75th Anniversary: 57) Research at the Rural Sociology Group:  Researching Mexican coffee policies resulting from a political regime change

Claudia Oviedo, PhD candidate at the Rural Sociology Group

Mexican coffee policies of recent decades have been highly criticised. Farmers, coffee organizations, academics, and development organizations have claimed that programmes implemented to promote coffee production in Mexico have been limited to assuring mere survival of farmers rather than promoting the necessary transformation of their livelihoods. One of the main criticisms of such programmes is that while the state provided plants, fertilizer, and sprayers through farmers’ organizations, due to clientelism many farmers did not receive the inputs they had been promised. Other criticisms include that such programmes have failed to involve effective commercialization strategies and have not provided adequate technical assistance, particularly with respect to disease management.

Collecting coffee beans – Photo by Erik García. 

In December of 2018, “leftist” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office. Criticising previous neoliberal administrations’ lack of attention to rural areas, he promised his administration would benefit small farmers and that he would end corruption. To achieve this, his administration implemented the rural programme Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida) through the Ministry of Well-Being, providing approximately €250 monthly to farmers to plant deforested areas with fruit trees and annual crops using agroecological practices. The Ministry of Agriculture also launched the programme Production for Well-Being (Producción para el Bienestar), which also promotes sustainable coffee production, although with a much lower amount.

This PhD research analyses coffee policies implemented in 2019—he first year of AMLO´s administration, addressing the state’s conceptualization of farmers—essentially based on the size of their landholding—as well as its strategy for incorporating them principally into the organic market. Based on a Value Chain approach as well as Political Economy concepts, I found that those that farmers the state considers to be “small-scale” vary with respect to their level of control over the means of production. Furthermore, I conclude that selling to the organic market does not necessarily benefit all farmers and suggest the need to re-conceptualise the approach of public policy to “incorporating” coffee farmers into the market.

This study also addressed the political configuration of coffee programmes by unpacking the relationship among farmers, the state, and the coffee processing industry—namely Nestlé, as well as the interests of each of these actors and their strategies for obtaining their objectives. Two coffee trajectories were identified: one involving production of high-quality organic coffee and a high level of participation by the state and farmers´ organizations in policy development. The other trajectory is that of instant coffee, involving sale of lower-quality coffee to Nestlé. While several farmers’ organizations reject the latter trajectory, many farmers perceive benefits from cultivating coffee for this industry. Therefore, I urge policymakers and development agencies to allow for a variety of productive options rather than pre-determining a single production system.

Finally, this study addressed AMLO´s policy to reduce involvement of intermediaries by providing subsidies directly to farmers rather than through farmers´ organizations. Given that during previous administrations many representatives of these organizations retained a large part of the subsidies, many farmers welcomed this policy. However, its implementation has been characterised by operative problems and tensions between organizations and state personnel.  Some farmers´ organizations assured that not all such organizations are clientelistic; rather, they hold that they provide an essential mechanism for farmers to access more profitable marketing options. Meanwhile, the reactions of personnel from Sowing Life and Production for Well-Being contrasted significantly: as Sowing Life is extensively promoted by AMLO, and it does not stem from previous programmes, most personnel supported the reduction of intermediary policy. However, some staff of Production for Well-Being defended the work they had developed with farmers’ organisations and highly objected to the changes.