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Higher Grounds in Chiapas

In February 2009, CC member Higher Grounds gathered a whole slew of friends, students, musicians, and more from Traverse City, MI to venture into the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico on a mission to connect with local communities through meetings, music, and an ongoing water project. Read the trip's coordinator, Chris Treter's summary of the trip below.

Report by Chris Treter

Photos courtesy of Gary Howe and Cooperative Coffees

Yachil neighborhood "14 seniors and 2 teachers form Wayland High School joined us for an in depth look at the Mayan people past and present. On an alternative spring break of sorts, the group had arrived to learn about fair trade coffee and indigenous rights. The trip began with an orientation to HG work in Chiapas. First stop was to Palenque – the largest group of Mayan ruins in the state – to learn about the history of the Mayan people before the likes of Diego Mazariegos and Hernan Cortes came to Mexico plundering the abundance of natural resources and subjugate the Mayan population to colonial rule. Over the course of the week the students met with fair trade growers, sat down with Zapatista leaders to discuss the current socio-political and economic problems faced by the Mayan people, and helped us with a water project funded by the Chiapas Water Project. Quickly, the group learned that with over 500 years of exploitation, the Mayan people are taking their destiny in their own hands by forming autonomous communities, working within fair trade and a solidarity economy, and struggling for indigenous rights.

Our next tour was focused on the coffee harvest with Higher Grounds wholesale customers and fellow Cooperative Coffees roasters. Our mission: learn about the inner workings of the coffee co-ops, determine how to better educate our customers about their work, and explain how to support their struggle for indigenous rights. The group stopped by the refugee center of Polho’ where farmers from the Yachil Coffee Cooperative have sought protection in numbers over paramilitary elements over the last decade and a half since the Zapatista uprising. The reality of the situation was driven home by Juan (name changed to protect his identity) who must travel a half hour by car down a dirt road, or 2 hours walking in order to tend to his coffee field as a member of the Yachil coffee co-op.

In 1998, when paramilitary took over control of a number of communities in this municipality of Chenalho, Juan had to move his family to Polho. The life of his family was in danger due to his dedication for Local kidsindigenous rights and affiliation with the Zapatistas. After moving, the paramilitary literally stole his house! All that is left are the concrete pillars to remind him of his past life. Each time he returns to his fields he must face those who harassed and attacked him – they still have not faced justice.

We also visited the community of Tzajalchen, in the municipality of Chenalho. Tzajalchen is the birthplace of the Las Abejas Civil Society – a pacifist indigenous organization who has been very vocal in their struggle for indigenous rights. We spent time with Jose Vasquez, an old friend of Higher Grounds who has made 2 visits to Traverse City. This was our first stop in his community. Far off the beaten path, high up on a mountain overlooking a vast valley accessible only on foot, a tattered white flag with the words “paz” (peace) hangs over his home. He introduced me to his wife – in bed with an unknown stomach illness. With the closest hospital 3 hours away, she is hoping that local health promoters have the means to cure her.

While Jose and other members of Maya Vinic hiked us through the mountains to get to know their coffee fields, the children met with an ambassador of the Arts Mile Peace Ambassador and AmaVida Coffee Roasters to complete a mural for the project. ( The Art Miles Mural Project is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to creating harmony and peach through art, in addition to teaching children about cultures around the world. The objective is to complete 12 themed miles that will be exhibited during the "Exhibition of the Century" in 2010, when the works will be wrapped around the pyramids in Egypt to celebrate a decade of peace. This will be the longest mural in the world and the community of Tzalachen and our group will be represented!

To learn more about our Fair Trade Tourism program visit:

Chiapas Water Project

Chiapas water projectEach year we work to connect growing communities in the Mayan Highlands to a dedicated group of grassroots water professionals in appropriate technology. With the help of the Chiapas Water Project, a local NGO formed a few years ago by Higher Grounds and area residents, we are funding these systems to bring freshwater to 100’s of families. This year we’ve been working in the small barrio of Bachen deep down a dirt road that weaves in and out of the mountains.

There are 16 families in the community but 5 of them do not have the human resources or money to participate in the dig. One woman’s husband left for Mexico City to work 7 years ago and never returned. Another husband is paralyzed and three women are widowed. Each family must split up digging the 2 foot whole ditch 2.1 miles to the water source but since 5 families can not do the work, the widowers asked us if we could help. We plugged in many of our 40 friends who came down to Chiapas with us over the month to help dig , carrying tubing, play music for the community, and document the struggle for water in Bachen. Check out the blog and photos from our Photog friend, Gary Howe at:

To learn more or make a donation, visit the Chiapas Water Project at:

Music for Chiapas

Music projectIn collaboration with Schools for Chiapas and Earthwork Music, Higher Grounds Trading Co. is funneling dozens of instruments to Mayan schools throughout Chiapas while facilitating the travel of some of the most talented musicians in the state of Michigan. Why music, you may ask? Music and art are at the heart of any culture and as our collaborators from Schools for Chiapas point out: “The gradual eroding and disappearance of the music, art and language of indigenous peoples represents both the demise of these unique people, and the continued slide toward a globalization of culture.”

So, we’ve partnered with some very talented independent musicians working to turn the corporate led music industry upside down as they “produce” some of the most insightful songs. They spent the better part of 3 weeks leading workshops with children in Mayan autonomous school and sharing their songs in far flung Mayan communities. They then left behind musical instruments for the communities to use. Each year, we intend to return, continuing to spread the gift of music throughout the region. This year, Seth Bernard, May Erlewine, Darlene, and Susan Fawcett made the trek. The experience was equally enriching for the “musicos.” According to Seth Bernard, “I learned a great deal about shared leadership, participatory democracy, ecological agriculture, medicine and music. The whole experience was incredibly deepening and has expanded my world view, warmed my heart and enriched my life and work. Music keeps the chain intact, builds community and connects people.”  "

To learn more about the project visit:

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