wage is less than $4 per day.

In Santo Tomas Texas, a community of 100 families, we saw a microcosm of the challenges that CAMPO and the people face. First of all, it’s remote, six hours from the capital of Oaxaca down white-knuckle mountain roads with enough hairpin turns to run a beauty shop. Political scientists and sociologists would quail at the overlapping governmental jurisdiction, ambiguous land tenure rights, and complex social customs.

imageUndaunted, the CAMPO staff has helped develop a range of activities to supplement coffee income. There were greenhouses to extend the growing season, composting with red worms, chicken-raising, and smallscale fish-farming. Some farmers were even producing rare and valuable honey from stingless bees.

To me, the most fascinating experience was to observe the community discussions between CAMPO staff and people in the villages. CAMPO staff know they walk a fine line between inviting questions and giving advice, between nurturing leaders and anointing them. As we all do, they struggled to find the right words to use in “constructive criticism.” Just as important, they had to know when to be silent, and listen.

Gradually, people spoke up. First, it was objective matters, like repairing green houses, or building a community center. Then they moved on to some of their fears. The coffee crop was way down this year, said one man. “Some people have migrated to the city. A couple of farmers came close to suicide.” image

They knew they needed alternatives but, as one said, “We are slaves to coffee. It’s what we know. We want to improve the quality of our coffee to get a better price.

One of supplements to coffee income is honey production. A group of women had formed their own group of beekeepers. One woman said, “The bees sting me. So what! I can earn good money selling the honey!”

One young man about 25 just back from the States where he worked for six years. After thanking CAMPO, he said, “I came back to live and help in this village. “The United States is a beautiful place, but you suffer a lot there. I’m glad to be home.”

Check out pictures from the trip on Flickr.

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