A Proud Country
BY LYN LEVERETT
Volcanoes, lakes and rolling hills are not the picture usually painted when describing the country of Nicaragua, yet, this beautiful country is trying to mend after years of war and natural disasters. Nicaragua, like many Central American countries, experienced years of upheaval. The price crisis and bad financing are causing many farmers to default on loans, especially because of inflated interest rates. As became the norm in Central America, certain varietals are victims of the price crisis. Despite drought, international institutions meddling and years of government corruption, Nicaragua is on the rebound. November elections put an agriculturally friendly president in office, Enrique Bolanos. People in exile during the Sandinista regime have been returning to their farms to try and invigorate Nicaragua’s coffee industry. There are many challenge ahead, but the strong Nicaraguan pride is one of the many weapons that will help the people overcome this adversity.
Shanty Towns and Starvation
In Matagalpa, one of the main coffee picking regions in Nicaragua, the condition of the workers has reached desperate levels. In 2001, a mass migration of coffee pickers headed towards Matagalpa in search of work in order to feed their families. They set up shanty towns in soccer fields and waited for harvest, but instead of work, they received handouts from local churches. Some made their way to the capital city of Managua in August to protest the current conditions by pitching tents across from then President Arnoldo Aleman’s palace. The estimates put the number of Nicaraguans suffering because of the state of the coffee industry at 250,000. The government has few employment opportunities for the pickers, some are lucky to get a job building new roads. Many coffee families, who have been picking coffee for generations, are going without food. There are many reasons for this crisis, low coffee prices, drought and bank foreclosures on small production farms, which make up the majority of farms in Nicaragua and are a by-product of the Sandinista regime. With the saturation of Robusta from Vietnam, a country supported by the World Bank, high-quality Arabicas from non-subsidized countries don’t have a chance to receive a fair price. Nicaragua’s National Assembly passed a bill to suspend for 300 days all foreclosures on farms due to debts and unpaid loans; however, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressured former President Aleman to veto the bill, which he did. Currently production costs are roughly twice the selling price. The farms that don’t leave coffee rotting on the vines are barely maintaining their trees. Farmers are addressing the problem as best they can, however, they are also struggling. They may not be able to employ as many pickers as in years past, but some are improving living quarters and kitchen facilities for their remaining laborers. Most farms have on-site schools and require that the children attend until around ages 11 or 12. In addition to education, farms also provide health care. The farm’s clinics have a nurse and visiting doctors. One of the most useful things they offer is birth control, to assist in reducing the size of families to help alleviate the burden of finding food.
Farmers Working for a Solution
La Virgen Estate, one of two farms that make up Ramacafe Fine Estate Coffees, is located about an hour and a half drive north of Matagalpa. The region is a high elevation area, which is very mountainous. The farm is only accessible through a series of dirt roads. The view from the highest point is astounding, with verdant valleys stretching out for miles. After searching for ideal growing conditions, Henry Hueck and his father-in-law started Ramacafe in 1995 by always keeping “social, ecological and quality conscious values in mind.” They had tradition on their side. As Hueck tells it, “The Rappaccioli family immigrated from Italy to Nicaragua in the eighteen hundreds and settled in the Meseta of Carazo. They became coffee growers and built El Paraiso Coffee Estate, one of the best plantations in the region. This was destroyed after the Sandinista revolution.” Their first crop produced very little, but their last crop produced 10,500 quintales, which they plan to maintain every year by adhering a strict pruning program of 25% of coffee trees every year. In regards to the coffees they offer, Hueck says, “The varieties that we have are picked in accordance with the market demands and the conditions where they were planted. We have Caturra Estrella, Catuai, Bourbon, some Maracatu and Catmor.” At Ramacafe, they believe in providing good living conditions for their pickers. At La Virgen Estate, Hueck invested in a modern kitchen to provide a clean and comfortable place for the workers to eat. In addition, he built a new school and new living quarters. When asked why he improved the standard of living for pickers, he responded, “I believe that to be able to establish long term relationships with our buyers and to maintain the quality of our production, we cannot have a work force that is always changing. So by being socially responsible and providing fair wages, a very decent place for their living conditions - like the investment we did in the new kitchen and the new school - by providing access to education and health services, we keep our permanent work force steady. Our workers think of themselves as partners, we are all working on the same page.”
Another example of successful plantation is Selva Negra, which is located in the highlands of central Nicaragua. This sustainable coffee plantation is run by Eddy and Mausi Kuhl, both of whom of quite a history of coffee in their blood. More than 100 years ago, Kuhl’s grandfather was extended an invitation from the Nicaraguan government to grow coffee. Today, Selva Negra is not only a sustainable coffee farm, but also a top tourist attraction in the Matagalpa region. Their coffee is shade grown and most of the fertilizer comes from organic sources around the farm. Selva Negra brings the idea of recycling to a new level. One example is the use of slaughtered chicken’s blood to fertilize the sugar cane. They are constantly searching for new ways to run the farm in the most efficient and productive way possible.
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