“Together we work, walk and dream”, from the plantation to the cup

“Together we work, walk and dream”: that is what “Yomol A’tel” means, a Tzeltal cooperative with which we collaborate through one of our projects in Mexico. This cooperative, formed by indigenous families, produces honey, coffee and soaps in an organic and artisanal way, respecting the environment and people. We chat with its Assistant Director, Cristina M. Ávarez.

What is the philosophy and meaning of Yomol A’tel?

Our work resides in the northern highlands of Chiapas within the Tzeltal indigenous communities. All our processes generate a link with the people, with the community. Yomol A’tel is a set of words that means «together we work, walk and dream». It is a way of understanding the work more from the tseltal worldview, it is about putting the person in the center in relation to capital.

How was the group Yomol A’tel born?

We started working 60 years ago, from the Chiapas region in the Machacón mission, accompanied by the Society of Jesus. It all started from a community with a group of producers who decide to organize and carry out a historical movement to recover the lands of the indigenous communities. Through this movement, this cooperative emerges as an economic-productive alternative that aims to defend the wealth of the territory and the value of the work involved in working the land. In Yomol A’tel we promote the production of honey, coffee, women’s cooperative that produce handmade soaps, micro finance processes and the line of our products which are all organic and artisanal. To give you an idea, when you have a cup of coffee, that coffee has gone through eight intermediaries and the payment to the producers represents 1%. It is an unfair process that generates a lot of oppression and it is in that community that they decided to organize, accompanied by Father Oscar, who is one of the founders and chairman of the board of directors constituting the cooperative of members of approximately 340 members.

What is the difference between a social and solidarity economy company like Yomol A’tel and a traditional commercial company? What does it offer, what alternatives does it propose?

The social economy company places the person at the center in relation to capital. We seek wealth to be distributed among all, we seek fairer lines of work where we can have spaces to make decisions more collectively, we recover work from social and territorial power and not plunder wealth to another environment. We seek to maximize business efficiency, but always putting the person in the center.

What are the lines of work of the Yomol A’tel group?

We handle many lines of work. We have the green bean coffee cooperative, we have our own coffee processor, which is the roasted product, and at the same time we have coffee shops located between universities. Serving coffee practically from the coffee plantation to the cup. We have the part of production, transformation and commercialization of our products, which allows us to pay a fair price to the producer. We have diversified the work with the line of organic honey that is multiflora and takes advantage of the coffee plantations and fruits of the region; and a women’s cooperative called Junpajaro (The harmony of the heart).

How is the participation of the coffee producer of Yomol A’tel?

The producer partner, who works the land and extracts the coffee, understands that his work must be revalued, that coffee is listed on the Mexican New York Stock Exchange and one day it will be very high and another the price hits rock-bottom. What the cooperative proposes is the stability or construction of a price, which has been maintained little by little. In this collection, the coyote (the intermediary) is paying 30% less than the cooperative is paying. But for our producers to understand this, a formative and educational process of knowing the product of their work is important. In the region we have coffee shops that are used as a training process.

How many families benefit from the cooperative work?

Approximately 1,300 families benefit and work only in the coffee cooperative. But there are also families that benefit externally and from other products we produce.

What difficulties do the families face?

In the environment where we are, there are health needs, and a hospital or a health center is 4 or 6 hours away, and access to other foods is also difficult. The political issue in the region generates instability in the territory, resulting in an unstable economy and the migration of many young people.

How does Yomol A’tel manage to correct this harsh reality?

In Yomol A’tel we have created a training center for solidarity economy, which does not involve a school process, but can develop different capacities in the region so that young people can appropriate the work and undertake more innovative productive economic processes that really allow them to stay in their territory. We have Playa del Carmen and Cancun right next to us, which for them is an attraction.

How have you made coffee competitive in this context?

Something we are certain about within the cooperative is doing quality work. You cannot compete for volume, so your line is a premium line that is managed in a high-score coffee wanting to reach the specialty line. Our niche market focuses more on a gourmet sector that seeks to generate more margin for better payment to producers. We try to maintain the line of work so that harmony in the work can be reflected. Although it is a high-risk job, we assume all the risk of the value chain, so if something fails you it affects the whole process that we have undertaken. We take care of the quality of all our processes. There is a multidisciplinary team that does a precise job, very carefully, from the producer who is making the cut in the coffee plantation, not using chemicals, cleaning it, pruning it, making a selective cut from a coffee collection. The coffee plant is worked with much more care, under quality standards. A cup profile is designed and at the end it reaches the coffee shops where we have a barista who makes a top quality espresso.

From the Tzeltal worldview, how do they give back to nature what the land provides and how does this influence the coffee they produce?

We show that we work an organic coffee and that now the issue of stamps in the organic market is like a trend, perhaps a fashion, but for Tzeltal Indians it is more than a fashion. The organic is related to the harmony of Mother Earth. Me producing in an organic way is the way to give Mother Earth back with what she is feeding me: she feeds me and, therefore, I can’t put anything chemical because I would be killing Mother Earth. It is a living being.

How does the work from those who work in the Yomol A’tel group differentiate?

Our philosophy, the way of understanding work, life, is where the difference is made. Our work seeks others to give off to try to be empathic with a reality. Many have thought of us as if we are going to help the indigenous for charity. Instead, we have positioned the work from a quality vision. Our coffee, our honey, the soaps that women make, we offer it as a quality product with a true story behind it. We offer a guarantee that our processes are of quality. If it is for charity you do it once and that would be it. What we want to promote in Yomol A’tel is the social and solidarity economy, for it to be what it  really is: a process in which we all fit, where you stand facing each other from the point of view of collaboration and not of help or of going to rescue.

What is your gender approach? How do you make women participate and have initiatives for their own income?

With the intention of diversifying family income and empowering women, we have created the Xapontic brand, a cooperative where we manufacture handmade soaps run by 37 women in 5 communities. With this we want women to feel represented in their own organizational space, managed by them, where they can make their own decisions. We are beginning to work on gender protocols, from a group line and with the communities, accompanying them more, so that it is a process of empowerment for women, because the rights of indigenous women are not the same as the ones of tseltal women.

How does it benefit women in communities to have their own income?

This work dynamic allows women to make economic decisions, although it does not represent much within the family income, but it is a way for them to decide what to buy with the money they receive. We have created a space where you can talk about day to day, where they interact with each other and find their role in the assemblies. In this way, the young Tzeltals also acquire prominence, leadership and decision making in productive processes of the value chain, which is not only reduced to family care, but instead they can really have participation in spaces where decisions are being made. Although empowerment is a cultural issue, it is also organizational and institutional, and it is now that it is becoming a priority issue.

What do you like the most about your job? What is the most exciting part for you?

What excites me as a young man is that I have a firm commitment to my community, to my family and to my territory, which has allowed me to assume a more directive responsibility in Yomol A’tel. We have a double commitment: to really be here for a matter of capacity, because we can, because I am a woman and we will continue to be a reference to others. I was lucky to be born in a family that grew up with principles and values, which has allowed me to serve others and see the other in equality. Not that I come here to help, but we are really working together on this.

This is what Yomol A’tel promotes: a joint participation where I can see a reflection of my culture through you. This type of productive economic alternatives, which starts from the complexity, has allowed us to develop capacities, accompany the communities and, above all firmly, believe that, although we are in disadvantage, the strength is in staying as a network and having a work in common.

«What excites me as a young man is that I have a firm commitment to my community, to my family and to my territory»