By Doreen Woelfel
Oaxaca is a coffee state, one of few in Mexico, (including Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco and Michoacan), but definitely one of the most beautiful of the coffee lands. Many visitors know to head up to Pluma Hildago for not only a scenic, cooling, drive, but to see this small village perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking a vast amount of the Sierra Madre Sur and the coast of Oaxaca and of course, buy beans. Coffee, not a native plant, is most likely native to Africa/Ethiopia area, but was cultivated in southern Arabia early in coffee drinking history. Coffee was first written about and spread in popularity in the Mediterranean area in the mid 15th century, and the coffee story moves from there, as explorers and conquerors brought coffee home with them and to new lands.
Spain had been drinking coffee for some time by 1795, when the first “hacienda” in Central Veracruz, Mexico was planted by a Spaniard, Juan Antonio de Gomez de Guevara. Most likely plants came from Cuba, but Sr. Gomez de Guevara had already been cultivating in Cordoba, Spain, before he brought his business to Mexico. Coffee plantations first came to the Oaxaca area between 1872 and 1874, through the archdiocese of Oaxaca, (some 9,000 plants, small stuff until the Germans showed up). It is said because the cochineal harvest began to decline the people of Miahuatlan started looking for a new agricultural opportunity and planted coffee. By then coffee was already a firmly entrenched crop by then in Veracruz. Anyone who has been to Veracruz is familiar with the cherished ritual of coffee drinking there: strongly prepared coffee in one pitcher, hot milk in the other, poured together from great heights, into a glass in a blending of creamy richness, a yummy tradition.
As most locals will tell you, the big plantations that found their way to our mountains came with the Germans. Five German plantations were planted in the mountains above Pochutla in the early 1900’s; it is estimated that 400,000 coffee plants were brought in at that time. Why the Pochutla area? Coffee crops have very narrow, specific growing needs, altitude being the most important: 600-800 meters above sea level. Whether to shade grow (as in Oaxaca) or grown in the open (which you will see more so in places like Costa Rica and Columbia), was easily decided here by the prodigious amount of trees/vegetation present in the mountains, and so our coffee is shade grown. Along with altitude, humidity and soil, whose chemistry benefited from less full sun exposure, made it an ideal growing area. Shade grown coffee is considered environmentally sound production, as it leaves forested areas relatively undisturbed, and surprisingly adds considerably to the biodiversity of an area it is grown. Bird watchers know to head to coffee country for an opportunity to increase their bird count lists, especially in Oaxaca.
With the onset of WWII, the German plantations, over sixty by this time throughout Mexico, were taken under the control of the Mexican government. Although returned to the Germans after the war, many of the plantations by then had gone bankrupt, and the market had declined considerably. But most of the coffee by then was being grown on small-scale farms. The Mexican Revolution caused this change, as land was redistributed. Coffee production was taken over by Indian populations. Women also took the lead in coffee production in Oaxaca and Chiapas, especially because of the movement of migrant male workers going north to the states.
Mexico is one of the largest producers of organic coffee. It generates up to 500,000 jobs, and in rural areas like Oaxaca
and Chiapas, up to 52% of the rural economy is invested in coffee production. Funny enough for all the coffee grown here, Mexico is considered to have one of the lowest rates of domestic consumption. Maybe 15% of the annual crop remains in Mexico for local consumption. What might be considered horrific among those of us who worship the stuff, Mexico is the fastest rising user of instant coffee in the world and amounts (hard to believe) to about 70% of the coffee consumed in Mexico (I gagged). We can thank Nestle for this, they are the largest buyer and toaster of Mexican coffee in general. It sells 84% of its instant coffee to Mexico. For all that, coffee production is overseen by a myriad of agencies, including the Consejo Estatal Del Cafe En Oaxaca, coffee consortia, planter/grower co-ops, that all support sustainable, shade grown, organic coffee. Many regions have benefited from grants from such foundations as OxFam Holland, MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller and Ford, in support of organic growers.
What accounts for these grants is that coffee is mostly the crop from areas of extreme under-development, very little to no infrastructure and the lowest paid salaries in the country, Indian populated regions…which interestingly influences how the crop is grown/produced. It is a crop of poor people. When you drive up to Pluma take a look at who is growing, and where the coffee is being grown, you’ll see many small areas of just a few coffee plants under the trees near homes/farms of locals.
There are a few plantations or fincas you can visit, the most popular and welcoming include Pacifico, Alemania, Copalita, El Faro, La Gloria, and Camila. On the way to Pluma Hidalgo, you can also stay at a plantation, Finca Don Gabriel, where on a hot day down in Huatulco, can call you up to coffee country for a break. There are about 5 rooms and a few hostel-style rooms that are slightly more rustic, an on-site restaurant, and it is lovely just to stop and take a cool break and eat some exceedingly delicious local cuisine, and spend the night in the trees. The staff leaves early, leaving you up in the clouds, looking over the coast of Oaxaca, breathing cool, refreshing air, in a quiet that is rarely experienced. I’d like to refer you to two articles that I blatantly (or I should say shamelessly) used for part of my resources: Case Study… based in Chiapas, and Dealing with Risk, cited below. But, a drive up to the coffee country is well worth the experience, take the time to see this uniquely beautiful part of Oaxaca.
(Dealing with Risk: Small-scale coffee production systems in Mexico, Alba Gonzalez Jacome, and Case study of the Coffee Sector in Mexico, Victor Perez-Grovas, Edith Cervantes, John Burstein; can be found on the internet.)