EcoTouring in Nicaragua with USFT
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Melanee Meegan, Peace Coffee Dir. of Marketing
It's been five years since I visited Nicaragua. The last time I went, Peace Coffee wasn't yet buying any Nicaraguan coffee, although our green buying coop,Cooperative Coffees, was. This trip was not strictly an annual Peace Coffee farmer vist. Instead, I was representing Cooperative Coffees to talk with United Students for Fair Trade (USFT) about all the ways 100% Fair Trade companies can partner with them to achieve their goals of supporting Fair Trade, encouraging ethical business and bringing more Fair Trade products and education to high schools, colleges, technical schools and universities across the United States.
The express bus dropped me on the main road from Managua to Matagalpa right around noon. I made my way to the Hotel Fuente Azul (Blue Waterfall), dropped my stuff off and headed to the offices of CECOCAFEN, the coop from which Peace Coffee purchases all of its Nicaraguan coffee. CECOCAFEN is a second level coffee cooperative, housed under the umbrella organization Café Nica. It is made up of 11 smaller cooperatives, which represent 1,900 small-scale coffee farmers in the north of Nicaragua. They have grown quite a lot in the past five years, adding a foundation that deals exclusively with social programs to serve their farmers, increasing the number of quality control stations throughout the region. There's also the amazing Fair Trade Coffee Tourism Project, a program that has flourished within the coop and has extended to new communities. Two years ago, Peace Coffee hosted a group of grocery buyers, café employees and some of our staff on a coffee tour to the El Roblar community. This time, I went to the community of La Pita. The USFT students were already in La Pita when I arrived with David Funkhouser, the Strategic Outreach Coordinator for Transfair USA, the third party US Fair Trade certifier.
The host families involved in the tourism project have built humble rooms with four single beds next to their own homes to house coffee tourists. I shared the room with three students. We spent most of the night hanging out with five children between the ages of 7-10. They taught us some clapping rhymes and songs in Spanish. As it got darker, the kids were told to get to bed so we decided to do the same. The roosters were loud the next morning and the same kids from the night before were anxious to get us out of bed so we could play before they left for school. I brought some stuffed animals, Randy the Cotton Monster and Yvonne the Yeti, and introduced them. They were an instant hit with the kids. They took the stuffed creatures and me all over their coffee fields finding places to stage photos. They found their way to the tops of trees, in herb gardens and even picking coffee! After our adventures outside, we went into the house for breakfast. I tried to help our host mom, Paullina, and her eldest daughter, Denora, make tortillas for breakfast, but I was terrible at it. Everyone watching me laughed as I managed to destroy tortilla after tortilla until I was told to "leave it to the pros." Denora took over for me and quickly produced a stack of perfectly round and thin tortillas for us to eat with our scrambled eggs and coffee. One of the kids sat and drank a large cup of coffee with us. I asked him how much coffee he drinks a day. He said two or three cups. I asked him if it helped him with get through the school day. He just giggled and took another sip of his coffee.
Leaving the families in La Pita was one of the hardest parts of the trip. Visiting and staying overnight there is one of the few opportunities I have for face-to-face conversations with the farmers. It is the only time they get to share their lives with me and for me to share some of my life with them. Being with them, I missed my own family. I wished that the next time I could bring my parents and sister back with me instead of just pointing them out in the photographs I brought with me. The feeling of wanting to bring my family to Nicaragua was more than being homesick. Meeting the coffee farmers is much like meeting the farmers that sell their produce at the Mill City Farmer's Market or seeing Larry Shultz delivering his eggs to the food coops in my neighborhood. The person behind my everyday food choices becomes more than just a product in the produce section. Recently there have been an increasing number of opportunities for folks to visit the source of all their favorite coffee. La Pita is one of four communities in San Ramon that offers an "eco-tourism" program that offers farmers diversification to their income. For more information on the program, check out the website fairtradecoffeetour.com.
From La Pita, we took a bus to the dry processing facility. Solcafe is the name of the dry processing plant for all of the cooperative member's coffee. Unlike my last visit, it was not harvest time. The large cement drying patio looked entirely bare; I half expected tumbleweed to roll across it. As our group walked through the empty warehouse, all the machines were still and silent. The only action going on was the 20-pound roaster that the coop uses to roast up coffee for sale on the domestic market. The smell of the coffee roasting as well as the tasting session with one of the coop's many trained cuppers, made the visit to Solcafe lots of fun. It was especially exciting for the group who got to try their hand at the art of cupping coffee. They got to crack the crust of the coffee and spit in a spittoon. After a busy day tasting coffee, we headed back to San Ramon to the Safe House where all 20 of us slept on bunk beds together. We need our rest for another action packed day.
Our next day included plans to visit a coffee plantation. This was by far the most eye-opening experience of the trip for all of us. The USFT trip organizers wanted to give the students a comparative look at coffee growing systems. Under the banner of "coffee tourists," we were granted access to a large coffee plantation near the Selva Negra forest. We were given a tour of most of its facilities. Much of it was being updated since the plantation has received funds from a large US corporate coffee company. This company provides basic amenenities for the workers and a decent wage but it does not allow them to unionize nor is there assurance via a third party organization that workers are getting paid a fair wage. We were not able to talk to the 150 workers that live on the estate permanently, although we did see them working. Another 300 are expected to come to the plantation to pick coffee during the harvest. The situation of these workers reminded me of when I organized with migrant farm workers in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Similarly, the workers were not able to leave the farms where they worked long hours for little pay. They were entirely dependent on and indebted to the large farm owners. There is a lot of talk right now in the fair trade world about certifying coffee plantations that meet specific criteria for fair labor practices, minimum wage, etc. The criteria currently exist for products such as tea and bananas. This is a highly controversial issue because at the roots of the fair trade movement is the "empowerment of small farmers and artisans organized in democratic cooperatives" –i.e. not working within the plantation system. From what I saw last week it is clear that these laborers need to be empowered and treated like valuable human beings just as much as small farmers that own their plots need access to markets and fair prices for their products. I hope there is a way that the laborers can be more than slaves to the large coffee companies that are solely concerned with their own bottom lines.
With much to process in my head about workers rights, the group and I headed to Estelí to prepare for a summit between USFT and the children of Nicaraguan coffee farmers who started youth groups in their communities. These groups received funds earned by the coop in the form of the fair trade social premium. Many of the students are learning about agronomy, accounting, technology and other skills that will benefit them and the coops in the future. PRODECOOP is another second level coffee coop that generously hosted the youth summit. Unfortunately, I had to leave the summit in the middle of the groups sharing tactics and movement-building skills to catch the bus back to Managua.
My trip was a great opportunity to spend time with the amazing students and the farmers. Whether it was learning or participating in USFT strategies for building their organization or attempting to make tortillas with the farmers, both of their dedication to further the fair trade movement is inspiring. Two of my coworkers will be heading to Nicaragua in late September for the Coop Coffees annual meeting. I wish I could go back with them because my time there seemed too short. I will continue to work together with the USFT students here in the states in whatever way possible. I also encourage people to consider a different form of travel, one that brings you closer to the people that give you your morning cup of coffee.