Re-dignifying work: The Tseltal people

By José Andrés Fuentes and Alberto Irezabal

It’s early morning when a small coffee producer wakes up. He has a quick breakfast and leaves his home for the coffee plantation. After a one-hour hike through mountainous terrain, he spends several hours harvesting coffee and then he returns home carrying a 70kg bag on his shoulders. The value of that bag, which represents the value of his work, is unknown to him due to the volatility of market prices; but usually it won’t be enough to cover his family’s subsistence. After going through more than eight intermediaries in several countries, this coffee will reach someone’s hand in the form of a $4 latte, while the producer will receive less than 2% of this value.

Never in human history have we produced so much wealth, yet without creating a just and humane distribution system for it. The majority of the population is excluded; only a few are able to enjoy the comfortable life this economy has produced. Such economic exclusion and increasing inequality affects especially people living on the margins (peasant farmers, migrants, indigenous people, etc.), where not even a hard day’s work is enough to live on.

A Tseltal farmer in Chiapas on his way to work (Photo: E. Carrasco).

A Tseltal farmer in Chiapas on his way to work.
(Photo: E. Carrasco)

 

In the rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, we can witness this unfair economic system first hand. This region is characterized by its isolated rural indigenous population living precariously and lacking the kind of group organization that can bring added value to coffee, the economic engine of the region. The glaring lack of equipment, infrastructure and capacity oblige small coffee producers to sell their product at very low prices to local intermediaries known as “coyotes.” Due to the volatility of the stock market, the pressures of climate change and the lack of government services, indigenous families struggle with extreme economic uncertainty and adversity. Ultimately their work, their source of income, becomes the first link in a chain of oppression.

And yet, it is here, on the margins of society where we encounter hope. It is in this context that people develop their vocation or life project, namely, working to achieve a livelihood with dignity. As Pope Francis put it so well in his recent encyclical:

Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. (Laudato Si’, 127)

Yomol A’tel, which means “working together, walking together, dreaming together” in Tseltal (see www.yomolatel.org) is a cooperative or social business working in the rainforest region of Chiapas. Its work is focused on the creation of sustainable economic alternatives and the promotion of social inclusion. Fostered by the Jesuit Mission of Bachajon, it brings together 350 families from 64 indigenous communities and 70 workers and collaborators in several cooperatives and social businesses. By conducting its activities based on the indigenous Tseltal worldview, which is rooted in solidarity and communal living, its objective is to maximize the social benefits generated by economic activity, rather than the accumulation of capital. After several years of work, these families have managed to sell their coffee directly to the final consumer through Capeltic coffee shops, founded in collaboration with Jesuit universities in Mexico (www.capeltic.org), thus completing their own value chain and defining their own income.

These advances for the Tseltal people of Chiapas would not have been possible without linkages to different social stakeholders such as universities, foundations, corporations, networks, and social movements. It was in this spirit that Comparte was born (see www.desarrollo-alternativo.org), a network of several Jesuit social centres in Latin America that works for economic alternatives and that seeks to dignify the work of people on the margins through capacity building, joint commercialization of products and a better analysis of their territories.

There are many alternative organizations that struggle to find new ways to re-dignify work both in rural and urban contexts. They are working together to build livelihoods, achieve social justice and defend their land. And it is to this end that the Jesuit initiative Comparte is working.

This article by José Andrés Fuentes and Alberto Irezabal originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Re-dignifying Work: The experience of the Tseltal people of Chiapas, Mexico.” José Andrés Fuentes and Alberto Irezabal have worked alongside indigenous communities for over seven years; José is executive director of Yomol A’tel and Alberto works with social business projects.

P51.1-pg1-Coffee beans

Tseltal women in Chiapas sort coffee beans by hand. (Photo: E. Carrasco)