Roasting Revolution

Could Just Coffee, a small Mexican co-op, offer a solution to the immigration problem?

Hugo Cifuentes, a baby-faced 19-year-old from Chiapas, barely sweats as he leans over a coffee roaster in Agua Prieta, just across the border from Douglas.

"It's hot but agreeable," he says cheerfully in Spanish. Hot is right. He's tipping 40 pounds of green coffee beans into a roaster that's been heated up to 466 degrees. But the warmth inside the small roasting room feels good on this late December day. Outside, the sky over the dusty border town is overcast, and there's a chill in the air. Cifuentes is cooking up a batch of beans for Just Coffee, a 4-year-old cooperative of coffee-growing families from Chiapas--the state so far south in Mexico it's practically in Guatemala.

The other Chiapans who work at the business' roasting and bagging operation in Agua Prieta--Hugo's father, Noë, included--are about to pile into a van and drive home to their village of Salvador Urbina for a post-Christmas visit. Somebody's got to stay in Agua Prieta and mind the fire, and that somebody is Hugo.

"I hope to go home around Holy Week," he says, shrugging.

For about 12 minutes, his coffee beans spin slowly--and noisily--around and around inside the tostadora. When they're roasted to a rich brown, the flame dies down, and cool air blows onto the beans to bring down their temperature. His father got burned once, Cifuentes says, so he puts on big oven-proof gloves before reaching in to stir the beans around to make sure they're evenly cooked.

Once they're cool enough, some of the beans will be ground up, and others will be poured whole into the shiny gold Just Coffee bags, depending on what the co-op's American customers have ordered. Each of the bags is labeled with the name of the Salvador Urbina grower who raised that particular batch of beans. Cifuentes laughs when he looks over the names: Manuel Cifuentes. Hernan Cifuentes. Reinaldo Cifuentes.

"Mis tíos," he says. "My uncles."

The name Juan Carlos Perez stands out from the sea of Cifuenteses, but Perez is a cousin.

"Thirty-five families from Chiapas are in the co-op," Cifuentes says. "They're not all my family, but many of them are."

Hugo started working in his family's coffee fields as a 12- or 13-year-old. But with coffee prices tumbling, he came up by bus from Chiapas three years ago and moved in with a sister. Until this job came along, he made blinds in an American-owned maquiladora. The Just Coffee gig "is better," he says. "This is a good job."

Back home, the climate is temperate, and the lush mountains have "lots of trees," he says wistfully. His village of 8,000 is a far cry from Agua Prieta, a drab desert city of 110,000, crowded with migrants and chockablock with makeshift houses. "I prefer to live in Chiapas," he says, "but I like living here."

He bunks with the other workers in an apartment adjoining the business, in the poor hilltop barrio of Pueblo Nuevo, sharing the space with his dad (who came up two years ago), his cousin Daniel Cifuentes and Daniel's wife, Victoria, and their little son, Danielito. The teenager misses his mother, whom he hasn't seen in the three years since he moved north.

Still, roasting coffee in a small business is a lot better than hammering out blinds in a big factory. And he knows that the operation is keeping his extended family and neighbors at home on their own farms, earning a living wage. He's proud of the work they all do.

"We're from Chiapas," he says. "We know coffee."

Right now, Just Coffee is a small-scale operation that has helped pull several dozen families up from desperation, keeping multiple Cifuenteses on their lands and Hugo out of the maquilas. But as an economic model with a potential to be replicated, supporters hope the Mexican-owned cooperative could help ease the intractable twin problems of rural poverty in Mexico and illegal immigration to the United States.

"This is the best response to the issues of migration that I've seen," says the Rev. Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister who has been serving in Douglas and Agua Prieta since 1998 and who helped found the co-op with Daniel Cifuentes, Hugo's uncle. "There are 35 families in Chiapas who don't have a reason to come (across the border). For the United States, it makes sense on an economic and political level."

Not to mention on a moral level, the clergyman adds. By allowing the co-op members to stay home and earn a "just wage," Just Coffee addresses the double tragedies of families split apart by migration to the United States and of migrants dying in the desert trying to get here.

"I was tired of the deaths," says Tommy Bassett. Another co-op founder, he's a free-wheeling American with a gray ponytail who once managed a maquiladora in Agua Prieta. "I've lived here for 20 years. A woman died in the corner of my yard. There's only so much you can do by giving out water and blankets," as many humanitarians do. "That's like cold syrup for cancer. We started Just Coffee to deal with the root problem of migrants into the U.S."

The idea is simple: The workers not only control their means of production; they control every aspect of their business, from farming the raw materials to processing to distributing--and bring all the profits back home to Mexico. They can stay where they are, do the work they know best and earn a living wage.

"These farmers have a vision of controlling their own coffee," Adams says.

The co-op members are small landowners who raise their product--organic, shade-grown coffee--on their own mountain plots in Salvador Urbina. They send the green coffee beans to Agua Prieta, where their own employees roast them, package them and ship them across the border to markets in the United States. All nine of their employees, three in Salvador Urbina and six in Agua Prieta, are Mexicans.

Though they make about 15 percent of their sales around the United States via the Internet, their biggest market is Southern Arizona. Just Coffee is hoping to expand into grocery stores and restaurants, but for now, their customers are primarily in what UA planning professor Laura Huntoon calls the "solidarity market." Some 26 churches in Tucson sell the coffee to their parishioners on Sundays, and the Community Food Bank sells it five days a week in its retail store on South Country Club Road.

By cutting out the middlemen who buy up coffee beans for the big corporations--they're called "coyotes," like the despised smugglers who herd migrants over the borders--the Salvador Urbina farmers have upped their earnings by as much as a factor of 10, says Chuck Barrett, economic development coordinator for the Catholic Relief Services/Mexico Program in Tucson.

"Regular coffee comes through channels dominated by large coffee companies," explains Barrett, a member of the Just Coffee Center, a nonprofit that's trying to duplicate the success of the co-op elsewhere. The large enterprises can force prices down, and most growers have no choice but to sell to coyotes for "40 or 50 or 60 cents a pound."

With Fair Trade coffee, "fairer traders" buy the raw beans from the growers for about $1.25 to $1.50 a pound, he says, a good step up. But Just Coffee is what he calls "Fair Trade Plus." The co-op does the "roasting, packing and selling--where the profit comes from--and ends up netting $5 to $6 a pound, a huge jump over Fair Trade."

It's enough money, Barrett adds, to "enable more people not to migrate" and to encourage other migrants to return home.

Already, the extra money coming into Salvador Urbina has allowed the community to buy a filtration system to purify the local water supply, Barrett says, and supply books for schoolchildren. And the co-op members have health insurance for their families for the first time.

"That's unheard of in Mexico," Barrett says. "Now they can go to doctors if they're sick."

An infusion of outside capital was the magic bullet that helped raise the Just Coffee members a notch up from the desperate poverty of their coffee-growing neighbors. The co-op got its start four years ago with a slender $20,000 loan from Frontera de Cristo, the Presbyterian border ministry.

"We have a micro-credit ministry, and we provided the loan to get the business started," the Rev. Adams says.

Daniel Cifuentes, now the production manager in the Agua Prieta operation, first met Adams at El Lirio de los Valles (Lily of the Valley), the border town's Presbyterian church. Adams had noticed that the church--and the town--were teeming with émigrés from Chiapas.

"Mark was curious about all the people from Chiapas here," Daniel Cifuentes recalls, sitting in the Just Coffee office for a few minutes before hopping into the van that will take him home for his yearly fin del año visit. A strong aroma of coffee permeates the utilitarian room, where cups of coffee are constantly brewing.

Cifuentes himself was one of the displaced workers who'd fled north, so the Mexican gave the minister a primer in Chiapan economics. The agricultural economy in the state had bottomed out in the early '90s. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 had allowed cheap American corn to flood Mexico, undercutting small farmers, at the same time that a worldwide glut of coffee pushed coffee prices down. On top of this double disaster was the peso crisis of 1994-95.

"Many of the people in Agua Prieta had worked in coffee production in Chiapas," Cifuentes says. "But there'd been a drop in coffee prices. People were desperate because of the low prices. Some of them moved to other Mexican states, but mostly to Northern Mexico. Others went to the U.S. como illegales, including my own friends and relatives."

Cifuentes followed suit, leaving Salvador Urbina in the mid-'90s. He worked a series of jobs in Agua Prieta's maquilas, the twin plants that also got the go-ahead from NAFTA. (Of late, many maquilas are closing, too; Mexican labor might be cheap, but the multinationals have discovered that Chinese labor is even cheaper.)

Cifuentes made seatbelts for a while, and when that plant shut down, he switched to a factory producing John Deere and Caterpillar farm equipment; for a year, he worked construction, helping build a hydroelectric plant.

During the years he was bouncing around from job to job, Agua Prieta was the hotspot for migrants trying to cross into the United States. But Cifuentes never joined the throngs spilling over the international line. He heard too many stories about people's "horrible experiences" in the desert, he says, its "dangers and heat," not to mention the hunts by la migra, the Border Patrol.

Instead, he and Adams brainstormed ways to help the displaced coffee workers crowding the border town. The Starbucks phenomenon was going full steam, and caffeine-crazed Americans were demanding more boutique coffees.

"We realized the high prices people pay for coffee in the U.S.," Cifuentes says. "Mark said, 'Why do the growers get so little for coffee when in the U.S. people pay $3 a cup?' The Chiapanecos weren't making a profit; the coyotes were. We thought of organizing a co-op in Chiapas. We came up with the idea of creating Café Justo," he says, using the enterprise's Spanish name.

For business expertise, the pair roped in Bassett, the self-described old hippie who'd known enough to manage a maquila. Their first step was traveling back to Chiapas, to persuade the farmers that they could make a go of managing their own cooperative.

"Some of them had doubts," Cifuentes says. "They didn't believe in the idea, or they were afraid. They knew how to make better beans," but they didn't yet know how to run an operation that would stretch almost 2,000 miles from Chiapas to the United States. But 25 families took the plunge the first year. Ten more followed later.

At first, the new group hand-roasted their beans over open fires. But once they got the $20,000 micro-loan from Frontera de Cristo, they invested in their first small roaster.

Since then, the business has grown nicely, says Adrian Gonzales, the customer relations manager, an Agua Prieta native who's the only non-Chiapan in the Just Coffee bunch.

The first year, the new co-op sold 13,000 pounds of coffee, he says; the second year, 27,000 pounds; the third year, 37,000.

At $8 a bag retail, "That's $300,000 a year in sales right now," he says. "This year, we're expecting to do 55,000 pounds," despite the impact of Hurricane Stan, a wicked storm that slammed into Guatemala and Chiapas in October 2005, flooding fields and triggering landslides.

The co-op now owns two roasters that together can churn out 52 pounds of cooked coffee beans in 15 minutes.

"In 2007, we're hoping for 80,000 pounds." By the five-year anniversary of the business, he predicts total sales will hit $1 million.

During his years on the job, Gonzales has taken to the dark brew himself.

"I'm a coffee drinker now," he says with a salesman's smile. "That's one of the benefits of the job."

It's a bright Sunday morning in January, and at Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, members are pouring into the church hall after the 10 a.m. service. Located on East Adams Street in the upscale neighborhood near the Arizona Inn, the church is one of the 26 congregations in Tucson that sell Just Coffee.

Lynne Albright is ready for the crowd. Urns of fresh joe, regular and decaf--free for the asking--are set up near homemade cakes. On a card table, she's lined up the bags of Just Coffee she's selling, made from Arabica and Robusta beans, and she has her poster set up. Its slogan is catchy, in a progressive-politics kind of way.

"Quality taste for you," it reads. "Quality of life for farmers. Now that's a Fair Trade."

Grace St. Paul has been selling Just Coffee once a month ever since the Rev. Adams came up to speak to the parishioners about "coffee with a conscience." A number of church members, including Albright, have traveled south of the border to see Mexico's problems for themselves.

On a visit to Nogales and Altar, organized by BorderLinks, a nonprofit that runs educational trips, "We interviewed people from Chiapas," Albright says. "They said they made $3 a day. We said, 'If you made $6 a day, would you come up here?' They said 'No.'" That impressed her. "This project (Just Coffee) makes sure growers get a fair wage."

But Albright doesn't have to persuade anybody. Her customers are lining up, and they're eager to buy.

Jeanne Crockford plunks down her $8.

"We love the concept of the coffee," she says. "You feel like you're doing something, and it's good coffee."

Next up is Kim Jones, who wants some pre-ground dark roast.

"We drink a lot of coffee," Jones explains. "I'd rather have more money going to the people who are growing it."

Debbie Noonan, who hopes to enter an Episcopal seminary this fall, has turned up for her bags of beans, too. She serves on the church's Border Issues Working Group. A former BorderLinks staffer, Noonan visited Salvador Urbina during Hurricane Stan, and she has the rain-soaked pictures to prove it.

Despite the deluge, the co-op families welcomed her. She met assorted Cifuenteses, including Hernan, Hugo's uncle, and Ari, Daniel's oldest brother.

"Several of (Hernan's) children left for the U.S. when coffee prices dropped," Noonan says. "A lot of the middle generation left, and the children are being raised by grandparents. But some of them have now come back." Ari Cifuentes was able to quit Agua Prieta and come back home.

Just Coffee may still be a startup, but Noonan, for one, thinks it has huge potential.

"Just Coffee has created employment in Chiapas and along the border," she says. "This is small-scale now, but there's a move to expand it to other communities. They're making contacts with other communities in Chiapas. They're in the process of building relationships."

Just Coffee Center--the new nonprofit run by Daniel Cifuentes, Bassett, Adams, Huntoon and others--is intent on spinning Salvador Urbina's success out into other villages.

"Our mission is to connect small enterprises with a global market," Huntoon says.

Next up is La Aguila, a community not far from Salvador Urbina. Operating under the Just Coffee name, La Aguila hopes to set up a coffee roaster in Tijuana by early February, in order to "market to California," says Barrett, of Catholic Relief Services. With Salvador Urbina having paid off its loan, Frontera de Cristo is springing for a second loan to buy the Tijuana roaster.

Bassett is looking into Veracruz, another impoverished Southern Mexican state, as well as Haiti. But unlike the Chiapan villages, which have easy access to the Pan American Highway, the Haitian community is a two-day walk to the nearest road, Huntoon says. If the Haitians' difficulties made the group realize that the model must be adjusted to fit different circumstances, they threw the Mexican communities' assets into sharper relief.

"They're not working against incredible odds," Huntoon says.

The land, labor and transportation are all in place in Chiapas. The product's already certified as organic in Mexico, and according to Melana MacLeod, store manager for the Community Food Bank, the Just Coffee distributor in Tucson, the brand is "not too many weeks away from organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is huge."

Still, Just Coffee has some hurdles yet to leap. For now, the marketing is mostly free, courtesy of churches wanting to do good works. The Catholic Church is about to launch a campaign that would be the envy of any small business.

"Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have worked out an agreement to promote Just Coffee nationwide in Catholic parishes," Barrett says, adding that the effort will devote particular attention to California to help out the new Tijuana enterprise.

But they're "trying to make the jump from the justice groups to regular retail," MacLeod notes. The coffee was featured in October at the Tucson Culinary Festival, which showcased Tucson Originals restaurants. And Barrett's working with a couple of grad students in the UA's Eller College of Business to develop a marketing scheme that would get the coffee into the lucrative sector of groceries and restaurants.

That's Adrian Gonzales' goal too. The Agua Prieta sales manager boasts that Salvador Urbina can produce 160,000 pounds a year, so the trick will be in persuading a supermarket chain to go with a still-young business.

"We're growing so much faster than expected. As soon as we can sign a deal with a supermarket ... ," he says, his voice trailing off. "I see a lot of future for this model."

Gonzales' own story could be Exhibit A. He had migrated illegally to Phoenix, where he worked at a golf course and perfected his now-excellent English. But his father called him back home to Agua Prieta to join a new family printing business. His father's first and best customer? Just Coffee, which contracted with the new enterprise to print up its shiny coffee bags.

Adrian's tale illustrates the beauty of micro-credit, Huntoon says. The original $20,000 loan not only got the co-op up and going; it has begun to spread the modest wealth to other Mexican entrepreneurs--and lured at least one stray Mexican home.

"From an international planning standpoint, entrepreneurship and micro-credit are the hot issues of today," Huntoon says, so much so that the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize went to a Bangladeshi bank and banker for giving small business

loans to the poor. The Nobel committee praised Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus

for helping the recipients "break out of poverty" and proving that "that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development."

Just Coffee's supporters believe it's an example that bears repeating. The small amount of money the Presbyterians lent Just Coffee pales in comparison to the millions--and even billions--the United States is spending on border enforcement. A lowball estimate of the projected extension of the border fence is $2.2 billion.

The irony is not lost on Barrett, a self-described "old Southern radical who came out of the civil rights movement."

"It's unbelievable," he sputters. "If we spent even 10 percent of what we spend on enforcement on people instead, if the U.S. spent more money on this kind of thing, it would have a bigger impact on migration. The ultimate solution to the problems of the border is economic development in Mexico."

The workers in the hot roastery down in Agua Prieta agree.

"This is a good job, for us, and the cooperative," says Daniel Cifuentes, just before he boards the van, headed for home. Chiapans working on the border can travel to see their families without having to cross the fortified international line, he notes. Plus, "The co-op gets a just price for the coffee."

Young Hugo Cifuentes, readying another batch of beans, smiles.

"I never wanted to go to the U.S.," he says. With this job, he doesn't have to.

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