The history of coffee in Mexico

The origin of coffee in Mexico

Coffee arrived in Mexico only in the late 18th century, when the Spanish brought the plant from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Its commercial cultivation began decades later when German and Italian immigrants moved from Guatemala and other Central American nations. By the 1990s, when the first coffee plantations began to appear in the southeastern state of Vera Cruz, Spanish colonialism was already deeply entrenched in the region. The Aztec empire had long been conquered and decimated by disease nearly two and a half centuries earlier. Mexico's extensive mineral deposits meant that for many years coffee and agriculture were settled on exporting minerals such as gold and silver (and later oil, now the largest contributor to the Mexican economy). Unlike the Caribbean islands or what would later become the "Banana Republics" of Central America, Spanish officials were slow to explore and distribute the land. This discouraged investment in coffee cultivation and allowed indigenous farming communities to maintain small plots or communal farms in the remote mountains and isolated landscapes of southern Mexico long after colonialism ended.

Colonialism ended, wars began

Independence from Spain brought some improvements to rural populations in Mexico. But factionalism, civil wars, and international conflicts with Texas, France, and the United States deprived the country of the stability needed to develop or instigate social reform for the next 70 years. During this time, however, coffee plantations began to develop in southern Mexico. Border disputes with Guatemala led to the first large-scale land registration in the 1960s. This allowed a small number of wealthy Europeans to purchase large tracts of previously 'unregistered' land and invest safely in nurseries and long-term cultivation. Local landowners and politicians, having gained a large measure of autonomy, slowly began to push small farmers into the mountains to secure their land.

After the Mexican Revolution.

It was only after the Mexican Revolution that small farmers began to invest seriously in coffee cultivation. Agrarian reforms in the post-revolutionary period provided thousands of small plots of land to indigenous groups and workers. Labor laws, such as the Ley De Obreros of 1914, freed many "serfs" and indentured servants-many employed on coffee plantations-who brought skills and seedlings back to their communities to grow coffee with them. The rise of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in the early 20th century also marked the development of INMECAFE in 1973 - the National Coffee Institute of Mexico. The slightly more populist and development-oriented government saw coffee cultivation as a valuable contribution to the national economy, not only for financing social development in the rural sector, but also generating much-needed foreign capital for investment in cities and industry.


INMECAFE was developed to promote coffee cultivation among smallholder farmers. The organisation provided technical assistance and credit to farmers, guaranteed purchases, arranged transport to market and worked with the ICA to sell coffee on the international market. (The ICA was a collaboration of coffee producing and consuming countries based in London, organised to stabilise volatile coffee markets. Through agreements, quotas and subsidies, they succeeded for nearly two decades.)

The coffee boom

During this period, from 1973-1990, with the support of INMECAFE, coffee production exploded in rural areas, increasing nearly 900% in some areas. However, government support did not extend to services beyond coffee production. Farmers in Chiapas and Oaxaca remained among the most marginalized in the country without municipal support or the most basic government services. It is in these areas that some of the strongest social organizations in Mexico have thrived. Agrarian movements organized to demand further land distribution, labor organizations played a major role in advocating for workers' rights and an end to debt, and indigenous groups began to reassert their claim to the land and resources they had occupied for centuries.

The end of support for farmers

In the 1980s, the Mexican government - largely due to heavy foreign borrowing and a sharp drop in the price of oil - defaulted on its loans and was forced into the initial stages of neoliberal reform. Over the next decade, the Mexican government slowly ended its support for coffee producers and agriculture, with INMECAFE collapsing completely in 1989. This occurred almost simultaneously with the collapse of the ICA (which was caused by a flood of cheap Brazilian coffee dumped on the international market and a rapid decline in the market price). The impact on coffee growers was devastating.

The decline of the coffee market

Coffee, which had previously accounted for $882 million of agricultural exports in 1985, rapidly declined to less than $370 million in 1991. The price of coffee at the farm gate dropped, credit dried up, and farmers had no way of selling their crops. Predatory coffee brokers, or coyotes, quickly filled the void left by INMECAFE, taking advantage of the farmers' isolation and lack of access to information, credit, or transportation. In the following years, there was an increase in migration to the city and immigration to the United States. The fate of small Mexican coffee producers has never been bleaker. Even before INMECAFE's official demise (dwindling government support met the corruption and bureaucracy that plagued it years ago), the need for civil society organizations to replace government support was evident. The role of social organizations in weathering the storm of Mexico's political and economic instability is unparalleled. For centuries, communal land tied families together and provided support and innovation; after land privatization, social organizations based on shared values, economic stakes, and origins replaced them. From the intersection of different labor organizations and agrarian movements, and often with the support of the Catholic Church, the first coffee cooperatives in Mexico emerged. Groups like CEPCO and UCIRI in Oaxaca were essential to the survival of thousands of coffee producers in the early 1990s.

The creation of cooperatives

Cooperatives were created to replace the transportation, processing and marketing arms of INMECAFE, saving farmers from the exploitation of coyotes. They began to share information about organic certification (the price of organic coffee is much more stable than conventional coffee) and declining dependence on capital-intensive inputs such as fertilizer. Cooperatives contacted European "alternative trade organizations" such as Equal Exchange, successfully exporting Fair Trade coffee, providing stable prices and pre-harvest financing for their members.

Broadening the focus of the cooperatives

These co-operatives have survived not only by replacing INMECAFE and becoming powerful players in the organic coffee sector, but also by broadening their focus to include economic diversification, environmental initiatives and the provision and impact of social services such as schools and hospitals. They have come to represent islands of self-determination in a political spectrum that barely recognizes their existence. The model and success of Mexican cooperatives and civic organizations has laid the groundwork for some of the most compelling social movements in the world.