The character of Chiapas coffee: quality organic coffee, which enjoys worldwide prestige


In 2001, the Commission for the Development and Promotion of Chiapas Coffee began the procedures to request from the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property the declaration of protection of the corresponding denomination of origin. The objective was none other than to achieve the recognition, in the different world markets, of the quality of Chiapas coffee, which enjoyed prestige but used to remain within the very broad spectrum of Mexican coffee.

Coffee is harvested once a year. During the period in which it is not harvested, work is done: the land is cleaned, weeds are removed... this is done at least three or four times a year. Shade is also removed, the young shoots that grow year after year on the plants are removed and only those that can replace the old plants are left.

The year was 1846: Mexico was struggling between chronic penury and political instability; to top it off, the country was on the verge of going to war with the United States. A war that, in the end, would prove disastrous for the country, as it led to the loss of the vast northern territories.

While the enemy was preparing to take the border by assault, in the south of the national territory, an Italian named Manchinelli arrived in the Soconusco area, coming from Guatemala. The man-made a quick survey of the land and, based on the experience acquired in the neighboring country, he acquired the La Chácara farm, in the vicinity of Tuxtla Chico. He then planted one thousand five hundred coffee trees and waited for them to produce their fruits.

This is, according to tradition, the way in which coffee cultivation began in Chiapas. It is true that from a date as early as 1818 -before the proclamation of independence from the Mexican Empire, when the Chiapas territory was still part of the General Captaincy of Guatemala-, there were already mentions of coffee cultivation in the region, although it was a minor crop and its uses were confined to the medicinal sphere.

It is also true that the arrival of Manchinelli did not imply a significant transformation in the production of coffee, the consumption of which was becoming popular in the large Mexican cities -Puebla, Guadalajara, Veracruz, and the capital- in a safe, albeit slow, manner. Consequently, the process would be slow and would last, at least, from the decade of the 1880s until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Before thinking of creating large-scale productive units, those interested in acquiring the appropriate land for this purpose would have to solve two major conflicts: one, the low population density of the area, which directly influenced the possibility of establishing more or less intensive crops and, above all, assigning them the number of arms required to be productive. And the other, the border tensions that existed with Guatemala, a country that, during the dictatorship of Rufino Barrios, tried to take control of Soconusco, a territory it claimed as its own.

The coffee boom in Chiapas began in the 1880s. The intervention of Matias Romero was decisive in, on the one hand, clearly delimiting the limits between Mexico and Guatemala -which cost the Mexican diplomat the animosity of Barrios- and, on the other hand, promoting the creation of large coffee plantations, initially in the Soconusco region and, later on, in the northern region of the state.

In the first case, the region was opened to the immigration of individuals from England, the United States, Germany, and Italy. Except for the Americans, the rest -together with a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans- saw the possibilities offered by the combination of altitude, rainfall, and temperature to produce a coffee that could compete with the Brazilian coffee and, above all, a coffee that could be inserted in the markets that the producers of São Paulo left free at the end of the 19th century due to the political conflicts they were going through.

Therefore, they bought as much land as they could, recruited indigenous people in different areas of the state -and even in Guatemala- and established their coffee plantations, although the empty space was of such magnitude that, in fact, among their respective properties there were extensive uninhabited areas - "el monte", as the uncultivated land is usually called-. The farmers from the north of the state, originally from San Cristóbal de Las Casas -and, in general, from the region of Los Altos- did not take long to imitate the model in all its aspects, from the size of the coffee plantations to the importation of labor to work them.

The Germans took control of the production and, to a great extent, of the commercialization of coffee, which benefited the producers as a whole. It has been calculated that, in the last years of the nineteenth century, there were already two million coffee plants in Soconusco alone, distributed among the sixty-six farms owned by foreigners. Coffee production was 230 tons and would increase to 9,300 tons in the course of the following ten years.

The Mexican Institute of Industrial Property issued the declaration of protection to the denomination of origin "Café Chiapas", published in the Official Gazette of the Federation on August 27, 2003.

The introduction of coffee changed the life of the communities surrounding the plantations in a sensitive way. The planters had no qualms about resorting to practices equivalent to the forced recruitment of workers or obliging them to remain in the place even against their will due to debts contracted. The measure remained in force for a long time in the northern part of the state, although in Soconusco it was discarded even before the advent of the various revolutionary movements, to be replaced by wage labor. It was only a matter of time before the people in charge of the different tasks on the farms organized themselves into unions and syndicates and began to be the object of different repressive policies on the part of the state government.

Until the first quarter of the twentieth century, two main varieties of coffee were planted in Chiapas: typica and bourbon. The first is also known as arabica and is the first known variety of coffee, originating in Ethiopia and exploited since time immemorial, the origin of the other types of coffee, which have been obtained through mutations or hybridizations. Bourbon coffee originates from the Reunion Island, located 700 kilometers to the east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. The flavor of arabica coffee added to the productivity of bourbon began to configure the character of Chiapas coffee.

Throughout time, coffee production has fluctuated at the rhythm marked by events. It has known spectacular bonanzas and spectacular falls. It has seen world consumption expand with the opening of routes and markets, and it has also seen it contract as a result of crises and war conflicts, both local and international. It has seen beneficial agrochemicals to increase the number of sacks that, year after year, leave the farms, and also pests such as rust, whose effects have been devastating.

After the dislocations caused by the rupture of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989 -which would lead to a crisis in the sector during the following fifteen years-, the world coffee market has tended to grow year after year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, annual international coffee production is around one hundred and fifty million bags. Between four and four and a half million are produced in Mexico, which places it in fourth or fifth place worldwide, depending on the sources consulted.

Four out of every ten of these sacks of coffee are from Chiapas, which is also the world leader in the production of organic coffee, with eighteen million tons per year. In other words, one out of every five bags of Chiapas coffee is organic, which gives it an enormous competitive advantage in national and foreign markets.

Twelve regions of the state of Chiapas are dedicated to coffee production: Ocozocoautla, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Copainalá, Comitán, Ángel Albino Corzo, Pichucalco, Bochil, Palenque, Ocosingo, Yajalón, Motozintla and Tapachula, which include a total of eighty-two municipalities. More than 90 percent of the bushes are of the arabica type and the rest are of the robusta variety, which are not included in the appellation of origin.

It is estimated that more than 180,000 people are involved, at least a third of whom live in indigenous communities and own areas of less than five hectares. The yield of the plantations - 2.09 tons of coffee per hectare planted - places Chiapas coffee plantations above the average obtained in the main producing countries worldwide -Brazil, 1.08 tons; Vietnam, 1.97 tons-, but below the quantities registered in Veracruz, 2.65 tons, and Puebla, 3.43 tons.

Coffee is currently experiencing a splendid moment. The popular belief that made it responsible for causing harm to the human body has been left behind and, on the contrary, day by day greater benefits are found, such as its capacity to combat aging by providing the organism with an important series of antioxidants.

In Mexico, the coffee culture has grown spectacularly, which translates into an increase in demand in its different modalities. Thus, the sector of sales in self-service stores has grown close to twelve percent annually during the last five years, while the sales of coffee prepared in specialized establishments -the coffee bars, attended by increasingly better trained baristas- has seen an increase in sales of around thirteen percent annually.

For the consumer, having a good coffee at different times of the day is beginning to become elemental. It is less a mechanical act and more the product of a conscious decision. The constant education to which the consumer has been subjected allows him/her to learn about roasts, bodies, and aromas. Therefore, when choosing a coffee choose one that meets your expectations. A coffee protected by a denomination of origin, as is the case of "Café Chiapas", will have all the possibilities of resisting the tests to which it is submitted by a connoisseur endowed with certain knowledge and to come out ahead.

Source: Mexican Institute of Industrial Property