Tomatoes, Coffee, and Birth Defects: Unfair Trade and the Church's Response to It


June 13, 2013

Part One: Ignorance
Maneadero, northern Mexico, 2000

“The whole thing just makes you feel so powerless,” says Donna, one of the church moms. She is speaking with Laura, another volunteer, as she pours rice into individual plastic baggies from a burlap sack. “I mean, it’s just a drop in the bucket. We can only feed them for a day. Tomorrow they’ll go hungry again. It sounds silly, but . . . I just wish I could be here to feed the Indians every day.”

We are standing in the middle of a migrant farm workers’ encampment in Maneadero, northern Mexico—a ring of cramped, tiny shacks made from plywood and aluminum—handing out dry rice and beans. This evangelical church group has brought donations for the “Indians” Donna was referring to, an indigenous people of the Mixtec ethnicity who were originally from rural villages in southern Mexico. Nearly all the dark-complexioned women and children around us are barefoot. Many of the children’s bellies are distended from parasites and hunger. Some of their hair has already yellowed from malnutrition.

Laura responds to Donna as she pulls a burlap sack from the white church van, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re looking at it the right way. You know what they say: ‘Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.’ If we keep bringing donations all the time, we’ll just create dependence. The Indians need more than just bags of dry rice and beans—they need to develop a stronger work ethic.”

It’s nearly noon and all of the donations have now been passed out. Most of the Mixtec men are still working in the expanses of farmland that surround this encampment on all sides. The pervasive smell of dry, overturned earth fills our nostrils, accented by the chemical, vaguely metallic odor of pesticides. Above us, the sky is a brilliant shade of blue.

“But didn’t Jesus call on us to help the poor?” Donna asks. She has begun to corral the southern Californian high schoolers back into the church van. I am saying goodbye to a woman holding her mentally disabled son. Many of the children here are born with severe birth defects—Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, missing limbs, and disorders unknown to modern science—that are likely related to the pesticides pregnant women are exposed to. Laborers told me how, in some cases, chemicals were sprayed on the vast tomato fields while the workers were still working there.

“No,” Laura says, “Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us.”

“But we’re called to be charitable, right?” Donna continues. “I think we need to give donations to the Indians. It’s like Jesus said, ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate.’”

I climb into the driver’s seat and start up the van’s motor. As we leave the encampment—the van rapidly filling up with the smell of sweaty, fourteen-year-old bodies, Axe body spray, Purell hand sanitizer, and artificially cooled air—I listen to Donna and Laura over the sound of a Jars of Clay CD. And as I drive the van out of Maneadero, I am struck with the feeling—however vague—that Jesus may be calling the church to something very different from either of these two options.

Part Two: Idealism
Maneadero, 2001

To quote Ole Andreson from Hemingway’s story “The Killers,” the ladies on the church trip “got in wrong.” By reducing the issue of poverty to a dichotomy between to give or to not give charity, they were colluding with all the wrong voices of human history. Still, I wasn’t sure what getting in right would look like. But I was determined to find out.

After my first visit to Maneadero with Donna, Laura, and the rest of the church youth group, I felt drawn to return to the farming community on my own the following year. I didn’t have a specific project or ministry to conduct with the Mixtec farm workers; I just felt that I needed to go there. I went out of blind faith, out of a vague gut sense that God expected more from us than merely giving to the poor. When Jesus said that he was present in and with the poor and hungry, I took this as a directive to stand side by side alongside the poor, to walk through life with them, to stand in their shoes. I wasn’t sure exactly what that would look like in practical terms, but I felt that Maneadero would be a good place to start figuring this out.

So it was that I moved to Ensenada, the town adjacent to Maneadero, in 2001. I spent the summer there; after making some contacts in the Maneadero Valley, I took a rickety bus out to the farming town, resolved to spend a week working in the tomato fields and experiencing life there.

One of the first things I learned after spending a few hours in these tomato fields was that while poverty and hunger were widespread, they were not the result of a failing work ethic. To paraphrase Job 24:5, the Mixtec day laborers of Maneadero were working their asses off.

I also found that the church I had translated for wasn’t the only group of gringo volunteers in Maneadero. As I would discover, dozens of volunteer church groups descend on the migrant laborer camps of Maneadero every summer to hand out donations—food, clothing, money, Bibles, shoes, medicine. Some fundamentalist churches bring only Bibles and copies of Jack Chick’s “evangelism” tracts. The more paternalistic of the groups bring enormous piles of canned goods, making sure to take photos of their volunteers standing next to the donations.

The most surprising discovery I made that summer, however, was printed on the side of a wooden crate. As I unloaded my bucket of tomatoes into the crate one day, I noticed the address of a food distribution company in Los Angeles. After discreetly asking around, I learned that the tomato fields where the Mixtec laborers were working were just as much a part of the US economy as they were Mexico’s. These tomatoes were being grown in northern Mexico, cultivated with Mexican resources, and harvested by Mexican labor, but they were being grown for the US consumer market—so that we can save a few bucks when we buy produce back in the States.

And this discovery was just the beginning.

Part Three: Despair
San Juan Coatzospam, southern Mexico, 2006

The tomato field I happened to visit in Maneadero was no anomaly. According to a recent report by NPR, about 45 percent of the tomatoes consumed in the United States and 80 percent of our eggplants are grown in Mexican fields like those of Maneadero. As I discovered when working alongside them, the poverty of these migrant agricultural laborers is not indicative of a “lack of work ethic” or “something wrong with Mexico.” Instead, the suffering that our church youth group witnessed in the encampment is a part of our US economy. It is the other side of our wealth.

Over the next few years, I looked into the dynamics of the economy that brought me the fruits and vegetables I was eating. I stared at every red tomato on every fast food hamburger, in every salad, on every supermarket shelf, and I wondered if it came from Maneadero. I wondered about the hands that picked those tomatoes, about how much the workers had been paid to harvest them, about whether the tomatoes in my lunch were picked by a pregnant mother who breathed in the pesticides or by a child who was working in the fields instead of being in school.

I eventually learned that trade agreements like NAFTA have made it much easier for US and Canadian companies to set up shop in Mexico, taking advantage of easily exploitable, low-cost labor. I found that this was not limited to just agriculture—thousands of assembly line maquiladora factories fill the landscape of border towns across northern Mexico.

The more I learned about the ways in which our capitalistic trade system creates and exacerbates inequality, the more despondent I became. This system of lopsided trade produces poverty, inequality, and misery; meanwhile, the very same Christian congregations who donate clothes and food to places like Maneadero continue to purchase the vegetables harvested in Maneadero, propagating the same exploitative system.

But the effects of NAFTA and exploitative trade reach far beyond the United States–Mexico border. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit a Mixtec community—San Juan Coatzospam—in the southern state of Oaxaca. Like many rural communities, Coatzospam has seen an exodus of its young people as they search for work in northern Mexico—often laboring for big agribusiness in places like Maneadero. The village of Coatzospam is a town nestled among pristine, beautiful countryside. Verdant, fertile mountains surround the town; layers of fog caress the community every morning and evening; lush forests surround it on all sides. The community is located at the perfect altitude for farming coffee, and coffee farming has been the source of income for Coatzospam residents for generations. By the time I visited it, however, Coatzospam had been transformed into a ghost town.

Ever since 1994, the year that NAFTA was signed, coffee farming has been a gamble. For coffee farmers in Coatzospam—and in thousands of similar towns across Mexico and Central and South America—neoliberal economic policies allowed coffee prices to rise and fall unpredictably. During certain years, farmers would invest months of labor into a coffee harvest, only to be paid a pittance by the middlemen who buy coffee for corporate exporters. While the giants of big coffee in Europe and North America—Sarah Lee, Nestlé, and the like—have shown record profits, coffee farmers have found it harder and harder to make ends meet. Inevitably, those who invest the most labor in the process—the farmers themselves—receive the smallest portion of the economic benefit, while third-party buyers and corporate roasters take the lion’s share of the profits.

During my time in Coatzospam, I discovered that even this remote village had been visited by church volunteers from the United States. One Mixtec family showed me a VHS tape of a Baptist church that visited the town years ago, bringing boxes upon boxes of donated food and clothing. And while the residents of Coatzospam left in droves, seeking work as migrant farm workers in places like Maneadero and the United States, Christians in the United States continued to consume coffee from places like Coatzospam. I became convinced that we, the church, must do better.

Part Four: Hope
Mayan highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. 2011.

Working in Maneadero and Coatzospam provided me with a taste of the solidarity I heard in the biblical prophets, the radical inclusiveness I saw in the table at which Jesus sat. Still, in the here and now, I could see no collective way out of the hopeless cycle of donations, consumption, exploitation, and poverty. Like Donna, I wondered whether the church was powerless to affect this interminable cycle. As far as I could tell, the North American church continued to buy the tomatoes and coffee that were fertilized with the sweat and blood of an exploited people—all while we gave temporary donations to the very people we were exploiting. Years would pass before I made it to Chiapas, where I witnessed a different vision of what true Christian compassion could look like.

It was in 2011, on a visit to the fair trade coffee co-op of Maya Vinic, that I caught a glimpse of a very different sort of Christian response to poverty and inequality. Up in the pine-forested mountains of Chiapas—the homeland of Mayan peasant farmers, the fertile ground that birthed the Zapatista uprising in 1994—I saw indigenous communities of faith that were carving out their own social and economic futures, with the help of communities of faith from abroad.

In stark contrast to both the migrant farm workers of northern Mexico and the exploited coffee farmers of Coatzospam, the coffee farmers of Maya Vinic run and operate their own business. This worker-owned co-op has been in existence since the 1980s, and it currently has hundreds of members across Chiapas. Because they own Maya Vinic, these farmers are able to democratically make the key decisions that affect the sale of their coffee. They meet regularly to openly discuss, in the Mayan Tzotzil language, how the resources of the co-op will be used and what business plans will be developed in the future. The farmers themselves also do the negotiating with the buyers. Throughout each year, they meet with clients in Mexico City, Cancun, and other urban centers across Mexico. In addition, they are regularly visited by fair trade coffee roasters from other countries—Japan, Switzerland, Canada, France, the United States, and others.

Communities of faith have played a key role in the development of Maya Vinic. The coffee organization itself grew out of the liberation theology–minded Abejas communities, indigenous, egalitarian Catholic groups in Chiapas that fought for the rights of the Mayan natives and the poor. Maya Vinic has also been consistently supported by the solidarity of communities of faith from abroad: Jesuit clergy, Catholic lay volunteers, Presbyterian development projects, groups from Japan, Europe, North America, and Latin America.

During the time I spent in the foggy mountains of Chiapas, I consistently thought back to those evangelical volunteers I had translated for in Maneadero so many years before. I remembered the words of Donna: “It’s like Jesus said, ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate.’”

Donna’s error lay not in her attempts to follow Jesus’s teachings but in her misunderstanding of the word compassion. The word itself is made up of two Latin root words: com, meaning “with,” and passio, meaning “suffering.” True Christian compassion entails far more than merely feeling bad for someone or feeling sorry for them. True Christian compassion means suffering alongside them. It means realizing that the hunger, poverty, and exploitation of some humans is the suffering of all of us. As we react to this corporate suffering, we are driven to acts of solidarity and cooperation, like those that take place between the workers and co-owners of Maya Vinic and their foreign partners.

As a worker owned and operated economic model, fair trade co-ops like Maya Vinic are moving toward a manifestation of the vision of the biblical prophet Micah: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” This is a snapshot of the kingdom of God, of life as it was meant to be: a radical, inclusive form of cooperation. In the language of Marxism, workers like the Mayan farmers in Maya Vinic are the owners of the means of production. They have sidestepped the bourgeoisie—the Big Coffee giants—and are running the fields themselves. In biblical prophetic language, they are no longer the subjects of Caesar, Baal, Mammon, and Babylon.

The prophetic vision of those who seek alternative economic models is, at best, incomplete and faulty. It is a rocky road of pitfalls, mistakes, trial and error. But for those Christians who hear the calling to stand alongside our sisters and brothers—in the coffee fields, in the tomato fields, in the sweatshops, in the urban slums and the rural villages—the only way forward is to put this haphazard solidarity into practice, to manifest this prophetic vision here and now. As the Latin American protest song by Joan Manuel Serrat says, “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.

The road does not yet exist—we make the road by walking.