The history of coffee production in Chiapas, Mexico involves diverse circumstances faced by the small producers who occupy the area. Chiapas is mainly occupied by indigenous people, dedicated to the cultivation of coffee. Coffee production used to be a good source of income for the communities in the region, but drastic climate change, oversupply of coffee produce, and environmental factors, such as coffee seed diseases and strong plagues, have diminished the incomes of these communities. Coffee cultivation in Chiapas involves several factors that affect the well-being of this people, who often find themselves struggling to obtain income from cultivation. The coffee supply chain and how it affects farmers’ coffee production and their well-being is explored in this paper, as well as the way systems thinking explicates the parts, systems, relationships and perspectives that frame the issue. The simple rules of systems thinking help identify the complexity of the problem. The issues surrounding coffee production create a vast interactive network, and applying systems thinking can help identify and organize the thinking process needed to address these issues. In sum, systems thinking challenges the current understanding of coffee production issues faced by small farmers in Chiapas and offers insight into a solution based on newly reorganized relationships between the actors influencing this market and their current inputs.

Why Systems Thinking?

Coffee is a commercial crop best cultivated in the thin soils of the forested mountains in Chiapas, Mexico, but the recent reconfiguration of national and international coffee markets has hurt small farmers there. Several environmental, social, political, and commercial situations have limited the ability of farmers’ produce to reach global markets, also limiting their ability to move away from poverty. My recent interest in this problem led to a research paper on small farmers’ coffee production in Chiapas. That research presented the history of coffee production in the zone, the social, environmental, and political situations, and their historical effects on the well-being of the small producers of coffee in the area. However, no explicit connections were made between the social, environmental, and political situations and their resulting problems, nor between the systems that arose from these situations. In addition, the research was not able to clearly explain the relationships between the issues and participants in this complex system. Ultimately, I had only a small piece of the problem. Understanding the complexity of the issues surrounding coffee production required a new approach.

Systems thinking is emergent of four simple rules: Distinctions, Systems, Relationships and Perspectives. These are four cognitive functions underlying the formation of ideas; the rules do not operate in isolation, but parallel with one another.[1] Systems thinking organizes and structures ideas in a way that makes the factors involved in the farmers’ decision on what type of coffee to produce, or even to move to another activity to survive, more understandable. This more focused way of analyzing the situation led to the discovery of gaps in the analysis of the coffee production system. Figure 2 illustrates the final result of my analysis on the issue, utilizing the systems thinking approach.

Challenging the prevailing distinctions within the coffee production field and adding more specifics to the forces affecting coffee production in Chiapas led to a better understanding of the system. For example, identifying parts of the larger system—e.g., type of coffee production, driving forces, coffee supply chain, effects on the world, the current “solutions” in place, and the external participants who provide these solutions—generated insight into the complexity of market-access and poverty. Systems thinking considers wider contexts, and led me to include the understanding of the coffee supply chain and its relationship to coffee production in Chiapas in the new analysis. Figure 2 illustrates how the coffee supply chain relates to the coffee production system encountered by small farmers in Chiapas.

Figure 2: Thinking process that shows the complex circumstances influencing small farmers’ coffee production in Chiapas

Distinctions, Systems, and Relationships in Small Farmers’ Coffee Production in Chiapas

The Distinctions Rule simply states that for every identity, there is another completely different one. The Systems Rule says that any idea or thing can be split into parts or lumped into a whole. The systems Rule is illustrated in Figure 3, which shows the driving forces that affect the type of coffee production: capital resources, the environment, world prices, and local policies. These forces are different parts of a whole, each part being distinct from another. The Systems Rule also shows that we can seek out parts of parts. For example, as shown in Figure 4, the part “Capital Resources”, from the whole “Driving Forces” also has parts such as types of coffee certifications, workforce, and land. A coffee certification could enable small farmers to occupy a better position in the supply chain, since it will make them more competitive in the market. Workforce is the amount of people available to work on the farm. Land represents the amount and type of land that the farmer has in possession in order to produce. One might think that with a proper balance or amount of each of these parts in the coffee production formula, small coffee producers would be able to make a living from this activity. However, other factors prevent small coffee farmers in Chiapas from making a substantial living.

Figure 3: Driving Forces: Whole and Parts that conform a system

Figure 4: Parts of a part

Figure 5: Type of Coffee Production: A whole and corresponding parts

There are many species of coffee, but two species are mainly cultivated in Chiapas: Arabica and Robusta. The Arabica bean, the main species grown in Chiapas, is characterized by its self-fertilization, is considered superior, and sells for a higher price. It is also vulnerable to the current pest of leaf rust affecting Chiapas. The Robusta is a hardier crop, quite resistant to leaf rust, but it has a bitter taste, and sells for a lower price. A current alternative seed is available in Chiapas, a hybrid between the previous two, which offers the opportunity to make more profit with a better tasting coffee, as well as the benefit of rust resistance. Even though these three options are available, farmers are suffering because there is an oversupply of coffee worldwide, and it drives the price of Robusta and Arabica coffee down. This hurts producers of Arabica, in particular, since it gives less room for profit from selling it, and the production of this type of coffee requires more intensive cultivation activities, as well as higher costs in production. Falling prices have been accompanied by rising costs: coffee is still largely picked by hand, and wages are rising. Because of these issues, farmers sometimes decide to move to a different crop or activity in order to survive. As shown in Figure 5, the systems rule was used to explicitly present the types of coffee production along with a system of activities that farmers need to consider as part of the whole network. The Distinctions Rule helps us recognize the challenges facing different methods of coffee production, and how they can lead to different income generation or environmental outcomes.

When looking at the parts of driving forces and types of coffee production, systems thinking leads to an explication of the relationships (action-reaction) to show dynamical interactions between the elements of any system. Coffee production emerges as a complex adaptive system (CAS); systems thinking analysis reveals how a variety of factors influence farmers’ micro-behaviors and how the circumstances and rules that affect farmers’ actions thus lead, collectively, to larger-scale emergent phenomena.

Figure 6: The Relationship between Type of Coffee Production and Driving Forces is a CAS.

In Chiapas, several NGOs are working directly with farmers to improve their production capabilities, and some government extensions are included in these efforts. These NGOs provide solutions based on their perspective of the producers’ needs, considering mainly productivity and certain ways to improve it. Figure 7 shows the parts of the current solutions that NGOs and some government development projects are delivering. Certain biases of these organizations obscure a much broader view of the problem, and some of these efforts likely fail to substantially improve small coffee producers’ welfare. The underlying problem is that no appropriate organized partnership exists between all these NGOs and government extensions to unify efforts by doing a proper market study a providing substantial information that could enable an innovative marketing strategy focused on the development of new markets, in order to start pulling the farmers out of the current abyss of their struggles.

Figure 6: Relationship between External Participants, current solutions, and Type of Coffee Production

Figure 7: Parts of the current solutions provided by NGOs

 There are millions of coffee farmers worldwide, with an opportunity to reach millions of coffee drinkers. They are affected by the supply chain and its few major players controlling the business. This global coffee supply chain is comprised of a system of main parts: producers, traders, roasters, grocers and consumers. Figure 8 shows the relationships, distinctions and systems (RDS) for the Global Coffee Supply Chain. We have 25 million people working on the production of coffee; on the last linkage we have 500 million coffee consumers. There are three steps on the coffee supply chain that separate coffee producers from coffee consumers, two of which are the most problematic. Four companies control almost 40 percent of global trade in coffee, and only three rosters (Philip Morris, Nestlé and Sara Lee) control 45 percent of the global market.[2] These corporations have found the way into the system, and are collecting most of the premiums from the global commercialization of coffee. The Mexican small coffee producers are challenged by the structure of this supply chain, as most of the rewards that come from the commercialization of this commodity never get back to the producers. Thus, the efforts made by small coffee farmers on quality and effective production are in vain, because the income benefit is not perceived.

The new cognitive organization techniques of systems thinking led me to see composite structures such as Relationships, Distinctions, and Systems (RDS) in the analysis of the system of the coffee supply chain. In other words, I focused on the relationships between the coffee producers and coffee consumers, and deconstructed them into a system comprised of parts—in this case, the coffee supply chain and its participants.

Figure 8: Relationship, Distinctions, and Systems (RDS) for the Global Coffee Supply Chain



The Perspectives Rule states that perspectives are comprised of a point and a view, and that seeing multiple perspectives expands the thinking about an issue and leads to better understanding. In this case, we must carefully consider the perspectives of the government and NGOs regarding the coffee supply chain. By thinking more deeply and taking into consideration the mental models of each entity, one recognizes that a gap exists between the NGOs and the government’s mental model and the actual reality of the coffee supply chain. This recognition might be part of the solution to the struggles of small coffee producers in Chiapas. The solutions that NGO’s and the government are currently providing do not include the analysis previously presented on the coffee supply chain, because they are not investing in developing marketing strategies for the small coffee producers in Chiapas and their penetration in the international coffee market.[3] There is a need for a plan that will streamline the path of coffee from farmers to consumers, reducing the participation of the middle links on the supply chain, or at least reduce the gains for the major players and companies, and increase the gains for the majority of producers.

Figure 9: Perspectives Rule Applied


A Solution Spec that arose from DSRP

After analyzing all the relationships, systems, distinctions and perspectives affecting the small coffee producers’ struggles, developing a national plan to disseminate international coffee supply chain information and address international market penetration was identified as the ultimate problem to overcome in order to increase farmers’ income. Small farmers have to enter the supply chain, so the government may have to figuratively remove, through innovative development policies, some hurdles to facilitate a more direct relationship between farmers’ products and the actual customers. I thought more about the parts, saw the organization of all the parts in a new or novel way, and related each of the parts to one another (part parties). Figure 10 depicts how I used R-channels to compare previous systems and came up with a new, better-organized network that presented a complex adaptive system (CAS) to represent the situation of small farmers’ coffee production in Chiapas. Based on the new network, I also developed solutions addressing small farmers’ struggles to produce coffee in Chiapas.

Figure 10: DSRP Rules and a new, simpler Mental Model: CAS for Small Coffee Producers in Chiapas

The new network consists of a feedback-based system that will continuously improve understanding of the coffee supply chain (which includes all the parts and wholes presented previously), and consequently will modify current solution initiatives from partnerships between the Mexican government and NGOs (analyzing the effects on small coffee producers’ wellbeing in Chiapas), that will conjunctively work on innovative initiatives to develop the market development plan for the small coffee producers in Chiapas.


I struggled through the complexity of my map to identify leverage points and to organize it in a new way that made the system simpler and easier to comprehend. I saw the complexity of my topic as a massively relational, perspectival network where every edge could be a distinguished node, and where every node could be a system in and of itself. The node could be a perspective (point of view), and could be related to or constitute the relationship between other elements. In the end, I was able to switch my mental model for this issue: from a document to a complicated mind-map, then to a final complex and adaptive new Meta map. The DSRP rules contributed to this new mental model of the small-scale coffee production system in Chiapas. I framed a new structure of available solutions to help small coffee producers in Chiapas increase their livelihood. After considering this whole system of the decision making process small farmers use when producing coffee, we see that these farmers traverse many complexities in order to make a living, while providing vital produce for our perhaps less complicated lives. As Don Rene, an actual coffee producer in Chiapas, said this past summer in an interview performed by one of my class mates: “Only the brave stay to work the land.”

Embracing simplicity is an essential part of thinking systemically. You don’t need to spend a lifetime to become a systems thinker; you only need to start following the four simple rules.[4] These rules are universal and can be applied globally to all wicked problems. The rules are universal to all systems thinking methods, and can be applied to solve any wicked problem, from everyday challenges to worldwide problems. Systems thinking is a powerful tool that will challenge each and every human being to pay attention to their thinking, and to find novel solutions by continuously expanding and improving their mental models.

  1. Emerson, Richard F. “Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek and Laura Cabrera Odyssean Press 2015 (ISBN‐978‐0‐9963493‐0‐7).” INSIGHT 18, no. 4 (2015): 41-41.
  2. FAO (2004). The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets 2004. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/3/a-y5419e.pdf.
  3. Secretaría De Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca Y Alimentación (SAGARPA). (2015, September). Gobierno De Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Plan Integral De Atención Al Café. Mexico, DF.: Mexican Government, 2012. Retrieved from: http://amecafe.org.mx/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/PIAC.pdf.
  4. Emerson, Richard F. “Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek and Laura Cabrera Odyssean Press 2015 (ISBN‐978‐0‐9963493‐0‐7).” INSIGHT 18, no. 4 (2015): 41-41.


About the Author: Victoria De La Rosa is a 2016 Master in Public Administration candidate and Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Fellow at Cornell University, as a beneficiary of the Panama – Cornell Agreement. Her concentration is on international development, with special focus on food security and agriculture development policies. She is currently on the CIPA semester abroad program in Rome, pursuing an internship on the FAO Office of Evaluation. Victoria has been given the responsibility of developing a Meta-Evaluation of projects promoted by the FAO in Guatemala and Honduras, and to assist in an intensive study on capacity development of institutional bodies in these two Central American countries.

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