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Briseida is cultivating OSH in her Mexican coffee community

The “proudly peasant” president of a women-led coffee cooperative is spreading the word about safety and health at work.

In the Uto-Aztecan language Nahuatl, Ixhuatlán means “where there are green corn leaves.”

Café, of course, means coffee.

So maybe it’s no surprise that Briseida Venegas Ramos, born and raised in Ixhuatlán del Café, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, is the “proudly peasant” daughter of farmers and current president of Vida AC, a women-led coffee cooperative.

Despite the success of the cooperative, she doesn’t take personal credit for any of it. Instead, Briseida is the kind of person that speaks in the plural. 

“We” harvest the coffee,“we” look after the children, “we” will persevere.

“How did you get involved with coffee? When did you get started?”

Briseida is 30 years old, formally trained in psychopedagogy, and a self-described feminist. She lives with her mother, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousin. 

She first learned about coffee when she was eight years old. As a teenager, she was already helping her parents with light activities on the plantation. And today, coffee farming is such an important part of her identity that she thinks of her co-workers as family.

Briseida works every day of the year. During the harvest period, she wakes up early to go to the windmill and prepare breakfast before heading out to the plantation. Outside of harvest time, her work includes gathering firewood from dry trees for cooking, as well as planting and grafting coffee.

Her field work starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., when she goes back home to finish other work with her family. Together, they wash the coffee harvested the previous day.

Despite criticism from her peers, Briseida is motivated by her work and enjoys sharing her personal experiences.

To her, “a farmer is a great worker.”

A new type of training

Briseida had already taken training courses and workshops on subjects like self-esteem, community empowerment, and food sovereignty when she heard about the Vision Zero Fund project and occupational safety and health (OSH) training course. It was a topic outside of her repertoire, and she was curious.

Health has always been a priority for the cooperative, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased that sentiment. Members grow medicinal plants and teas to protect against illness and disease. 

They know their plantation inside and out. However, they had never seriously considered training farmers in OSH principles.

The risks of the work are myriad. Coffee farm workers often use heavy machinery on the plantation, which can lead to accidents. Briseida herself was once nearly electrocuted while operating a machine with wet hands. She was lucky – the accident didn’t have any consequences. But she could have been seriously injured, or worse.

Briseida and her sister, Irais, sample the river water. They measure the pH, analyze the quality, and record the results. This is just one of the ways the cooperative cares for the environment.

Galdino, Briseida’s uncle, transports seedlings from his nursery to the family’s plot. He follows all the safety recommendations to prevent accidents while he rides his mule. Briseida and her aunt prefer to walk.

Briseida walks to her plot, carrying her hoe on her shoulder. Her objective is to add new coffee plants to the plantation. Now, she observes proper OSH recommendations: her tool is covered and she wears long sleeves and pants, boots, and a hat.

Briseida uses a hoe to make a hole in the ground, where a new coffee plant will later be planted.

Briseida found a false coral snake on her plot; she points to it with her machete. Various snakes live in the area, some poisonous, others not. This one continued on its way without any trouble.

Briseida uses a manual for water sampling and analysis. She and other members of the cooperative test the river periodically. Afterward, they gather to share food with friends and family.

Through the Vision Zero Fund training, Briseida learned how to avoid risks like that. Now, she and her co-workers have a background in OSH and look out for one another at work. They’ve learned about the importance of machine maintenance, especially for old ones. And they’ve realized that they needed to make certain adjustments, like replacing light bulbs, or wearing protective equipment like gloves.

When asked about what she learned during the course, Briseida connects back to her community and their three pillars: quality of life, health, and prevention at work.

“First health, then work. It’s important to be safe and to take care of one another,” she said. “You must know your community and act as a unit.”

The big picture

Mexico is the world’s 12th largest exporter of Arabica coffee and the leading exporter of organic coffee, mostly destined for markets in the United States, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and Canada. In 2017, coffee production accounted for 6% of all agricultural economic units in the country.

Veracruz is one of Mexico’s most important coffee-producing areas. It’s also the state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country. And the work comes with many potential dangers.

About 98% of coffee producers are small-scale, with less than 5 hectares of crops – like Briseida and her family.

Risk factors include:

  • The machete, the main cause of work-related accidents on plantations due to the physical burden and postures required to use it
  • Tree pruning, which may result in falls and blows
  • Harmful fauna, like snakes and other animals, that pose biological risks
  • Toxic agrochemicals, frequently dusted, sprayed, sprinkled, or applied as a steam for fertilization, pest control, and weed control
  • Noise emitted by work tools, such as brush cutters or machines used for wet method processing
  • Fatigue and stress, along with other psychosocial risks

A vision for safety and health

There is no official statistical information on occupational accidents in coffee production, so it can be hard to understand where there is room for improvement. What we do know is that there is a general lack of awareness about the potential risks involved in daily tasks. 

Global value chains offer opportunities to improve OSH, even – or especially – on small-scale farms. 

That’s why the Vision Zero Fund promotes specific interventions to prevent work-related accidents and diseases in the coffee value chain in Mexico.

Women-led networks in coffee

Women account for 40% of coffee producers in Mexico. That percentage has grown among associations specialized in producing organic coffee. 

However, most women are considered to be just “helping out” and are not included in statistics. In reality, women play a key role in coffee production, doing work such as preparing meals, filling bags, selecting coffee, picking cherries, and much more.

This is one reason why Briseida is passionate about women-led networks and alliances in the coffee sector. She is focused on improvement for herself and for her community.

Sexism was a challenge she faced early on, since there was already a local men’s cooperative in her area. However, she persisted and opened her cooperative, which now provides masculinity workshops.

She shares her presidency position in the cooperative with two other women, who are also the daughters of coffee farmers. The cooperative itself is made up of mostly families and close friends. They rely on one another for almost everything.

After all, it’s thanks to the women’s cooperative that she found out about the Vision Zero Fund project and OSH training course.

“We all have rights and obligations.”

Community and OSH go hand-in-hand

Briseida was one of the women coffee producers that directly benefited from the project. Today, she is an OSH advocate on the plantation and within her cooperative. And she continues to share her knowledge of OSH with her community during meetings, switching from talking about the results of the latest coffee export to giving tips on staying safe in the fields.

Self-sufficiency, which was already important to Briseida before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, is now one of her top priorities. The cooperative was already using agroecology principles to save money and promote sustainability. 

Now that she has completed the OSH training, Briseida understands that safety and health at work is just as important to ensuring continuous, sustainable production.

Briseida’s dream is that the next generation transcends to the next level. She has high hopes for the cooperative, agroecology, and the power of feminism in her community, and she is working toward that vision every day. What is certain is that she isn’t going anywhere until she achieves it, with her entire community – her family – behind her.