A brief history of coffee cultivation in Mexico (until nowadays).

On this blog we like to write about coffee cultivation in general, but is obvious that every country and coffee productive region has its own history and attributes. This time I am telling the (brief) story of coffee cultivation in Mexico since that’s where Tonamil kaffe comes from.  

The Beginnings: 1700’s 

This African and Middle Eastern cherry that has driven humanity crazy for hundreds of years arrived for the first time to the American continent in 1720, and to colonial Mexico or “New Spain” in 1796 through the port of Veracruz (CEDRSSA, 2018).   

In the 1700’s coffee as well as many other tropical treats such as cacao and vanilla -which are actually both originally from Mexico- became high valued commodities and were traded by the most powerful countries of that time.

Coffee came to Mexico and the Americas as a cash crop, meaning that it was produced for its commercial value rather than for the subsistence of the farmers, and it began to be cultivated in the mountains of the southern tropical regions of the country, since coffee plants do extremely well in the jungle and rain forest climates at high altitudes.  

Coffee’s first century in Mexico: The 1800’s 

It was really after the Mexican independence from Spain, during the historical period known as the “Reform” (1854-1876), that the President Benito Juarez started envisioning coffee production and agriculture in general as relevant economic activities for the newborn country; and this is how his government started implementing the necessary laws and strategic plans to get the ex- colonial owned lands into productive use. 

Now all of this sounded very progressive of Benito, the problem was that the land reform that he envisioned ended up in a new uneven distribution: Land went from the hands of the old Spanish colonial government and the Catholic church, to the hands of few powerful people called “caciques” (corrupt local chiefs) and “latifundistas” (large landholders). Indigenous groups and mestizo peasants remained almost landless, and as you are guessing: Coffee production became a very good business for those who had the lands to grow it. Moreover, the 1800s is the period you didn’t want to live in if you would have liked to have labour rights, or actually any fundamental rights at all. So agricultural workers became virtual slaves in the coffee plantations in those times.  

Coffee plantation 1800’s. Archives INAH.

The land Revolution and aftermath: The 1900s.

All these inequalities amongst the landless Mexicans actually ended up in the agrarian Revolution of 1910. And after more than a million deaths caused by this war, towards the end of the 1920s a new post revolutionary Constitution granted new land rights to large groups of peasants, and also recognized for the very first time in Mexican history the indigenous property of their lands. 

Kids processing coffee in Veracruz, Mexico ca. 1890 . Archives INAH.

By the mid-1900s most of the remaining indigenous groups were (and still are) living in the geographical Center and South of the country, matching quite harmoniously where the jungle and rain forests are located. That is why coffee production became a central part of the livelihoods of almost 30 different indigenous nations since then (CEDRSSA, 2018).

Together with many indigenous communities, many small-scale coffee farmer families of mestizo origin have co-existed in the same areas, and to tell a short story: This coexistence hasn’t been so harmonious due to diverse cultural and political problems. But that is a topic for another article, and maybe another type of blog. 

The new era after the Mexican Revolution helped bring peace into rural life. And in a few decades agriculture developed quite well. Mexican coffee became a very desired product in both Europe and North America. We even provided the caffeine to keep hundreds of generals and soldiers awake during the II World War (and I am not telling which side we provided coffee to, you have to find out on your own). 

The 1970’s to exactly the year 1994

Coffee cultivation in this period had its ups and downs. 

The ups: The governments focused on helping all kinds of farmers with financial grants and technical support. Many Farmer Cooperatives and Associations were born and enjoyed great public assistance. Moreover, some agricultural Schools, Research Centres, and Institutions were created to boost knowledge and protect agricultural production; Thousands of committed agronomists graduated and dedicated their lives to help many rural communities. Coffee was one of the lucky crops that became highly supported and researched. Even a new Mexican coffee sub-variety called “Oro Azteca (Aztec gold)” was developed in those times. 

Coffee sales by the Nation Confederation of Farmers (CNC), ca. 1960 . Archive INAH.

The downs: Political corruption and economic inequalities remained as serious issues. Therefore, many of the farmers’ organizations had to align with the private goals of the governments in office, leaving their own goals aside. Those who didn’t align suffered quite violent consequences (Sub-commander Marcos in Calonico, 2006). 

Although many small farmers and indigenous groups now had access to land, and the State created a Coffee Institute (IMECAFE in 1956) that monopolized coffee recollection to provide stable prices to the producers, only two decades later the Institute disappeared due to corruption, and very soon after that small groups of very affluent companies and foreign trade agents began to be the only ones buying to the producers their harvested coffee… at very low prices.

Going further towards the end of the 1990s, an important international event intensified the downsides of coffee production in Mexico; “It was during those years when the economy magnified its globalization, and suddenly coffee prices were imposed by the biggest stock markets at extremely low averages, solely based on a huge world offer that ever since then has been more than enough to cover the global demands” (Gonzalez, 2021). And that was the start of the infamous global “coffee price-crisis” that has lasted until nowadays.

This global coffee price crisis actually triggered the foundation of the Fairtrade Foundation in 1992, thanks to the “appeals for fairness in trade from Mexican small-scale coffee farmers” (Fairtrade Foundation, 2019).

Economic globalization together with high levels of political corruption, and the fact that the Mexican governments left behind the poorest groups of society -which included all indigenous peoples- unleashed the declaration of war from the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) in December of 1994; A movement formed by many indigenous communities of Maya origin in the South of Mexico. 

Now, what does a declaration of war in the South of Mexico have to do with coffee cultivation? 

Zapatista sub commander Marcos leads commander Ramona, to a waiting vehicle for her journey to Mexico City, 1996. Scott Sady.

Well… as you probably remember, I have been telling the link between indigenous communities’ settlements aligned with the coffee cultivation areas. Although this war declaration was made by an indigenous army gathered in the specific area of Chiapas state, the truth is that many other indigenous movements were going on in the country, and many movements more were triggered after that breaking point. However, after many difficulties they managed to overcome many social and economic obstacles for themselves without any State’s support, and coffee cultivation has been there to support their livelihoods. 

Nowadays it’s no strange thing that farmers cooperatives of indigenous origin -including the EZLN- have partnered up with diverse International Organizations and companies, and they export their certified organic coffee to North America, Europe, and even Asia. Getting in this way better prices than the very low ones offered by the national middlemen, or as they still call them: The “coyotes” (which is also the traditional word used to name a sneaky Mexican wolf). 

  • From top left to bottom right: 1. Mayan Harvest Coffee coop, 2. Café Ya basta! , 3. Tosepan Titataniske Coop, 4. Mayolo Aguilar (Tonamil kaffe), 5. Tzetzal Tzotzil Coop, 6. Maya Vinic Coop.

1995 until present times (2021).

Mexico finished the 19th century by signing a (temporary) Peace Treaty with the Zapatista army in 1996, and a huge challenge to provide better living conditions to the poorest groups of society. As for the coffee situation, global coffee prices have been very low since the 1980s until nowadays, and middlemen dynamics continue to affect most of the disorganized Mexican small-scale farmers. Moreover, there are three companies (two of them of foreign origin) that control more than 50% of the Mexican coffee trade inside and outside of the country. This obviously affects the coffee prices offered to the producers even more. 

Farmer Mayolo Aguilar processing Tonamil’s coffee in his farm in Veracruz. 2020.

To even out all of these bad events, I would like to finish this article by telling you that nowadays there are around 500,000 coffee producers in the country, and 95% of them are in fact small farmers owning less than 5 hectares of land producing their coffee mostly with ecological methods (CEDRSSA, 2018). This is very positive if you ask me! That says a lot about good access to land rights in the country, and how the farmers are taking care of their lands. Besides, a big plus is that farming at a small scale brings many positive effects to the environment: Did you know that Coffee plants can actually capture CO2, the main gas that causes the climate change phenomena? (Click here if you want to know more about how small-scale farmers are saving the planet).

Moreover, Mexico is the number 1 exporter of certified organic coffee in the world, and the 2nd largest organic producer at the global level (CEDRSSA, 2018).    

Rain forest in Oaxaca, Mexico. Ca. 2015

But coffee’s history in Mexico is not over yet! The effects of climate change are already being notorious in the country; Continuous drought and related pests such as rust are really endangering coffee’s entire survival. The climate crisis, together with present bad trade conditions are maybe two of the biggest challenges of coffee production in Mexico. But as I always say: We as consumers/buyers can definitely influence the global markets with our daily choices and preferences! Words such as organic, fair trade, ethical trade, rain forest conservation, ecological and my all-time favorite “directly traded” on your coffee’s package/deal can make a huge difference to turn history into a more equal and sustainable future for coffee production, not only in Mexico, but in the entire coffee productive areas of the world.

The end! 


-Calonico, Cristian. Marcos, History and Words (In Spanish). UAM-Xochimilco. Mexico, 2001.

-Center for Sustainable Rural Development and Food Sovereignty (CEDRSSA) . Coffee in Mexico: Diagnosis and Perspectives (In Spanish). Mexico, 2018.

-Gonzalez, Margie Maria. Culture and sustainability: Lessons from Tosepan Titataniske from Cuetzalan, Mexico (Master’s thesis). Norwegian University of Life-Sciences, 2018.

-Gonzalez, Margie Maria. “The coffee-price crisis explained and how a Kenyan company is making a difference”. Tonamil Blog. URL: https://tonamil.com/2021/01/11/the-coffee-price-crisis-explained-and-how-a-kenyan-company-is-making-a-difference/

-Fairtrade Foundation. “The history of fairtrade”. URL:  https://www.fairtrade.org.uk/what-is-fairtrade/the-impact-of-our-work/the-history-of-fairtrade/

-National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH). Visual archives from the Mediateca. URL: http://mediateca.inah.gob.mx/islandora_74/

How can I support Mexican coffee? An special request from a former classmate living in Mexico!

From Mexico:

Ask your local Café/coffee shop where do they source their coffee? and ask if they can, if possible, source directly from the farmer or farmer’s cooperative. 

Avoid buying in the store brands related to AMSA, Nestle and California companies, since they own more than 50% of the Mexican coffee market, and they are well known to offer low prices to producers. 

Instead, buy in alternative stores such as Tienda UNAM (which works directly with cooperatives),  organic – local- farmers markets, and the like!

In Norway: Buy Tonamil kaffe and Zapatista Kaffe. If I know of someone else that is bringing Mexican coffee in fair terms I promise to update this post!

One response to “A brief history of coffee cultivation in Mexico (until nowadays).”

  1. Un viaje a la historia mexicana en su convergencia con la historia cafetalera. Impregnada de intereses privados, pero también de grupos campesinos de origen indígena que preservan la tradición de la producción de esta planta fascinante. Los felicito por la iniciativa de auspiciar el comercio justo. Sin intermediarios. Gracias por revalorar al café y promoverlo. Como señala el artículo: podemos con nuestras preferencias marcar la diferencia en el mercado y orientarlo hacia una producción más ética y sustentable. Felicidades Margie Mijares por esta investigación tan puntual.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: