catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 19 :: 2004.11.19 — 2004.12.02


On the edge of the world

Meet Jos?

Jos? Perez Vasquez is the president of Las Abejas (?The Bees?) Civil Society, a Mayan organization promoting indigenous rights, economic equality and non-violence.

Though a generally articulate speaker, Jos? can hardly speak about the massacre in the village of Acteal where, on December 22, 1997, escalating violence resulted in the murder of 45 unarmed indigenous women and children who had gathered in a church to pray for deliverance and peace. Many of those responsible remain free and uncharged with any crime, a symbol of how marginalized native people in Mexico are. If any good has come from the gruesome Acteal massacre, it?s that the struggle of indigenous people in Chiapas is gaining international attention, as are the efforts of Las Abejas and their fair trade coffee cooperative, MayaVinic, to find sustainable, non-violent solutions to the conflict.

Mayan people have lived on lands in Mexico for thousands of years, but the modern system that grew up around them now seeks to claim their land and the source of their survival. Las Abejas member Antonio Gutierrez Perez explains, ?We grow corn, beans and coffee. We are not employed. We depend on ourselves for our work and our food. We suffer daily, hungry and without money, proper clothing or proper housing.? As the government, in the form of paramilitary groups, continues to confiscate their land through fear and force, more and more indigenous communities are becoming disconnected from one another and from the traditions that have sustained their people for generations.

In contrast to the Zapatistas, who have the same grievances and mission, the members of Las Abejas are committed not to take up arms in the conflict, even though an estimated four to five thousand of its seven thousand members are internally displaced. They see growing and selling coffee as a way to maintain their traditions while gaining the financial resources to sustain themselves through oppression. For that reason, they started, MayaVinic, a cooperative of indigenous coffee farmers that?s working to connect to fair trade markets in North America and Europe. The 596 cooperative members receive a guaranteed price of $1.41 per pound for their beans, even while prices on the commercial market plunge to $.41 per pound ($1.00 per pound is the minimum to break even). By purchasing fair trade coffee, consumers around the world stand in solidarity with many groups like Las Abejas that seek to break cycles of poverty and oppression in sustainable, non-violent ways.

Standing with the marginalized

Rob and I, along with a group from Three Rivers, attended a fair trade coffee conference in Grand Rapids in October and we have good news?fair trade is thriving in Michigan! We not only had the opportunity to taste some delicious coffees with a larger-than-expected crowd, but we heard from two Mexican coffee farmers (Jos? and Macario) and the owner of the only 100% fair trade coffee roaster in Michigan (and more roasters are getting the hint all the time).

Though the farmers, who are indigenous Mayans from Chiapas, were speaking Spanish instead of their native language, they were able to make a very significant point about the importance of fair trade. Even though it gets very little coverage in U.S. media, there is a war taking place in Mexico between government-sponsored paramilitaries who seek to destroy the indigenous way of life and native people who struggle to make an adequate living in the ways that sustained their ancestors for thousands of years. The farmers spoke of how organic coffee farming honors the wisdom of their traditions and how the people who purchase their fairly traded coffee stand with them in solidarity against their oppressors. Fair trade literally sustains their community as they work to non-violently resolve their conflict with the government.

As we go about our daily activities, it?s easy to isolate our mundane choices from the far-reaching effects they have on the people at the other end of the global assembly line. The fact is that our economic system depends on the marginalization of the poor to maintain an unprecedented level of consumption. In discussing these trends with people in my community, I?ve realized that our language is more and more rights-oriented, as in, ?I should have the right to buy whatever I want from wherever I choose.? Any argument of a moral obligation to higher action than such a maxim dictates is seen as a threat to the revered idol of liberal democracy, even by fellow believers.

However, the language of ?rights? stands in direct contrast to the language of the Gospels, which emphasize the loving authority of God and the character of right relationship in the summary of the law?love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. While we may be tempted to excuse ours actions according to the impossibility of following such laws in such a complex globalized world, God lays our hearts bare. The Hebrew Bible condemns both those who are complacently secure in their luxury (Amos 6:1) and those who actively use systems to ?issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights? (Isaiah 10:1-2). The escape hatch of ?there?s nothing I can do about it? is closed to us as personal piety goes hand in hand with communal health: ?But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream? (Amos 5:24). We are called to be in vertical harmony by being righteous, or in right relationship with God, as well as horizontal harmony by being just, or in right relationship with our fellow creatures.

Solving all of the problems generated by gorging on individual rights is a formidable task, but small decisions can be first steps toward significant impact. Could you begin purchasing fair trade coffee or tea instead of conventional? Could you seek justice-oriented gifts for one or all of the people on your Christmas list? Could you shift just 10% of your grocery or discretionary spending to items that reflect a desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God? Your thoughtfulness is deeply appreciated by real people, like Jos? and Macario from Chiapas, who depend on your intentional choices for survival. When we make choices to benefit the voiceless, the marginalized and the oppressed, we ground ourselves on the side of the risen Christ.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus