Appropriately enough, Starbucks' Mexico's brand-new java dispensary is situated in the posh Sheraton Hotel on bustling Reforma Boulevard, just a few steps from the U.S. embassy. Although 20 percent of Starbucks business is now conducted outside of the U.S. - with nearly 3,000 stores churning out the lattes in Japan and Europe - the Mexico City venture is the first in Latin America and will be followed by 20 clones around the country in the next two years. Alcea, a Mexican franchising enterprise that also handles Domino's Pizza, is talking about 200 Starbucks all the way to Tierra del Fuego by 2010.

The new Starbucks on Reforma features soft lighting and an aromatic ambiance. The tap-tap of laptops reminds this reporter that he is in Starbucks' trademark "third space" ("between home and office"). The Starbucks Experience offers a select array of cafe beverages brewed from the coffees of 20 distinct countries. Behind the counter, well-groomed employees whip out the signature Frappuccinos and lattes.

Indeed, the only jarring note is the 36 pesos ($3.60) the young woman at the register wants for a double latte, 10 times the price Indian farmers are getting for a pound of their product in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and other coffee-rich states of southern Mexico.

Not serendipitously, the arrival of Starbucks in Mexico coincides with the most lacerating crisis in the history of coffee production in Mexico and Central America. Last March, world prices bottomed to 41 cents on the New York commodity market, tying a record low set in 1882. The impact upon poor farmers has been devastating.

There is no starker contrast in the economics of coffee these days than between the cushy comforts and gourmet blends of the Starbucks "Esperienia" and the grim, daily existence of 360,000 mostly Indian coffee farmers who work small plots carved from the jungle mountains of southern Mexico. Sometimes walking six hours from patch to village with a hundred pounds on their backs, Indian farmers produce five million sacks (134 pounds each) in a good year. Mexico's most lucrative agricultural export generates $700 million annually - but has decreased this year by 20 percent as prices plummet due to world glut.

For recompense, coffee farmers and their families suffer endemic malnutrition, the lowest income levels, and the worst health and educational statistics in Mexico. The trail of coffee production in southern Mexico is literally etched in blood as extreme poverty leads to social upheaval, which leads to human rights violations and government repression. The cycle is reiterated each decade from Atoyac on the Costa Grande of Guerrero, to the Loxichas in the southern sierra of Oaxaca, to the highlands and jungle of Chiapas - all Indian coffee-producing regions, and all settings for armed insurrection in recent years. Forty-six Mayan Indian supporters of the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were massacred in Acteál, Chiapas five years ago in a dispute over the coffee harvest.

The Zongolica, an upland Nahua Indian coffee-growing region on the Veracruz-Puebla state border, is the poorest demographic area in the nation, reports the National Institute of Geography and Statistics, dismantling the myth that coffee production is good development. The World Bank foists upon Third World economies credits for export agriculture, meaning farmers have little control over coffee prices that are 100 percent dependent upon and vulnerable to world market manipulation. Moreover, coffee production forces poor farmers to turn over valuable food-growing land to a non-food export crop that serves no nutritional function in their diets. Despite the World Bank-fed glut, more and more jungle land is being uprooted for coffee production, threatening fragile bio-diversity.

In 2001, world coffee producers, traditionally led by Brazil (with Vietnam, a recipient of much World Bank largesse, a surprising number two), put out a global total of 114 million tons of the aromatic, but only 108 million were consumed; this year, production will top out at 124 million tons, further depressing prices.

One palpable result of the coffee collapse has been widespread abandonment of their patches by small plot farmers in the Indian south. Unable to feed their families, many have joined the migration stream to El Norte for the first time, with the inevitable tragedies that desperate newcomers often encounter in the dangerous border geography: 14 coffee workers from Coatepec, a prime growing area in Veracruz, stewed to death in their own juices out in the Arizona desert near Yuma in June 2001, and this year it is former coffee workers from Chiapas whose dessicated corpses are coming home in closed caskets.

Starbucks is quick to insist that its hands are clean. Social Responsibility Director Sue Mecklenberg argues that what little Mexican coffee Starbucks buys is purchased at a premium price from six co-ops in the El Triunfo cloud forest reserve of Chiapas' Sierra Maestra; it is the last refuge of the fabled Quetzal, a bird that Starbucks uses as a logo for its "Shade-grown Mexico" blend. The Triunfo project is a collaborative effort with Conservation International, the powerful, privately-financed protectionist organization funded by such notorious corporate slackers as Enron.

Starbucks, Mecklenberg points out, is shelling out $1.20 a pound to the campesinos of El Triunfo, three times the price on the Chiapas commercial market, and will buy a projected 1.5 million pounds this year from them.

A perennial target of the anti-globalization movement, Starbucks is a major player in the world market, buying about one percent of global production. Two years ago, TransFair USA, an advocacy group for fairly traded organic coffee growers and importers, inked a much-heralded agreement with Starbucks whereby the chain buys a million pounds of organic coffee a year at fair trade prices, about one percent of the chain's total purchases. Because organic coffee is certified to meet high standards, Indian farmers who have been approved to grow it receive an average $1.40 a pound (some importers pay up to $1.60) - at least 20 cents more than Starbucks farmers get for their "Shade-grown Mexico." Coffee from El Triunfo is not certified organic, although Starbucks has announced creation of its own certification system.

Given the volatility of coffee politics these days, it was not surprising that, along with the new Starbucks Mexico, came the globalphobes. Activists from Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights and fair trade advocacy group, stand on Reforma Boulevard distributing leaflets to Starbucks customers suggesting that they request their lattes be made with fair trade coffee (the Mexico City outlet does not offer it).

Although Starbucks likes to paint itself as being socially responsible, Global's Craig Adair thinks it can be more so. Starbucks, insists Global Exchange, should buy half the coffee it sells in Mexico from Indian farmers at fair trade prices; the mega-corporation has yet to respond to the demand.

Selling the Starbucks Experience to Mexico is not going to be easy. Mexicans drink precious little coffee, about 700 grams a year compared to the northern European per capita consumption of nine kilos. In great coffee-growing country like Chiapas' Soconusco, one is apt to be served Nescafé rather than the real thing, all of which is exported.

For those who will settle for nothing less than a gourmet cup, the cafe con leche at the La Blanca, an old-quarter Mexico City institution, costs just 13 pesos, nearly a third of the Starbucks price. Even cheaper "cafe de la olla," steaming and laced with sugar and cinnamon, is served from great clay pots on street corners for only a few cents americano. But according to nutritional demographics, most Mexicans get their morning caffeine fix not off a cup of joe, but rather from another transnational drug dealer: the Coca Cola Corporation.

John Ross, impoverished Mexico author and correspondent, is not yet broke enough to take a job at Starbucks.

More by John Ross



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