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Regrowing sesame economy and culture
and culture

It’s no exaggeration to say that Mexico’s economy relies on agriculture. Almost 25 million people, close to one-fourth of Mexico’s population, are dependent on it. In comparison, in Europe a mere 3 to 5 percent of the population works in agriculture, and in the U.S. this figure is less than 2 percent. To help save the people’s livelihood, traditions and land, a special project in southern Mexico has been developed to encourage small-scale farmers to continue to cultivate the land rather than migrate to cities.

Mexico is a country of many colors—splashed across oceans, mountains, farm land and populated city centers. The nation has a highly developed electronics industry, and yet fields are often still ploughed by oxen teams. And although current statistics rank Mexico as one of the leading industrial nations, a trip through the countryside reveals a place indicative of both the past and the future.

Accompanied by José Luis Lopez Martinez, an agronomical engineer for the Grupo de Desarrollo Agricola Mexicano (DESAMEX), I travel to the land of the Zapotecs—the indigenous culture in the southern state of Oaxaca. The area seems a world away from the merchants of urban centers like Mexico City. DESAMEX’s mission is to bring organic farmers and purchasing companies together. The goal of such cooperation is to establish long-term, fair trade relationships that offer security to both producers and purchasers.

We head to the village of San Dionisio del Mar on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where one such project has been launched. Wearing a sombrero woven from sisal hemp as protection from the scorching heat, Martinez explains that for centuries half of the people who live here have been fishermen, and the other half farmers. He then tells me about the sesame farming that is indigenous to this region. “Seven years ago we began to encourage the farmers to convert to organic farming,” says Martinez. “Many companies requested organic sesame seeds from us as a raw material for use in various foods and cosmetics. But in Mexico, there were few who could provide it. So we decided to go to the villages and look for farmers who were interested and who were also looking for a long-term partnership. It took three years for us to win the trust of the people here,” he declares. “But it was worth it.” Today, 50 small businesses in San Dionisio participate in the project, and a total of 250 take part throughout the Tehuantepec region.

“The farmers deliver quality, and we stick to our contracts,” states Martinez. “The harvest is paid upon delivery, and each farmer also receives a fixed prepayment for sowing, harvesting, transportation and labor. And if they have any questions, we are there and provide on-site advice.”

Martinez further explains how eliminating the “cayotes”—the middlemen—is key to the farmers’ self-reliance, freeing them from their dependency on the well-off. In this relationship, a middleman who has money gives a farmer a whole year’s credit in the village shop. “When it is time to harvest the crops,” says Martinez, “he asks for the credit back in the form of the harvest—of course at a poor, unfair price! This middleman knows that the farmer is in a weaker position and will not dare scare off his creditor to whom he is again dependent the next year.”

Reapings by the handful

In the heat of a quiet afternoon we arrive at one farm community cultivated by several different farmers, each with his own plot of land. Two small-scale farmers, Don Apollinario and his son, are waiting for us. They have begun to clean the sesame seeds they harvested a few days earlier. “Despite the aridness, the harvest was good,” says Don Apollinario. We then go into the fields with another visitor, Rogelio Serna, an economist and agricultural engineer who is responsible for the “Sesajal” oil mill, which further processes the San Dionisio del Mar farmers’ harvest into valuable sesame oil in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco.

Despite the overwhelming heat the crops are immediately threshed on the field. Don Severino and Don Armando, two other small-scale farmers from San Dionisio, explain the procedure. After cultivating the sesame plants, they cut them with machetes and bundle them into sheaves. The plants dry in the sun for two weeks until they are withered. Then when the farmers beat the dried plants with wooden sticks, the seeds easily fall onto a cloth that has been spread out. The seeds are then put through a sieve by hand, after which they are cleaned and packed into sacks.

As we walk around, the rhythmic beating and the steady shaking of the sieve are the only sounds that can be heard.

The farmers take advantage of short breaks to speak with Martinez and Serna about this year’s sesame seed prices. Each year they negotiate the prices together. “This year I can give you ten pesos per kilo [about $0.41/pound] of sesame seeds,” says Martinez. In contrast, the market price for conventionally grown sesame seeds is about five pesos. Through this fair trade partnership, Martinez has offered them twice as much.

What the future will yield

The harvest is transported from the fields on a wooden cart drawn by zebu cattle. Under Don Apollinario’s sure guidance, it rolls down the dusty path to the village below. During this tedious journey, Don Apollinario tells me that he has five sons and seven daughters. Four of them have moved to the capital, Oaxaca. The young ones who still live at home already speak of going to the U.S. “I hope that at least three or four of my children will stay in the village,” he says. “But that will only work if we can also live from our land.” Don Apollinario estimates that, with the rotation of crops, he can harvest about 600 pounds of sesame seeds per acre each year. For his 15-acre area he can therefore yield just over 4 tons of sesame seeds, which corresponds to a value of 42,000 pesos (about $3,750). In Mexico this is still barely enough to support his 10-person family.

Serna, the agricultural engineer, is nevertheless convinced that only these long-term partnerships can save the rural regions from depopulation (see “Land and Freedom”). “The Mexican farmers’ organization CIOAC [Central Independients de Obreros Agricolas y Campesinos] estimates that in our country about 740 acres of agricultural land are given up daily due to an inability to rent it out—resulting from the decrease in crop prices over the past decade,” says Serna. “The sesame project developed by José Luis and his organization provides an incentive to stay on the land and harvest agricultural goods. And when partners in Europe, like Weleda, use organic sesame seed oil, more farmers can participate and profit from this partnership.”

Don Severino, Don Apollinario and Don Armando are confident in these prospects. They are among those farmers who have taken part in the project since the beginning. “We want our land, we want just wages for our work, and we want to live a life of dignity. These are our goals,” says Apollinario, as the other two men nod in agreement. “And we also want the same thing for our children.” ml