Approaching the small villages of Santa María Yucuhiti municipality by car, a one-lane dirt road dips and curves around a landscape of trees with moss beards. At 5,600 feet, the region is a place ripe for coffee production—one of the principal productive activities of the people who live here. The municipality is home to Mixteca Specialty Coffee (or Café maa va’a nuu Ñuu Savi, in the local Mixtec language), a project supported by Vibrant Village Foundation.
Coffee producers check their cupping scores.
Sunday, February 22nd marked the Second Annual Mixteca Alta Specialty Coffee Competition in the village of Reyes Llano Grande. This village of approximately 300 people is today a hive of activity, with over 100 attendees, three times the attendance last year. Producers, buyers, coffee aficionados and the press arrive from neighboring villages and cities as far as Oaxaca, over 6 hours’ drive, to participate in the event.
The gathering marks a second year of tremendous work for the Specialty Coffee project, which, under the guidance of Director Dr. Karen Rasmussen, is benefitting local coffee producers in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Southern México. The Mixteca Specialty Coffee Project offers training in the cultivation, harvest and processing of specialty coffee to producers from marginalized villages where indigenous families live and work. The goal of the project is to increase the quality and quantity of coffee to increase prices, sales and overall household income for growers and their families.
Coffee buyers tasting local coffee.
While Mexico hosts the Cup of Excellence, an international specialty coffee competition, a regional event such as this one had never been held in Mexico in such remote, indigenous communities before the Specialty Coffee Project arrived.
Clemente Santiago Paz, an agricultural engineer and coffee production consultant explained, “The minimum volume requirements, as well as registration costs for national and state coffee competitions are a real obstacle for small producers, like the ones in this region.” This regional competition has a lower minimum coffee requirement for a coffee producer — 40 kilos in comparison to 172.5 kilos and is held locally, which makes it more feasible for producers to attend.
Coffee growers discuss the results of the competition.
In addition to the increased accessibility for small producers, the Mixteca Alta Competition affords producers and buyers an opportunity for direct exchange. Producers have the chance to promote their coffee with the public, and have conversations with buyers. Carlos, a buyer from Oaxaca commented, “A coffee’s origin is really important in the industry. This project as a whole, and especially this event, has created a stronger and friendlier relationship between buyers and producers, as well as between producers in the region.”
A coffee grower and buyer signing their first sales contract.
That direct contact adds up to higher prices for quality coffee, and relationships that ensure producers have access to a valuable market for the long-term. Knowing the story behind a kilo of coffee helps buyers sell to their clients and promote the Mixteca Alta region as a place where specialty coffee is grown.
According to Abigail González, another local buyer, “Having a direct relationship also allows us to ensure that the higher value we are paying for quality goes directly into the hands of the producer, and not to an intermediary.”
3rd place winner Marciano Filogonio Aparicio Lopez with his certificate and prize money.
The winner this year is Onesimo Elias García Pérez from the community of San Isidrio Paz y Progreso. In a short speech he explained, “Our coffee is ignored by the industry. Thank God for this competition. It inspires us to keep going. And that’s what we need—something to inspire us to continue to improve.”
The second place scorer for Female Coffee, Florencia Heriberta López García, says with a smile, “I am so happy seeing my score. I’m aiming for even higher next year. I will push myself, or die in the attempt!” She is 78 years old.
Coffee growing women placed well at the competition too.
According to Paz, “The event represents an emotional and economic acknowledgement for these producers and the region. I see the great satisfaction of the producers to have this space to recognize their efforts and highlight their coffee. It is a strong motivator for producers to continue improving the quality of their coffee.”
Salvador Domingo Lopez appears through the mist on the back of a motorbike driven by his nephew Lalo. As the bike pulls to a stop he jumps off to greet Karen, Vibrant Village's grant partner and the director of the Mixteca Speciality Coffee project. He has the energy of someone half his age and a smile that spreads across his whole face, his deep wrinkles belying his many years working outside. At 73, Don Salvador still thrives in his life and his work and is busily, yet unassumingly inspiring others.
Don Salvador, was the first to join the Speciality Coffee project when they began working with people from his village, Paz y Progreso in the Mixtec Highlands of Oaxaca. He had been cultivating and growing coffee all his life, making a humble living to provide for his wife and 5 children. His house was built with money made from coffee growing and he ensured that all his children were able to go to school. The Mixtec Highlands have a wet and rainy climate, so much so that the inhabitants of the region are called the People of the Rain. This, and the altitude, makes the Mixtec Highlands the perfect region for growing coffee. However, Don Salvador, by his own admission, never knew the potential of growing Specialty coffee, he simply grew what was available to him.
That was until he eagerly started attending the free workshops offered by the Mixteca Specialty Coffee Project (known as Chu'un café maa va'a nuu Ñuu Savi in the local language) and building on his already vast knowledge of coffee growing. Soon he began to see that he could make quality coffee, to take pride in and ultimately sell with much greater profit.
It wasn’t long before Don Salvador started implementing all his learning from the workshops and achieving high quality coffee. All his hard work, resulted in him winning 1st prize in the first ever Speciality Coffee Award event in the region, organised by the Mixteca Specialty Coffee Project, and judged by experts in the field. He was overcome by emotion when accepting his prize, exclaiming that he felt blessed and fortunate to still be able to learn how to produce Specialty coffee and then adding that learning to produce quality coffee was a chance for the whole region and all the coffee producers to live better lives.
Don Salvador’s humble nature means that he is rather unaware of the inspiration he offers to others. His success was shared on the community radio in his area and he received calls from people in other villages wanting to learn how to produce Specialty coffee; resulting in new coffee growers attending the project’s workshops.
More importantly however, is Lalo, his nephew. Lalo is 21, an age when many young men from the Mixteca leave their communities for larger Mexican cities or to head for the US in search of work because their villages hold nothing for them. This outmigration has affected the region heavily, destroying the fiber of communities, leaving grandparents behind with young children and spouses without their partners for years. Lalo, however, inspired by his great uncle with whom his bond is strong and clear for all to see, now sees the possibility for a future right where he is, making a good income from Specialty coffee.
Lalo and Don Salvador attend the workshops together, always arriving together on the motorbike. While Lalo drives the bike, Don Salvador leads the way towards a brighter future.