Mexican Specialty Coffees

Quick Facts

Legal name: UNECAFE S.C. (Unidad Ecológica para el Sector Café Oaxaqueño Sociedad Civil)

Country: Mexico

State / Province: Oaxaca

Number of producers: 1,370 (65% men / 35% women)

Altitude MASL: From 800 to 2,300

Main varieties: Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Mondo Novo, Marsellesa

Harvest: December to May

Main process: Washed

Main native languages: Chatino, Mixteco, Zapoteco, Chinanteco


UNECAFE gathers 1,370 small producers of multi-label certified coffee, among which 35% are women. The producers are distributed in 59 working groups in 6 coffee regions of Oaxaca, a southern state of Mexico. The UNECAFE groups are made up of producers of the Chatina, Chinanteca, Mixteca and Zapoteca indigenous ethnic groups, of homonymous original languages and millenary cultures with great biocultural richness, people that have known how to preserve their uses and customs from generation to generation.

Each coffee region of Oaxaca presents specific agro-climatic conditions that create agricultural spaces that end up being niches for the cultivation of coffee of unparalleled quality. Due to the orographic conditions, it’s almost impossible to adopt mechanized technology for the coffee cultivation, hence agricultural work is done manually (sowing, picking, processing). Mostly family labor is employed known as “tequio”, “mano vuelta”, “gozona”, or “faena” is still practiced, a pre-Hispanic concept of reciprocal, cooperative, and unpaid work that consists of providing the labor force to a family member, neighbor, or friend for a specific task who later expects to be reciprocated in the same manner for its own activities. Thus, coffee cultivation has become a cultural part of the native peoples whose income depends on its commercialization.

Oaxaca Coffee Background

The history of coffee in Oaxaca goes back more than 80 years, when the locals were employed as agricultural laborers in large coffee estates. After having acquired experience in the cultivation of coffee, they brought some coffee seeds with them, intending to establish their own small farms and becoming coffee producers themselves. From the beginning coffee cultivation was carried out under ecological agricultural practices, although without official recognition (the producers were not certified).

During the terrible crisis of the coffee sector at the end of the 1980s, large farmers and small producers abandoned their plantations. The small producers recovered from this crisis and the great majority resumed their farms, although for a long time they were at the mercy of intermediaries, also called “coyotes”, who have been hoarding coffee at very low prices and sometimes without payment.

In spite of this, producers did not abandon their crops and continued to search for development opportunities. It was not until 2009 that the first working groups were organized to form UNECAFE, with the goal of forming a strong entity able to commercialize its coffee. They began by implementing good agroecological practices governed by strict certification standards, thus achieving higher quality in their processes, better prices, and an efficient traceability system that allows them to identify the origins of each lot of coffee.

Today, the UNECAFE groups have multi-label certifications such as USDA-NOP, UE, JAS, LPO, C.A.F.E. PRACTICES, FAIRTRADE, and RAINFOREST ALLIANCE; with which they have been able to sell their coffee abroad – the dream came true. We are now seeing some farmers in a transition process from commercial to specialty, always adapting to the market new demand. Each micro-lots is carefully selected from the best groups of the organization.

UNECAFE has contributed to establish a price reference in the state of Oaxaca. Consequently, the intermediaries had to raise their prices and improve their services, although without the advantages of certification. Another contribution has been the improvement of quality through technical assistance and ongoing training. It has been replicated by producers in communities that are not even members of the organization!

UNECAFE has managed to impact beyond the commercialization of coffee, with the convergence of its own resources and the help of governmental and non-governmental organizations. Therefore, coffee plants, coffee pulping machines, minor tools, housing, ecological latrines, health campaigns, income diversification with poultry, beehives for honey production, among others, have been granted in order to contribute to improve the livelihoods of producers and their families.

Good practices from a sustainable ecological vision have contributed to the preservation of natural resources through the ecosystem preservation provided by coffee cultivation such as clean water production, oxygen generation, pollination, climate regulation, carbon sequestration, scenic beauty, biodiversity of flora and fauna, among others.

Historically, the coffee sector in Oaxaca has been vulnerable due to the aging of its farmers. For this reason, the organization has sought to involve the young generation within the coffee production. It helps them root their communities with opportunities that prevent illegal migration to the USA. This situation still represents a challenge for the organization and its working groups.

On the other hand the role of women in the coffee sector has become very important as they had to take care of their farms after their husbands migrated to the US. UNECAFE makes a concerted effort to empower these women, maintaining them as key players in the development of coffee cultivation. Their involvement in the sector helped reduce discrimination and the income inequality gap. Through the organization, policies and norms have been implemented encouraging women interventions in the coffee field.

Regional Information

Mexico is a country located in the southern part of North America, between the United States of America and Central America, and is part of the Latin American community. Its natural geographic location allows it to have a great diversity of climates and ecosystems, which is why it is recognized as one of the 17 megadiverse countries on the planet, home to 12% of the world’s biodiversity and more than 12,000 endemic species.

Oaxaca is located in the southwest of Mexico. It is mainly composed of indigenous communities, with more than 16 ethnic groups. It is one of the most mountainous states in the country, for which its rugged orography has allowed its cultures to survive and maintain ancestral uses and customs deeply rooted in the territory. Oaxaca is also the Mexican state with the greatest linguistic diversity, with 11 native languages of which some have three variants according to the latitude: high, medium, and low. Because of its wide diversity of climates and ecosystems, Oaxaca is considered one of the states with the greatest biodiversity, with a large number of endemic species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plants. Nearly 20% of the state is under the influence of semi-warm climates, in which average annual temperatures range from 18°C to 22°C, or are higher than 18°C, and cover areas which altitude ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 MASL: favorable climatic conditions for coffee cultivation. For this reason, Oaxaca is the fourth-largest producer of coffee in the country.

Due to the limited average size of the farms (3 hectares), the coffee producers diversify their income by cultivating other products such as corn, beans, pumpkin, sugar cane, citrus fruits, bananas, yucca, diverse chilies, vegetables, medicinal and condimental herbs. Others raise poultry for meat and eggs, beehives for honey production and small livestock. A minority of them have a complimentary job such as carpentry, masonry, handmade embroidery, sewing traditional native costumes, traditional cuisine, among others.

With a historic center and two archeological zones registered at the UNESCO World Heritage, and others as Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Oaxaca has positioned itself as a world reference in the tourism sector, with a wide range of offers including beaches, mountains, colonial cities, magical towns, ecotourism and more. Its gastronomy, intangible world heritage of humanity, has also become an attraction with varied options ranging from the traditional to the most sophisticated.