About the Mam People

About Mam People

A short history of the Mam peoples, as understood by Dahinda Meda (Café Mam founder).

The Mam people are one subgroup of the Maya Nation, occupying the western (Sierra Madre) mountain regions in southwestern Chiapas and northwestern Guatemala. The Maya Nation had highly developed science, agriculture and art when it was at its “peak” more than 1200 years ago. The Mam are unique among the Maya groups due to their history of slavery and oppression. Long before the Spanish invaded Mexico, the Mam were agricultural vassals of the Aztecs and even the pre-Aztecs. From about 1200 A.D. the Mam were a major source of cacao (chocolate) for the Highlanders of Central Mexico. Cacao beans were so valuable that the Aztecs used them as currency. When the Spanish arrived, and eventually conquered Mexico, they replaced the Aztecs as slave masters and the Mam continued as slaves.

The Mam farmers, along with the Tlascalans, were considered (by the Spanish) the best farmers in all of Mexico. Many of these exceptional farmers were taken to Florida and the Philippines to develop agriculture across the Spanish empire. After the Mexicans won independence from Spain in 1862, wealthy Mexicans and Europeans replaced the Spanish, who used the Mam as workers, entrapped in a corrupt system of debt peonage. Debt peonage is created when workers and their families are obligated by debts from previous generations of corrupt officials and never escape the debt due to low pay, high interest and other fines.

In 1895, the Mexico / Guatemala boarder was established and the Mam people were divided by this new boundary. At this time, Mexico decided it would not recognize the Mam, making it illegal to practice traditional Mam ceremonies, wear traditional Mam clothing or speak the Mam language. This continued after the Mexican revolution (1910 - 1919) against the rich oligarchs. The revolutionary slogan of “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty) did not include the Mam.

It was not until 1939, under President Lazero Cardenas, that the Mam were granted the same rights as other Mexicans. Still, the Mexican government did not establish any real program of assistance. Finally, in the 1980s, visitors from the U.S.A. and Europe traveled the region teaching methods of organic agriculture and formation of cooperatives. ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de Motozintla) was one of two co-ops in Chiapas in 1987. Today there are approximately 38 indigenous organic agricultural co-ops in Chiapas.

In the Mam region they have evolved a new cultural ethic based on love of the land and organic farming. The Mam region of Chiapas has become a center of organic coffee production and the Mam farmers have gained worldwide recognition as the leading experts and developers of in-field techniques. Café Mam has been an influential force behind this success. Our customers deserve a lot of the credit for this cultural revolution and our thanks go out to you. A fuller description of the Mam story can be found in the journal American Anthropologist (vol. 100).

The Roots of Cafe Mam

This story begins in 1982, when a group of farmers in Mexico read a magazine article in the Co-evolution Quarterly about New Growth Forestry, a worker-owned cooperative pioneering in stream restoration work in northern California. They were interested in learning how to teach erosion control in Mexico. This group of farmers invited one of New Growth’s members, Dahinda Meda (Café Mam founder), to visit them in Tlascala, Mexico, and teach classes on erosion control. In 1987, two of Dahinda’s students from that class, Jose and Marta, became advisors on organic techniques to the recently formed coffee cooperative, ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de Motozintla).

In 1989, ISMAM harvested its first certified organic crop of coffee, and because of the connection with Jose and Marta, Dahinda purchased the first 37,500-pound container of coffee from ISMAM (invoice # 0001). Thus, Café Mam was born.

That first container took five months to arrive to the U.S., and took over two years to sell. It was some of the very first organically grown and socially responsible coffee available in the U.S. In 1991, two years into the coffee business, Dahinda asked his nephew Brad and son John to join the business. They agreed, and together, the three formed a family partnership. All three shared a conviction for organic agriculture and sustainability. They agreed to focus their intentions on exclusively organic products and to build a solid, lasting relationship with ISMAM. In addition, they agreed to support nonprofit groups seeking to inspire positive environmental change by giving two percent of sales to pesticide reform.

The word of Café Mam has spread mainly by referrals. Our coffee donations to groups such as NCAP, Eco Farm, Provender Alliance, Beyond Pesticides, Oregon Tilth, Organic Seeds Alliance, and many others have also exposed thousands of people to the taste of Café Mam. Thanks to our loyal fans telling their friends, families, favorite stores and restaurants about us, we have grown in sales every year. As we have grown, the ISMAM farmers have gained more control and respect in their lives, while their cooperative has flourished.

When our company first began buying from the Mam region, the ISMAM cooperative was our single source for green coffee beans. Our commitment was to establish a longterm relationship with them and the Mam peoples. This enabled us to make a larger impact on the lives and wellbeing of the families who were depending on the co-op. ISMAM has a policy of “no re-election” that bans members from serving more than a single two-year term as an officer or committee member. In part due to this clause, many members decided to branch off and form co-ops of their own. As these new co-ops were founded, ISMAM sometimes served as an intermediary to help sell their coffee. Once the new co-ops became established, they were able to begin selling directly to buyers throughout the world.

ISMAM provided a model that other farmers in Chiapas were inspired to follow. By the year 2000, there were more than three-dozen cooperatives in the state and more than four in the Mam district. It is exciting to be a part of a revolutionary approach to cooperative coffee farming, where worker dignity is vital and families stay together farming on their own land without harmful pesticides. We now proudly support several of these newer co-ops, who grow the exceptional coffee we are honored to call Café Mam. This way, we are able to help more farming families across the Mam region.

Journey to the Sierra Madres

For over twenty-five years, Café Mam has had a connection with the state of Chiapas. Today, we have a relationship with four cooperatives in that region, and have recently returned from visiting our friends there who continue to work hard to bring us a quality cup of coffee. They are generous, hospitable, humble and gracious. Over the years, this is always the same. Thank goodness some things never change.

Our first stop was Tapachula, the second largest city in Chiapas. We met with our friends of the ISMAM Cooperative, where Dahinda Meda (Café Mam founder) bought the first container of coffee for import into Eugene in 1989. Our relationship has spanned more than two decades, through thick and thin. We were met by Eimar Velasquez, with whom I have had the pleasure of working for the past nine years as a liaison for Café Mam. Eimar and our incredible chauffeur, Aureliano, were our tour guides.

After a short drive of thirty minutes to the foothills of the Sierra Madre, they showed us the location of the new beneficio, or coffee mill, where the coffee beans are separated from the pergamino (the last skin) and sorted. The new facility is located away from the city and closer to the farmers, making it easier to bring the coffee from the farms to the mill.

One of the main motivations of our tour was to visit some of the more remote farms that lie in the mountains of the Sierra Madre, the high-altitude region where the best Café Mam coffee is grown and harvested. The journey was an eight-hour drive through winding roads, sometimes paved, sometimes only bumpy dirt roads. We followed the border of the Triunfo Reserve, with incredible mountain landscapes covered in a diversity of trees and tropical plants.

Along the way, Aureliano tells us that not only is he a tour guide and chauffeur, he is also one of the truck drivers whose job it is to pick up the sacks of coffee from each farmer and deliver them to the mill. As we go along, he waves to the people he knows and points to where he must go to fetch the coffee, sometimes as far away as fourteen hours on the winding mountain roads to pick up and deliver the precious black gold.

We finally arrived at our destination, a small community called Emeliano Zapata. It’s so small, you won’t even find it on a map! There, we met with about twenty farmers of the ISMAM Cooperative. They gathered to share with us their stories of hard work, struggles, faith and gratitude. Each farmer expressed how grateful they were that we had come to visit, and we were so honored to be there with them.

We met in a small, windowless, adobe room with a dirt floor, and each of us took turns introducing ourselves. Our photographer and scribe snapped photos of each farmer and wrote down their stories. Hurricanes, landslides, or the low market price of coffee are only a few examples of the struggles they face, and we saw how they are so resilient to what life throws their way.

Today, the problem at hand is a fungus called rust (la Roya). Rust isn’t new, but it being found at higher elevations is. The farmers talked about how they will handle this challenge to—with our support.

I am so honored to work with Café Mam, and I am honored to have been able to meet with the farmers in Chiapas who grow and harvest our coffee: To see the work that they do, and hear their stories of struggle and success and know that my work serves them as theirs serves me. In Spanish, it’s called servicio, and it goes both ways.

- Cheryl Stafford