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Peter Bell


Two Gringos go south of the border - by Peter Bell - May 2004

The people we came to meetThis whole adventure started back in 2003 when I was chatting to a soccer playing pal of mine one Saturday morning drinking coffee after our pick up game. Adan mentioned that his father lived in southern Mexico and in a previous adventure, tried to put a sesame seed growing cooperative together in the 80’s. I got in contact with Adan's father, Oscar and discussed the possibilities of feedstock production for Biodiesel. Oscar went on a tour of southern Mexico, mainly in the Chiapas area, confirming that our feedstock plant did grow wild all over the area and he had found what he called an oil seed growing paradise.

At the start of 2004, Soy bean oil was trading at $2.70 per gallon which made Biodiesel a $3.50 per gallon fuel without subsidies in place. Even with subsidies in place we could only sell the fuel at a price ranging between $2.50 and $3.00 per gallon, which meant the venture was going to struggle with petrodiesel selling at the pump for $1.60 per gallon.

You have to want to hug a tree pretty hard or dislike middle east oil a great deal to pay that kind of price differential. It seemed like a good idea to head south of the US border to go in search of low cost vegetable oil feedstocks. I knew of a feedstock plant that was native to many parts of southern Mexico and that would yield 4 times more oil per acre than soy. The Mexican climate is perfect for the plant and there is lots of low cost, marginal land available for production.

In February of 2004 I met an Attorney by the name of Don at the National Biodiesel conference in Palm Springs. I bumped into Don at a table while in discussions with a Vice President of a small oil company from San Antonio, Texas. Don identified me as the only person at the conference that was talking about how to make money out of Biodiesel by making it cost competitive with petrodiesel. Everywhere I went during the conference, Don mysteriously would appear so I figured it was worth chatting to him.

It turned out that Don is part of a potential Home Heating oil buying group and they are looking for a cheap source of Biodiesel for the coming winter heating season. They are planning to market an Environmentally friendly home heating oil and try to take a big slice of what is perceived to be an emerging market that remains untapped.  I mentioned to Don under the cover of a non-disclosure agreement the name of the feedstock I was planning to use and he went about doing his research.

Don came to the same conclusion that I did, where we think a plant that can produce a yield in excess of 200 gallons per acre from marginal land stands a good chance of being more cost effective than soy as a Biodiesel feedstock. Soy oil typically yields 55 gallons per acre and can be profitably produced for $1.80 per gallon. A back of the envelope calculation indicates that our feedstock oil source could provide us vegetable oil at 50 cents per gallon and suggested that this opportunity might be a very profitable one to pursue.

Don agreed and we booked our flights to Mexico, to see if we could bring this concept to life...

The Route

The route

Trip Itinerary 14th to 21st April 2004

  • Mexico City - My trip starts in Dallas, TX and Don’s in State College, PA. Don overnights in Atlanta and meets me in Mexico City.

  • Puebla - We bus it down to Puebla staying there one night with the folks from the Mexican Technical Institute, and then take the bus back to Mexico City.

  • Oaxaca City - Flying onto Oaxaca, rent a car and stay in Oaxaca City.

  • Salina Cruz - Drive to Salina Cruz to pick up Oscar.

  • Chiapas - Drive to Chiapas to meet a banker in Tonala, overnight in Arriaga and go meet the famers in the Cameneros center.

  • Huatulco - We meet our botanist, Silvia, in La Crucecita, Huatulco and drive high into the mountains above Huatulco where we suspect not too many Gringos have gone before.

  • Oaxaca and Home - We then drive what has to be the most twisty road in the world, 175 miles up from the coast back to Oaxaca and then fly back out to the USA via Mexico City on different days.

Our first stop was Mexico City and we had arranged to meet at the airport. I stepped off the plane on April 14th 2004 and Don was there at the gate to meet me, wow this crazy trip has started absolutely on time and without a hiccup, it has to be a good omen.

Day 1 - Mexico City to Puebla.

Don and I walk out of the arrivals lounge and there is a gentleman holding up a sign with my name on it. I was never sure from my e-mail correspondence if Alma was male or female, so I walk up and say hi Alma, but a diminutive lady standing next to the gentleman holding the sign pipes up and says “I am Alma”.

The gentleman turns out to be Jorge and works with Alma studying our feedstock plant for his PhD. Back in 2002, I had been in contact with Alma as she was doing some research into our feedstock and coincidentally just before we booked our flights to Mexico, re-contacted me to see if we could cooperate. Alma is based out of the town of Puebla, about 2 hours south east of Mexico City and very kindly agreed to meet us at the Airport as we had no idea how to find her in the sprawl that is called Mexico City.

Alma and Jorge guided us through the maze of Mexico City and we hopped on the bus to Pubela. I was pleasantly surprised by the bus service, a confirmed seat location, free peanuts and drinks, security search before boarding and luggage confirmation tickets, it was better than Southwest Airlines.

It was at this bus station were we saw one of the first nuances that came to define Mexico for us. There was a sign on a kiosk advertising translation to help the English speaking traveler. The sign read “Spoken English” and really gave the traveler a sense of the losses in the translation process that they might anticipate if they were to use this service.

The ride from Mexico City to Puebla was pleasant and we saw great views of the valleys on the way. Alma booked us into a fantastic place called the Hotel Colonial, right in the center of Puebla and we enjoyed our stay here a great deal.

Hotel Colonial - Front DoorThe hotel has the oldest working elevator in Mexico and as Don trusted his not inconsiderable bulk to this extremely ancient piece of machinery. We saw the first of many Holy Mary’s said by Don on this trip as he crossed himself before uttering “once more going into the breach”.

Hotel Colonial - Entrance HallThe hotel was right opposite the University of Puebla where the fire plug of a personality going by the name of Minerva is studying.

We met Minerva when we first arrived in Puebla as she was kind enough to pick us up from the bus station and gave us our first introduction to driving in Mexico. There are many “Alto” signs on the side of the road indicating that a driver should stop. Minerva explained that no one paid any attention to stop signs and we only once stopped for one during our whole trip, until the driver behind us blew his horn in indignation that we were holding him up stopping for the sign.

The Hotel Colonial had a fantastic dinning room that was located in a court yard, right in the middle of the building. The owners of the hotel had built a really nice dome over the space giving the room a very good atmosphere.

Hotel Colonial - Dinning room

We met a number of interesting people under this dome including the representatives of the Puebla coffee growers. Minerva’s husband brought these folks in as he is a coffee grower and we discovered they represent 43,000 coffee growers in the Northern part of Puebla.

The coffee prices are depressed so the growers can only make $300 per hectare compared to $500 in a good year and there is some doubt whether all of their supply will be purchased. Our oil seed feedstock plant could turn out to be a huge bonus for these coffee farmers as they get to diversify their production and still earn a good return per hectare when coffee prices are strong. Another benefit is the shade supplied by our plants when one row is planted with oil seeds the other with coffee, as this helps the coffee plant.

We had a great discussion about coffee growing and the potential for oil feedstock production. Most of the conversation was between the coffee growers and Alma, they would occasionally translate a few sentences of the discussion for our benefit. Don tried to be tactful over his decline to drink coffee at this meeting as he does not like coffee. He was saved by Minerva breaking open a wonderful bottle of coffee liquor Don in Puebla have just retrieved his passportmixed with cream that tastes like Baileys Irish cream and a bottle of straight coffee liquor that tasted like Amaretto or Kailua.

Don quietly got a good buzz going at 8am in the morning while the conversation swirled around us in Spanish, while us gringos had no idea what was being said. We did hear the word Gringo mentioned by one of the coffee grower representative and he become very embarrassed when I pointed this out to him. Obviously the comment was not passed in a polite or complimentary way and gave us a good indication how some of the folks we meet along the way might just be looking at us as an ATM machine, rather than business partners.

Don gave himself a fright as he forgot his jacket in the hotel and it had his passport in the pocket.

Minerva’s husband very kindly gave me a bag of coffee for us to take home as a sample which my wife loved, but I had to drag it all the way around Mexico. We passed through many military check points looking for drug runners and illegal immigrants. At one check point a soldier actually looked in my luggage that had the bag of coffee and still did not find it. It just goes to show that we could have had no travel visas or been carrying illegal drugs and these guys would never have picked us up.

Puebla's Town squareUnfortunately we had to leave the town of Puebla with its beautiful two churches right in the middle of the town square.

We now headed back by bus to Mexico City with Jorge showing us the way. We were getting back to Mexico City to catch the flight to Oaxaca for the next part of the trip, deep into the heart of southern Mexico.

Don was flying on stand-by tickets and AeroMexico is a partner with Delta but for some unknown reason Don’s flights were blacked out. He was now stuck in Mexico City, I flew on to Oaxaca on a virtually empty flight which had plenty of room on it for him in one of the 50 empty seats.

Day 2 – Oaxaca City - Oaxaca.

Hotel CasAntica - OaxacaPeter by the pool at the Hotel CasAntica - OaxacaDon made the next flight and found me roughing it at the bar it in the Hotel CasAntica in the center of Oaxaca City. I was glad to see Don walk in as he had made such an effort to get this far and to get stuck in Mexico City when the flights are wide open, would have been a real shame.

This was the first place I had to drive in Mexico. Trying to keep an eye open for the crazy drivers as well use the other eye to navigate my way round the maze of one way streets was interesting to say the least...

It was here that I had my first encounter with a “Tope” on the way in from the airport and took the speed bump at nearly 50kms per hour. My head was in the map and watching the traffic all around, so I was a little surprised by the speed bump placed in the middle of the main road into the capital city of the state of Oaxaca. The wheels remained attached to the car, but it was a great demonstration of why not to buy a used car from a Mexican rental car company. Hotel CasAntica - Oaxaca

“Tope” is Spanish for bump or “sleeping policemen” as they are called in the UK. People put these speed bumps on any road they please. Most of the roadside restaurants and shops use them as an economic development tool as you have to slow down right outside the owner's store. However, without the speed bumps everywhere, I would imagine the traffic speeds would be truly terrifying and the death toll on the roads extraordinary.

I liked Oaxaca City a lot as it had a very European feel to it, the streets were relatively clean and the city seems to be doing well economically.

Day 3 – Driving from Oaxaca to Salina Cruz

Oscar and Peter in ArriagaThe drive down to Salina Cruz was nice but the trash on the side of the road was depressing. The trash went on for miles and on this drive, we saw one of the most mind boggling things of the trip.

The trash collection team was a group of 4 guys tasked with picking up all the trash along this highway. Instead of picking up the trash, they would throw it further over the edge of the road so that when their boss drove by, the road would look clear as far as he could see. If you drove around the next switch back, the line of trash would start several feet down from the edge of the road, on what was otherwise a beautiful hillside. Admittedly these guys had a monumental task in front of them and I do not blame them for their actions.

We met Oscar at his house in Salina Cruz. Salina Cruz has to be one of the hottest, windiest and roughest places on the planet, I was glad we did not have to stay long.

Oscar talking to the Mayor of Arriaga by phone

Day 4 - Tonala and Arriaga - Chiapas

Oscar had arranged for us to meet the Cameneros of Arriaga, but we had no idea who the Cameneros were. We were a little apprehensive as to what was going to happen during the meeting, especially a meeting that we could not understand a word of what was being said.

The meeting was a very interesting experience and Don could not keep a straight face at Oscar’s comment as to how things are going “Ok, but one of the buggers is asleep”. One farmer then decided to turn around in the middle of the meeting a spat a huge lurgy on the floor and then turned back to the meeting like nothing had happened.

At the same time, the local kids were letting off fire crackers while we were chatting to the farmers. The farmers did not even blink at the noise while we were getting ready to run. These guys obviously knew the difference between a fire cracker and gunfire from experience...

Meeting the famersIf you look at the background of this picture you will see a painting of a Mexican Cowboy on a horse wearing a giant sombrero, this was the only art work in the entire building, well cool... The Cameneros meeting room

After the meeting, most of the farmers went home on their bikes. Don commented that this was not the kind of transportation he envisaged that folks that could be responsible for supplying a great deal of America’s transportation fuel would rely on.

On the way back from Arriaga we found the most perfect location for windmills and windsurfing. The wind blew continuously and 50mph wind speeds were reportedly very common. There were 6 windmills built in the area, at the time only 4 were operation, I guess down for maintenance. We commented that if this was Palm Springs, there would a 1,000 windmills installed in this valley by now.

If you would like to contribute to help bring the poor out of poverty, Lucy Billingsley of Dallas is heading up a project to make Micro Finance available to entrepreneurs in the area. Click the link for more information:   http://www.gfusa.org/programs/chiapas_project/

Wedding Party in Juchitan

In a tiny town Juchitan, we stopped for our last time before dropping Oscar off at his home in Salina Cruz. The town has a great square and a nice restaurant located in the quadrangle of an old colonial house.

The square was full of vendors selling their wares and we witnessed a wedding party parading down the main street on their way to the the reception party.

We left Oscar in Salina Cruz and enjoyed the drive along the coast to Huatulco. This area is set up as an eco development and has lofty goals to ensure the environment is well protected.

Coast line in Huatulco

Day 5 - Huatulco - Oaxaca

We liked the coastal area but were unsure that this was a good place to invest in buying a holiday home. Others, like Hulio Eglasias and ex-President Salinas would disagree having homes in the area.  

The Pacific coast is wonderful, we just thought it was a shame that people leave their trash everywhere.

Source of All Biodiesel Feedstock

Don, Silvia and her two assistants

In a way our next adventure reminded me of the Monty Python movie, the Meaning of Life. We drove 2 hours up into the mountains where we saw people living "way off the grid" and a few of them were armed with guns, so we were not entirely sure what we had gotten ourselves into.

The we came to the source of all the oil for Biodiesel production in North America. In the photo to the left, Don, Silvia and her two assistants are standing in front of a crop that could dramatically reduce the pollution created by diesel powered engines and go someway towards helping to clean our air in the state of Texas.

Unfortunately there were only 5 or 6 bushes growing at the end of this road, so it was a long way to go to see a plantation of sufficient size to fire up a big rig for more than 3 seconds straight.  But, hey is is a start and this stuff seems to grow pretty well even at these kinds of altitudes, plus survive the cold evening temperatures.

Day 6 - Back to Oaxaca

We encountered a pair of enterprising 14 year old girls on Highway 175 from Puerto Angel to Oaxaca using the town’s festive string and flags as a moveable road block. They set themselves up at the “Tope” and put the string across the road, only lowering it after you had made a contribution to their Tope fund. We went through at 20 mph and the girls lowered the string when the realized the gringos were not stopping for anything.

The road back from the coast to Oaxaca was the most twisty road I have ever seen in my life. The drive is about 7 hours and crosses over the mountains, back down into the Oaxaca valley. For the whole 7 hour drive, I don't think we ever had the wheel of the car pointing in a straight line for more than a few seconds at a time. Don got car sick from this roller coaster ride and even I as the driver was glad to get out of the car as my inner ear was reeling from the never ending turns.     

On my return to Oaxaca City after dropping Don off at the airport I actually had a great meal with good glass of wine. After the sights of southern Mexico, places like Arriaga, Tonola and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca City seemed like the cradle of civilization. I managed to find a great rooftop restaurant and the weather in Oaxaca is superb, so that final experience left me with a good taste in my mouth (so to speak) for the city.

I hope to return soon...

Day 7 - Oaxaca and home

I ran into some fantastic folks who run a castor bean company. I happened to spot a sign on a wall in Oaxaca City that said Rural Finance when I was walking around the town. I popped in and started talking to one of the gentlemen that was sitting at one of the desks is a room that was very starkly furnished. I discovered that the company was in “reorganization” after some of the loans it made went bad and the chap I was talking to was part of the clean up operation.

It turns out that Jesus's family runs a castor bean growing and processing operation, so he was very interested in hearing about another oil seed. He said he was keen to get involved and we might be able to use his family’s castor bean processing facility for our oil seeds, as the plant was currently sitting idle.

Doing Business in Mexico

Jesus set up a meeting for me with the head of FIRA, which is based in Oaxaca, we had met the Chiapas representative earlier on the trip. I show up for a meeting at 4.30 and no one knows where the head man of the operation is. These folks say come back at 6.30, I suspect just to get rid of me as they did not really know when the head man was due back. I finally got these guys together and then the head man shows up at 5.30 from another town. He had set up a meeting knowing full well he would not be attending at the set time and every one else knew this except me, dumb gringo. The head man then proceeds to open up the meeting with his comments in a very forthright way, “what do you want?”. I was taken aback by this abrupt approach, but put it all down to cultural differences and proceeded with the meeting, which in the end turned into a very productive meeting. A well..all in a days work for a Vegetable Oil man.

Don gets home 

Don got a good laugh when the top of his right hand started peeling badly the day after his return. He could not explain it to his wife who thought he had contracted some rare jungle skin-eating disease, or worse from some unknown source. It was quite unusual that the peeling would only be occurring on one part of his body, why the top of his right hand and no other spot on his body.  Don’s wife was ready to send him to the doctor when Don remembered he had sun-burned that one hand when he hung it outside the window on our drive to Salina Cruz, so it turned out to be no big deal at all.

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Chiapas Links 

http://www.chiapasproject.org Chiapas Project provides free medical & dental care
http://www.chiapasmexico.org Chiapas Mexico - Sustainable Chiapas
http://promedios.org Chiapas Media Project
http://www.uga.edu/ethnobot/Res.html Highlands of Chiapas medicinal plant research project

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