José E. Juárez

Unión de Ejidos de La Selva
Year founded: 

Unión de Ejidos de La Selva is an association of coffee-producing indigenous families in Chiapas, Mexico, helping farmers to increase their income and self-sufficiency.

Focus: Rural Development, Trade
Geographic Area of Impact: Mexico
Model: Social Business
Recognition: Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Mexico, 2005

Before 1970 a feudal system dominated the Mexican state of Chiapas. That year a rural uprising took place in which indigenous farmers demanded land ownership. The federal government and wealthy landowners responded by agreeing to give government lands to the farmers, but there was one drawback: the land was in the jungles of Chiapas and roads, water and other basic infrastructure were non-existent. Faced with this challenging new reality the farmers decided the only way to get their products to market was to organize collectively. They established the Unión de Ejidos de La Selva with the help of Jesuit priests living in the area and José Juárez, an agricultural engineer who started working with the communities 28 years ago.

Innovation and Activities
Unión de Ejidos de La Selva is a union of 1,300 coffee-producing indigenous families in 42 communities in Chiapas. What distinguishes it from other cooperatives and associations is its commercialization strategy. In addition to foregoing the use of intermediaries to sell its coffee nationally and internationally, it sells its finished product directly to the consumer. Over 15 years ago the union pioneered efforts in Mexico that predated Starbuck's, opening La Selva Coffee Shops in the country’s major cities and in Europe.

By controlling the entire chain of coffee production Unión de Ejidos de La Selva has been able to take advantage of the full urban consumer value of coffee and use it to improve farmer income and self-sufficiency. All profits are distributed among its members and used to address social needs identified within their own communities. Investments go to ensuring better soil management and environmental practices, including certified organic techniques that limit erosion and water pollution.

Unión de Ejidos de La Selva’s innovative approaches have allowed it to survive the international collapse of the coffee market as well as the insurrections of the Zapatista movement that spread through Chiapas and significantly affected rural communities. Part of its strategy is to identify multiple markets and establish commercial links with small and medium coffee roasters in Europe and the US. Although sales volumes are limited using this strategy, it permits the establishment of personalized, stable and trusting relationships.

“If you sell 1,000 kilos of coffee to a huge buyer that needed 150,000 kilos, you are nobody,” explains José Juárez. “However, if you sell it to a buyer who sells 2,500 kilos a year, then you become someone he relies on.”

The Entrepreneur
In his youth José Juárez worked alongside his father farming their small plot of land. Although life was hard he loved agricultural work and at age 18 enrolled in the National Agricultural School in Chapingo and became an agricultural engineer. When he was 21 Juárez went to Chiapas as part of his practicum experience, where he initiated contacts with the indigenous farmers who would later become members of Unión de Ejidos de La Selva. He quickly learned their customs and ways of thinking and fell in love with their struggle to improve their lives. He stimulated their interest in reading and writing so that they could become owners of their own destiny as entrepreneurs.