February 2010

Cashew fruit, or marañon, in an orchard in León. The nut encased in its shell forms first (the skinny unripe fruit with the large green nut) and as the fruit matures the shell darkens to blueish gray.

Entering the town of Somotillo traveling north on the newly re-done highway there is a lone gas station on the left.  Across the street is a green building, set back, with a small sign that most likely goes unnoticed by travellers passing by in bus or interlocal.  Actually, it is worth stopping at that gas station that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, because the building across the street is one of the best discoveries an agricultural and organic food fanatic can find in Nicaragua.  It’s a completely unassuming but very impressive cashew nut processing plant, started by CIPRES and run by a cooperative of women.  I stopped and then wondered if it was even open; the first offices inside the gate were shut and locked.  But I heard some voices, and followed them to find Flor, one of the managers, who warmly invited me in to see the whole process.Cashews grow on a fruit tree, and the nut is encased in a hard acid shell and hangs hilariously from the bottom of an avocado sized red or yellow fruit.  The fruit is sweet and bitter at the same time, and the juice leaves a funny itchy feeling on my tongue.  I’m not crazy about it, but Nicaraguans love it both fresh and in juice.  The nuts are harvested and can be stored for a year raw in their shells.  The nuts I saw being processed were harvested in 2009.

Artesenal processing in the countryside homes is simple but requires precision.  The nuts with their shells are thrown into a fire, where they begin ‘popping’ as they roast.  When they are thoroughly charred and blackened, they are pulled out and the burnt shell smashed away with a stone pestle or rock.  Not enough time in the fire and the shell won’t leave – or the strong acid can scar your hands.  Too much time and the nut inside is burnt.  But just right and the hot roasted cashews are delicious.

Shelling the boiled cashew nuts.

The processing plant ensures an evenly lightly roasted nut, export quality.  The nuts are first boiled inside their shells, then cracked open with a special blade that the cooperative purchases from Brazil.  The blades slice the shells but not the nut, which is extracted whole.  The boiled nut has a tough pink skin on it.  The cashew nuts are then lightly roasted in an oven, which dries the pink skin out so that it can be cracked and peeled off.  There are about thirty women that work in the processing plant, running the whole process of boiling, shelling, roasting, peeling, and then finally sorting into grades A (whole), B (halves) and C (peices).  The grade A nuts sell for about US$5 a pound.

Rosa, who shells nuts while monitoring the large oven that roasts them.

I was very impressed with the quality of the cashews as well as the organization of the women, and left with over two pounds of nuts.  This week Nicholas and I are going to BIOFACH, the world’s organic product fair, in Nürnberg Germany, and we are going to display some on our Nicaraguan products table along with sesame seed, sesame oil, and coffee.  At the moment the cooperative is not producing their maximum volume.  Once the nuts are shelled and processed, they have a much shorter shelf life, and so they only fill orders as they come in.  At the moment, they are operating around seven months out of the year, on a completely random schedule.  Flor said when they fill the orders and there are no more, the women stay in their villages and work out of their houses.  When the next order comes in, the managers have to go to all the villages to round the workers up again.  Their biggest buyer at the moment is OXFAM Spain, who purchase the nuts packaged in little snack sized bags.  They purchase a thousand pounds of nuts a year – which doesn’t even nearly reach the maximum production capacity for the plant or the farmers.  The missing piece in the puzzle to me is the marketing – why aren’t the beautiful large organic cashew nuts that benefit rural women a hot commodity, both locally and internationally?  Clearly this unassuming small plant on the side of the highway to Honduras is a well kept secret in Nicaragua, but I don’t think it should be.

Here are some highlights from the SosteNica visit, one of the results of which is that I will be working as a Sustainable Development Coordinator here until August, which I am very excited about.  Also some pictures from Somotillo, where I am starting to help a group from Scotland channel funds to a group of women who need to repair and improve their irrigation systems to grow tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables.  These two projects are my work for the next six months – along with bopping home to the states occasionally.

Alan Wright, the president of SosteNica, meeting one of the farmers in the Reforestation project in Nagarote.  I will continue working with the project for at least another six months.  The project encourages farmers to companion plant, build soil fertility, reforest river bank, and create an integrated development plan for their farms that uses the natural resources available to their full potential.

Yamilette, the wife of one of the participants, has participated in all the workshops offered by the project enthusiastically, and has already been promoting the project to her neighbors who have riverfront property.  The next phase of the project will be open to new clients, provided that they qualify for a commercial loan from the micro credit company first.  The involvement of women and children in the project is fundamentally important – everyone benefits from a prosperous and sustainable farm.

My new colleagues Jay Pressman and Chris Bell.  We witnessed the signing of an agreement between the National Autonomous University here in León and CEPRODEL.  The agreement means that they can get funding internationally to expand joint projects, such as the reforestation project which incorporates students and faculty into the education component, and also work with research projects such as seed banks and investigating new biological controls that can benefit our clients.

We visited several offices in the department of Chinandega, north east of León.  Chinandega is hot.  The offices serve a mixture of agricultural clients and small business owners, and in order to be accessible the offices in the city are located inside the actual markets.  Also remarkable in Chinandega are the teams of women responsible in the offices.  Here is the departmental Director, Eneida, with one of the cashiers Erika and me.  As Chris pointed out, next generation SosteNica and CEPRODEL, represent!

The celebration of signing another year contract with CEPRODEL, whose motto in English should be “Not Just Microcredit”.  Working with housing cooperatives, sustainable farming, food security, commercialization of agricultural products, and integrated regional development along with municipal governments, CEPRODELs impact potential is much greater – and much more positive – than your average micro credit company.  This year, to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they have rearranged their company motto to: “Socially Just, Fiscally Responsible, and Environmentally Sustainable.”  Congratulations CEPRODEL.

This is part of the group of 34 women and their families who are organized in a cooperative in Villa Nueva.  I will be helping with a small project to repair drip irrigation systems and support them to better cultivate their tomatoes and peppers.  The project, funded by a group in Scotland, is called Agua Pa’ Todos and has their own website which I will be posting on regularly.

Cheers to a future filled with hard work, exciting projects, a more sustainable countryside, faith in the power of cooperation and solidarity, and more exploring in Nicaragua!

A year ago I just arrived in Managua on my Fulbright Grant and was spending my first week in León with UNAN León and CEPRODEL.  A year later I’m still here, and presently spending a very intense full week with SosteNica’s visit to Nicaragua.  CEPRODEL is hosting magnificently; we witnessed a momentous signing of an agreement with the UNAN León Agroecology department and are filling 14 hour days with lots of farm tours and information packed presentations.  It’s tiring but also very exciting – and hey, we’re heading to the beach tomorrow.

I’ve been mulling over how to possibly reflect on a year in a Nicaragua in a blog entry; how to explain what I’ve learned about myself and the world, the stronger commitment I feel to play a role in creating a truly sustainable and positive world, even down to the nuances of negotiating “Nica time” and “Nica bureaucracy” I’ve discovered.  Instead, I have translated the chorus to a song by a well known Nicaraguan singer songwriter that my friend Brigido Sosa sings, and I’m posting the first of what I hope to continue as a monthly tradition – a gallery of random pictures taken during January that didn’t make it into other postings.

(Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy)

Y fue creciendo y creciendo                                                                      As I grew and I grew
me sorpendió el silabario                                                               the syllables surprised me
y descubrí mi futuro                                                                        and I discovered my future
en cada trazo inseguro                                                                          in every uncertain step
y en cada abrazo de hermano                                              and in every brotherly embrace.

Y fui creciendo y creciendo                                                                      As I grew and I grew
desde mi mundo de enano                                                                       out of my little world
y comprendí que las cosas                                                                I understood that things
sólo serían hermosas                                                                                      are only beautiful
cuando luchamos por algo                                          when we are fighting for something

In early January there were deep piles of beautiful shells washed up at my favorite pacific beach, Las Peñitas.  The beach here for me is a tactile reminder of constant change; every time I go, even several weeks in a row, the shape, color, and feel of the beach is different.

A new year welcome speech given by Daniel Ortega was his usual rambly affair; we were lured by whispers that Hugo Chavez would appear – which he didn’t – but the Plaza in the National Assembly building complex was festive, and the event was free, so not much lost.

A neighbor varnished the cropped dead nancite tree in front of our house, and planted ornamental plants in the holes to create a natural work of art.  Unfortunately watering the plants requires a team of circus artists, and with the lack thereof they only lived for two hot dry Nicaraguan days.  The tree, el palo pelado, is still beautiful and shiny.

In Somotillo, where I will be helping with a vegetable plot drip irrigation project, I discovered a hidden Nicaraguan treasure:  the delicate, barely visible jocote tree flowers.