Bean Is Believing
Milstein, Brandt, The Humanist
Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, is not an easy place to do business. Historically a poor and volatile region, the last five years have been particularly hard on its rural Mayan populace. Since 1994, an armed indigenous peoples rebellion--the Zapatista rebellion--has caused the Mexican government to commit, over time, nearly half of its forces--around 70,000 troops--to the state. On top of this, multiple paramilitary groups operate, and violence and brutality are routine. In the middle of this chaos is American Kerry Appel and his Human Bean Company.
After almost thirty years of traveling throughout Mexico and Central America, Appel found himself in Chiapas just as the Zapatista uprising was getting underway. He took it upon himself to investigate the causes of the violence. The rebellion began on January 1, 1994, the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. This was not a coincidence; one of the Zapatistas' main concerns is the loss, under NAFTA, of indigenous peoples' right to communally and ejido held land. According to the first declaration of war on the Mexican government by the Zapatista army, those in power
don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace and justice for ourselves and our children.
Appel had found something to believe in.
Returning to the United States, Appel committed himself to supporting the Zapatista cause. Unconvinced that aiding the violence by running guns to the rebels was the way to go, he was convinced that "to be in solidarity one should act upon the needs expressed by those struggling." One of those needs concerned new markets for Chiapas' main cash crop: coffee. Ordinarily, the Zapatista communities' only access to the international coffee market is through intermediaries who pay excruciatingly low prices. "The coyotes come to indigenous communities that have no infrastructure, no markets," says Appel. "They bring their own scale, tell them what their product weighs and what they're going to pay. It is usually far below the cost of producing the coffee." If Appel could import the beans to the United States directly, paying a just or fair-trade price many times that of the intermediaries, he would be supporting the struggle while helping the poor of Chiapas help themselves.
Is Appel sticking his nose where it ought not be? Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo had this to say of foreigners involved in Chiapas:
The Mexican people and the federal government cannot allow foreign people [to be] directly involved in the conflict of Chiapas . …