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President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s tenure as president of Mexico has marked a significant departure from past administrations, including in the context of the coffee industry. This was the topic of an academic seminar delivered on 22 August 2023 by Claudia Oviedo Rodriguez, a Ph.D. student at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Hosted by the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), her lecture – a summary of her PhD thesis –  examined the transformation of Mexican coffee policies during President López Obrador’s tenure. She shed light on the complex relationship between the state, small-scale coffee farmers, farmer organisations, and the industry.

Prior Challenges in the Coffee Industry
Oviedo Rodriguez began by addressing the challenges faced by Mexican coffee farmers under previous administrations, which tended to be pro-corporations. The policies were often marred by corruption and neglect, leading to low-quality subsidies, a lack of marketing strategies, and a disconnect between public functionaries and farmer organisations. A significant shift occurred when President López Obrador took office in 2018. His administration promised a radical transformation, departing from the corrupt practices of the past. He advocated focusing on small-scale farmers, reducing corruption, and bringing more transparency to the industry’s operations.

Small-Scale Farmers’ Incorporation into Coffee Markets
Rodriguez’s research explored how different social classes of farmers engaged with various coffee marketing alternatives. It examined strategies like partnering with Nestle, collaborating with farmer organisations, utilising local buyers, and opting for direct sales. She considers factors such as coffee species, payment structures, and labour requirements — important factors shaping global value chains and key to effective coffee policies.

Arabica vs. Ragusa Resistance
The resistance against a Nestle factory reveals complex politics within the coffee sector. Farmers are divided between producing high-quality Arabica coffee, which commands a higher price, or opting for the industry-oriented Robusta species. Oviedo Rodriguez explored collaboration and tension between different farmer groups and the state, emphasising that certain farmers’ preferences for industry participation are influenced not only by economic gains but also by technical and geographical factors.

Rural Programs and Eliminating Intermediaries
She then delved into implementing rural programs, namely “Sembrando Vida” and “Production for Wellbeing.” One of the policies, eliminating intermediaries, was initially met with resistance from farmer organisations. The discussion evaluated the pros and cons of these programs, considering their impact on farmers’ lives, technical assistance, and reforestation efforts.

Balancing Progress and Challenges
Oviedo Rodriguez concluded by synthesizing the findings from the chapters of her thesis. While she noted positive changes, such as improved relations between the state and small-scale farmers, the promised radical transformation remains a work in progress. The Mexican government still needs to fully resolve challenges in program design, addressing diverse farmer needs, and industry payment practices.

Her thesis underscores the intricacies of transforming an industry and rebuilding relationships quickly. President López Obrador’s policies have initiated positive changes, but there’s a long way to go in achieving a complete shift in the coffee industry landscape. The research highlights the significance of considering social differentiation, value chain dynamics, and farmer preferences when shaping effective policies.

View the recording here