photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
Mexico glossary


(MEXICO 13b)








Tiltepec, Oaxaca


27 April 1999



On Sunday, as it was getting dark, I went to visit SeŮor Mario. I found him chatting with his wife, sitting on a bench just outside his house. La SeŮora was in the doorway of the little wooden house they use as a kitchen. I greeted them both; weíve already known each other for roughly a year and a half and Iíve been to speak with him on other occasions. Don Mario has two daughters living in Tiltepec, they are married to men from Tiltepec and his grandchildren were born here. His son lives in Mexico City where he is a private accountant. Don Mario originally comes from Teococuilco de Marcos Pťrez and is a strong, robust man in spite of his age, although unfortunately time is starting to take its effect on his health, and his sight is bad. His house is made of adobe (mud brick) and is different from most in that it has re-barb (cement columns strengthened with reinforced steel) for reinforcement. In years gone by the village has felt the effect of strong winds; the roofs of the school and of some houses have been blown off.
After greeting Don Mario I explained to him the reason for my visit: to record an interview on his wide experience of coffee production and how it became an important economic activity in the community, where he arrived for the first time approximately 27 years ago. He gladly accepted and invited me into the first of two rooms that make up his house. I sat on a plank they use as a bench and he sat on a sack of corn that was leaning against a wall.

Section 1
Well, Don Mario, I have come to ask you a little about what you know of the history of coffee since it arrived here in this village. How did it arrive, how did the people accept it or did they take a long time accepting it as an economic activity, important for the village.
How many years have you been living here, in Tiltepec?
Well, Iíve been living here for, for 22 years, but I was coming here for four or five years before, to trade. I mean, I worked bringing things from IxtlŠn or Oaxaca, to sell exchange for coffee. Iíve had a coffee plantation since, since the year 73, thereabouts. I began in 1973...but [the crop] was very little, almost nothing, 5 or 6 arrobitas (diminutive of arroba - 12kg). Well we didnít work with coffee very much at all, very little - very little. But shortly after I arrived here, in 77, then it became my life, working with coffee; I began with a lot of enthusiasm. Arriving here I asked the authorities to see where they could give me a little land to grow coffee and they pointed out the plot where I have the farm now. Thanks to God. Well, you see there werenít many people in that area then, there was good land. Yes, and a few years later people began to realise, I explained to them all the time that they should get into coffee; itís good money. Even though [it will be] little by little, in the long run it will help us a lot. And then as coffee here, well...a coffee plant lasts a long time - 70, 80, 100 years, according to what people say. Well, some people from here, who are now old, told me that there was a coffee plantation down there when they were young. Theyíve grown old since then, and there the plantation is, as always. Thatís why I planted it too. Well, I said to them, youíve got to get into it - youíve got to do the work, give yourself to the work, because a day will come when the road arrives here or coffee will have a good price and itíll help us a lot.
So that was my idea since I arrived here, what I wanted; coffee would give me money. So, as I said, thatís why I quickly got a good piece of land and began. And thatís how we began. Already in our first harvest, after three years I think, it produced about 3 arrobas (1=12 kg) a plant - thatís not bad. And thatís how it happened, quickly. The next year it produced 18, the following year about 70 arrobas, from 70 it became 160, 160 arrobas. So it was, little by little, even if, letís say it went down a little andÖbut I couldnít harvest it all myself, maybe half, though sometimes that was too much for me. Yes, weíve had 120-130 arrobas every harvest up to now.
How big was the area you harvested?
Section 2
It was about two hectares, two and a half, thereabouts.

And how many coffee plants?
Well, it would be around 2000 plants, around 2500 plants, about that. I planted them very close together because I didnít know how to grow coffee, about 1.5 metres-2 metres. When the plants started growing there wasnít enough room, they needed more space, so now in places I have 3Ė3.5 metres between them.

Between every plant?
Yes, every plant. The plants produce better like that, I mean the plants grow and the branches double, and thatís how I have them, thatís how I have them. Later on I put in another thousand. I reckon Iíve got about 4 hectares, that big. But I donít pick it now, not now, just a little, but you canít find workers now, they all have their own little plantations now.
Little plantations?
Well, now they have. Weíre not talking about 5 or 10 arrobas (1=12 kg)- no, now itís 30, 40, 50, 60 arrobas, each one. All the young people have plantations now, yes everybody has one now, which is why [Iím short of labour]... because in previous years I could find workers. They came to cut, I gave them money or, if not, a share [of the harvest]; it was customary to make three shares, two for the boss and one for the person who came to cut, three bags. Thatís how it used to be, but now, now itís half [to the cutter].

Now itís half, really! And they still give the cutter his coffee and food. What food? Just tortillas (maize-based flat bread). Thatís the custom now. Now it isní doesnít go in three parts any more, no, itís half now and you still canít get a worker. There are no workers any more, and thatís why. In this harvest they only collected 24Ė25 bags for me. Well, a bag is more than an arroba, but my wife and I, we work at times. Well, we got something, we got over 100 arrobas this year, this harvest. And I donít have much strength for work any more; I mean I canít work. No.
Section 3
Do you manage to collect a good amount?
Well, there it is, in the other room, what I bagged. Because a while ago it was very little, 10 or 15 arrobas. Iíve already sold 30-35 arrobas and I still have 100, which Iím going to sell.

So youíre saying that you were one of those who started coffee growing in Tiltepec?
Well... SeŮor Isauro already had some but he didnít harvest much, thatís why I used to go for a week with him to...the plantation, we finished quickly. Well it was small, half a hectare, about, maybe less than half, a quarter. So between three, four workers, the work was finished in one week. But when I arrived here, as I said, I put in a thousand plants straightaway and another thousand the next year, and like that, well, very quickly, I got ahead of my friend quickly and then I was doing well.

Where did you bring the coffee from?
The plants?
Some men from here went to get me the plants, some SeŮores who know where to look for the seedlings. So I paid them 20 centavos (cents) a seedling and they brought me, well one day it was two-thirds, 500 plants, 500 seedlings. And then I collected a bit from all over the place because there were seedlings all over the bush, the wild turkey (Penelope purpurascens) and squirrels brought them, they sprouted and now there are seedlings. Before, they were everywhere but now you need to go looking for them. But not the people who already know that there are areas where there are some old plantations, where there are a lot of seedlings. And so in the year 77 I got some good land and I bought the seedlings because I didnít know where to get them, it was a lot. But little by little over the next few years people began getting into this, and itís good, very good, because now itís helping them. And as I said, now everyone has his 30Ė40 arrobas.

So, are you pleased?
Well yes. Iím pleased that everyone has become interested, because everyone now has [coffee] because itís good for them. If we didnít have any, what would we live off? And everything can be bought here now, everything that comes from Oaxaca, everything. Coffee is the reason the people have merchandise to sell here and people come here to sell, you can buy everything here. Why? Because thereís coffee!
Now I see how the people with their animals get together. Every Saturday, every Saturday they set off with their animals to sell coffee, and coffee in quantity!

And before were there places to sell it?
Before, no; not really. Thatís why, as I said, when I arrived here I... I used to buy coffee myself. I bought a bit as I had four mules to carry it, 100 kilos each mule; well thatís 400 kilos a week or every 15 days when I came here to buy. Some I bought and some I exchanged for merchandise that I brought. I brought salt, soap, essentials, or something to eat, some fish; like I said, I sold everything.
Section 4
Where did you buy it?
I bought it in Oaxaca.
You came here all the way from Oaxaca?
From Oaxaca. I used to leave the animals in IxtlŠn. When I got to IxtlŠn I made them carry [the load], and then [again] on the way back. So I made up the load here and with the coffee I went to Guelatao. They bought [coffee] then in the INI (National Idigenous Institute), in Guelatao. Thatís where I went. Sometimes I went to Oaxaca to drop off the coffee at the FINACIERA (development bank?); they bought coffee from us there.

Was the FINACIERA a government organisation?
No, I donít know...but that was its name...thatís what people called it, Finaciera. It was where el abastos (Abastos market in Oaxaca city) is, they bought the coffee there but you had to go to the centre [of the city] to get paid. I went there twice. Afterwards I only went to a private trader, I mean SeŮor Don Pedro; some people in La Luz know him. We had to take the coffee to El Portillo, then a truck came to take the coffee and us, and we went to Oaxaca. The SeŮor wasnít there when we arrived either; they called [to say] that he was in Mexico City and that yes, he would buy the coffee when he returned. So, eight days later we were able to do the return journey to Oaxaca again and yes, he bought our coffee but at a lower price. So it was hard to sell the coffee, it took two journeys, but it sold. Other people from here went to Yagila or Talea but with just a little coffee, one or two arrobas (1=12 kg). One just goes to Talea once in a while; itís far. They began buying in Yagila shortly after; thatís were we sold the coffee. I started selling there because then I only had one animal and I couldnít go as far as Oaxaca. I couldnít go after I arrived here. Before, yes, I dedicated my time to the journeys but later on I became busy with the plantation, weeding it at least twice a year because the plants were small and the weeds came up quickly.

On what type of land do you plant coffee?
Well, in this area, mostly in the gullies...on the flat parts; in the gullies it doesnít matter that there are big stones, the coffee really takes on! And the soil is fertile. Coffee grows on the slopes too, for example, here in the yard, although it doesnít grow so much [there], it takes longer to produce. And in hotter areas, below, the gullies are quite flat, and that is where the coffee really grows!

Where itís hotter?
Where itís hotter, hotter, and thereís a lot of manure.

What were the people living off when you arrived here, before people commercialised the coffee? What was the economic activity?
Well, what the people here worked was corn, beans and then panela (unrefined sugar), a few made panela, well that was it. Some people grew chilli but not much, very little. I did this when I arrived. I planted one they call Chile de Onza, which is very hot; it grows very well in Tierra Caliente (literally hot lands), above Rio Cajonos. I grew this for two or three yearsÖharvests I mean. I got one or two bags of chilli and sold to the people who needed it. I went to Yagila to see who wanted a kilo, two kilos, half a kilo. But to say what work there was, well there wasnít much, it included all types of chillies, panela, beans, and corn. So thatís what the people did. It was good that some people had cattle but in those days jaguar caused a lot of damage, they often came here to visit the cattle.
Section 5
Did you have many cattle?
No, I didnít. The people, because I, well... I didnít have cattle. I bought some cows later on but it didnít go well for me because they need a lot of land and you have to go to tie them up daily, give them water three times a day, you get tired of it. And it takes a long time to gain anything from them, not like coffee - in three years it begins producing and the harvest increases every year. And when you only have to weed once a year you get a lot of time off. One can clear land, grow corn, beans and chilli or plant some sugarcane, all this. Thatís the thing about coffee; itís very good because a plant lasts for along time, for many years. Itís just a question of weeding and harvesting and one can dedicate oneself to other work because it gives you a lot of time.

Of all the work you have now, which do you like the most?
Well right now all the hard work...I dedicate myself to coffee. Just coffee. Iím not planting, I have... last year I didnít plant; the year before last, two years ago I planted a hectare but it gave very little, it didnít last two years. I mean the harvest didnít come to much and now I donít work in this. I gave it to one of my sons-in-law. I told him, ďGo and work these fallow fields I have, they are new and will give a lot of harvest. You have children now and there are always things to buy them.Ē And he planted a bit and got some good crops. I went there with him, like a worker. And as the custom is to give a bag of corn to every person that goes to pick, me with my SeŮora, we got two bags. Now we have around 10 arrobas Ė thereís around 12 arrobas in two bags. So I did this for three or four days, and we donít use much, weíre just two now. So thatís how we are now. Iíve bought almost no corn Ė maybe 10 almudes (old measurement equivalent to 4kg) Ė and now weíre at, well, now weíre coming to the end of May. And as I have a donkey, well, I rent it out to the men with farms so they can bring in their corn. They arrive in the afternoon with the donkey and the payment for the donkey, two or three almudes, and with this I get by.

Is it enough for you?
Yes, I get by on this, both of us do. And then the coffee, well, when my sons-in-law go to La Punta taking coffee, they take the donkey. They take the coffee in case thereís anything they need, whether itís for a little bread or soap, whatever they need, so they take it, I almost never go there now. So thatís how it is at the moment, thanks to God. Iím glad the village has got into coffee; itís why everyone has some money now.

Well, thatís good. So, if coffee earns good money for the people here in Tiltepec, do you think people will still need to clear the forests?
Exactly, exactly, thatís one of the points very...yes, it helps us to stop clearing the forest a lot, because, as I said, this...With whatís been happening to me, well I didnít need to clear the forest...I donít even farm my fallow fields, why? Because with coffee I have enough to support myself. Well, I hope the rest do the same because one can get by with the land thatís now overgrown, which our forefathers worked. Itís just that the village is growing, so the new people are forced to open up a little bit of forest to...but now it is just a bit. Thatís what I would like to say, explain, to some of the people from La Luz. They have so much land! And they are still going to that side to clear the forest - such precious places! I donít know what theyíre thinking, because weíve got an idea, well weíve worked over there. Like me when I was in Teococuilco, the land we have over there is worked year after year, since our forefathers [came] - who knows when they first came to farm that land? And thatís how we work; we use animals and we plough twice and then, in May-June we make the furrows and begin to sow, and yes it gives, it gives a harvest. There are just two things you can do to help the corn: one is weeding, first, and then after comes the [job of] ďpiling up the earthĒ, as we call it; you heap the earth on top of the field so itís damp and it grows well. Because I worked like this, thatís why Iíd like to the people from La Luz, because we have an idea of how to work. Thatís how they should work that land you see over there; they shouldnít leave it like that, they shouldnít clear so much forest, because how theyíre doing it now isnít right.
Section 6
Do you think that the people from La Luz would understand itís for their own benefit?
Well probably, yes, probably. Because they are also people who understand and see reason, and they know it because the old people saw it in Atepec! Yes, itís the same; Teococuilco is a little bit that way and Atepec is here, so, well, we do the same work, them and us. Thatís why, I say to my wife, if I were a little stronger, I have some land down there below the road to La Luz - itís flat, I said to her, itís land for ploughing. It would produce two harvests a year, year after year, because itís good land. But the thing is to put a little bit more work into it because it needs ploughing with the animals and like that it will give a good crop. Thereís no need to clear the forest, cut down more trees.

Do they have a lot of land too?
Them from La Luz? Well, everything you can see over there, those fallow fields, itís all fallow fields and now they are abandoning them and opening up more forest and then they are growing a lot of coffee too. I think theyíll understand, if we explain it to them really well andÖbecause itís for their own benefit, thatís how I see it. I hope they see sense, that they change, put themselves to work a little bit more in these fields theyíre abandoning. Well, instead of leaving them they should plough them; weíve been working for how many years! Weíve farmed the land year after year, without fertiliser, and it gives a good harvest. Thatís how it will be here too. Moreover thereís no lack of water.

Is there a lot of water?
Yes it rains here. Over there, no, well, sometimes thereís no rain for a long time, but nevertheless it gives a good harvest. And it often rains here; the plants donít suffer.

Why do you think there just is little water there?
In Teococuilco?

No, here in La Luz.
Ah! Well itís...because it doesnít rain as much, I mean, as before. You can see the mountains are becoming...for example where the fires were last year, well, my God! In one go they became bare. Thatís probably why, thatís why it doesnít rain as much as before, thatís why. As I said, when I arrived here about...about 27 years ago I started coming here and it rained a lot then.
Section 7
Did it rain every day?
Yes, I mean sometimes it could rain for up to 20 days, day and night. We couldnít do anything, one just went out to check on a donkey or animal one had. Ten days, a week, day and night, my God! It really poured. Thatís why one rested a lot, the rain didnít let off. Itís changed a lot. Itís changed a lot; it rains less now. Now is the time of year when a lot of rain falls but no, itís rained just a bit, nothing like before.

How long do the rains last, during the rainy season now?
Well it doesnít rain much now, a night or two and thatís it, just two or three days. Itís not like before, 10, 15, up to 20 days sometimes! Day and night, day and night, it would stop for a bit and then come back. Itís changing now, as I said, I think...When I lived below La Luz there was still forest they hadnít cut down yet, a little later they finished it off, they cleared all these areas. Tiltepec is still the same as when I arrived. Itís almost the same; theyíve begun clearing in a few places, but just a little, a bit. I donít know why theyíve cut so many trees when they have begun coffee plantations there on what they call ďSarmientoís farmĒ. As I said, itís better. I hope they start to think like I do now, that coffee is a good living. And more because I couldnít pick my entire crop, I only collected half the coffee. The rest is still out there. We have coffee ready for picking now, itís waiting to be picked, if one were healthy and strong for work, well, itís money too. Fifty pesos a tree, well itís something, yes, itís waiting to be picked.

Are you in an organisation of coffee collection?
Well, I wanted to be, yes, I joined MICHIZA (an organisation of coffee producers). But as SeŮor Isauro didnít take any notice of them I joined up later. But I saw that, as we say, there is always criticism and jealousy so I said no, itís better that they carry on, and without saying anything to them I stopped taking part, and thatís as far as it went. Thatís why I only go with traders now, a little like that, Iím not with an organisation any more.

But you were part of many, or was it just one?
Yes, I joined MICHIZA for a little while and INI for a bit, because they also came to give or to leave money so that one could work, or could sell coffee to them, I think that... Iím not sure how much it was, the fact is that I, I think that for 20 hectares they gave me 500 pesos (Mexican currency). But no, they didnít give it to me, it wasnít true, they didnít return to buy the coffee or so that we could give it to them, not until 94. Then they told us to give them the coffee and then more aid directly for producers would arrive. Well, as I was the agente (elected community head) then, I told the people who were listed that they owed this money, those that had received the 50, 200 pesos, it was no more than that. I got more as I had the production, I mean I had to get the coffee. So it was good to receive money ahead, well I got quite a bit, so thatís how come they gave me 500 [pesos]; those who got it only gave that back. I donít remember well; it was 2,050 pesos between 14 or 15 people.
I went to Guelatao to drop off the money and they took notice of us there and were going to help us more, with some direct help. So I started going to all the meetings they had in Guelatao and they paid attention to us. We agreed they would give us 700 pesos, about 2 hectares for every producer, or pair, because some had half a hectare, one or two hectares, or three or four hectares. But in the meeting it was agreed, they set it at 2 hectares, straight, and thatís what was given. So the first grant was given to me and I brought it here, well it was 700 pesos and I arrived with that for the people who were on the list, who had already recouped/retrieved/received [?] money. Those that hadnít recouped/retrieved/received [?] money, well they didnít want to join. So we had to make another list of new members. In other meetings that I went to it was agreed who was going to join, who were going to be new members. So here in Tiltepec there were 21...22 - 20 men and 2 women - with half a hectare, but as there wasnít much money left, it was now only one hectare for every producer. So then there were another 21 hectares that were given, that were received here, in Tiltepec, from the new members. I also went to bring back the first grant and this was given to the new members and as they said in the meeting 100 pesos from each person was discounted for the savings account, so they took this off.
In the case of the second grant a committee for the savings account had been formed so they went for this money. I didnít have anything to do with it, because now there were people in charge of this: the committee. So it was noted that with this money and the second grant that arrived, which was for those of us who had the two hectares - they gave out 700 to us all. They had some more for the people of the new agreement, and they took off another hundred pesos so then it was 200 pesos [from each person] in the savings account. Also they returned the 2,050 we paid at first; the INI gave it back. Well a cheque arrived and the people from the savings account took this too, so there it is now, I donít know how. Well now I donít get myself into this any more, I moved aside. I donít get help from PROCAMPO (Programa de Apoyos Directos al Campo; government programme of support to ďthe fieldĒ, ie rural areas) any more, nothing. This way the people donít say Iím trying to get lots of money; I donít like people to think badly and criticise me so much. Itís better like this. I thank God that I have a little coffee plantation and it doesnít take up all my time.
Section 8
And you said that women also took part in coffee cultivation?
Yes, there are two women, SeŮora Carmen and SeŮora Aurora. Their husbands had
plantations when they were well and healthy; for example SeŮora Aurora has her husband but heís very disabled now, he canít see and they have their plants, good plants. Thatís why I said to them that it was OK, so that they would get a bit. Because they have their plants and so it was justified and I was agente (elected community head). Thatís how it was for these two ladies, but it wasnít possible for the rest, there wasnít a big enough budget for all the people.

And was the savings account for everyone in the village or just for those with coffee?
Well, it was just for those who grew coffee or who were listed but then we decided that the money should stay in the savings account for the whole village. We canít take out the money but we do have the right to collect the interest Ė because itís generating interest Ė and we agreed that the interest would be at 3 per cent. Well itís been years that the moneyís been there now; I donít know how much there is. I remember it used to be 8000 pesos, and that was then. I donít know how much there is now; thatís how it is, as they say. Well now itís being forgotten. Iíve heard that SeŮor Teůfilo is still in Guelatao because he is the treasurer of the savings account.
Section 9
And did you ever use chemical or other types of fertiliser on the coffee?
No, it isnít customary for the people here to use fertiliser - manure, yes, but none of that, just the pure force of the earth. I remember that once I used one, I donít remember the name right now... It was for killing the weeds but then I realised it was damaging the plants, some became very sad looking. Well, as they became dull like that I donít use that any more, just [use] the machete (big knife); I got some more workers and just [work with] with the machete. Those chemicals damage the plants; itís better with machetes, nothing happens, the plants are green all the time, thereís production.

Is production good these days?
Yes, well, I donít go out to see other places, but they say that all the plants bore heavily this year. Because last year the harvest was small, but this year they were bearing like never before. They say itís because of the heat, the earth heated up and the plants liked it. With the land being humid it didnít dry up in the heat; on the contrary the heat was very good for the plants last year. This harvest was better, as I said, the plants that I have bore a lot; the plants had never produced like this year.

So coffee is a good economic activity for Tiltepec and also for stopping deforestation, right?
Yes, itís a big help. As I said, thatís why I hope that everyone grows more coffee and they wonít need to clear the forest. Plant 2 or 3 almudes, half a hectare - one hectare, something to help the family that grows corn. Thereís no need to open up more [forest] because the coffee helps.

Well, Don Mario. I wonít take up any more of your time, Iím going to see how many go to the meeting and talk to them a bit about the work weíre doing, about what weíre interested in knowing so itís of benefit to the village. After we have studied, brought together and ordered the information, well, weíre collecting all the information so itís beneficial to the village. As you said, itís good, everyone has coffee now, as you said all the families have their little bit of land with coffee and they go to sell it, but I think that some donít have much.
Well, very few, not many donít have much coffee, most work with coffee now. Iíve heard that some donít grow corn any more because they have enough with coffee. They support themselves selling coffee and buying corn, like that. For me coffee is very favourable, profitable, because as I said, it [makes] more money and from that one can buy everything one needs. I donít work with corn, I donít even consider growing corn now, no, just coffee. A plot of land, and with that itís sufficient. I have my fallow fields over there and theyíre becoming overgrown. I have that one by the road below La Luz Ė a flat, lovely place, it needs clearing now. I havenít farmed it for eight or nine years, and another piece that I havenít farmed for 15 or 16 years. And why? Because itís not necessary. Now with coffee, just with the little single farm [I have enough]; I donít have various pieces of land, [just] one single little farm, and [I work] with that and no more.

Thatís very good, well, Don Mario, I must go now, so thank you very much.
Well, weíve talked a bit.

Yes we did. Thank you for your time.