La Roya

This is a re-post of my latest entry at the Social Business Network blog

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.

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A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.


Rachel and I picking coffee. The full baskets are about a half a bucket, which Nicas get paid 25 Cordoba for.

Ah, la vaca ya se va,

Ay, la vaca ya se fue,

Eee, la vaca esta aqui!

Oh, la vaca se ahogo,

Ooo, the vaca eres tu!

– children’s rhyme

I spent three days picking coffee, relaxing, and working in vegetable gardens in the settlement of Sontule in the National Reserve of Miraflor, where my friends Rachel and Simon have been staying part time for several months.  It was nice to meet so many new people, and I didn’t mind at all being “the other Raquel!”  Friends of your friends become your friends quickly, and that’s what happened.

Some end of the evening couples dancing at Fabrizio's party!

We arrived on a celebratory weekend, with two birthday parties.  Saturday Ivancito celebrated his 11th birthday, and Sunday Fabrizio turned 3.  I was pleased to find an auspicious absence of the pounding reggaeton that the dance scene in León thrives on, because the children at both parties preferred dancing to their rock and roll!  The party for Fabrizio began with a blessing from an Evangelical minister, who talked sternly about “keeping calves tied up so they don’t go down the wrong path” and being roll models for our children.   The actual party started when he finally finished rambling and they sang a nice song that invites the grandparents, then the children, then the women, and finally all the men to come up and greet the birthday child.

Brian, who is 6, taught me many little rhymes while we picked his Dad's parcel of coffee.

Coffee picking was a blast.  The song above, a silly little rhyme, is one of the many that the children and their parents chanted in the fields while picking.  The coffee is planted in rows, which sometimes converge and divulge confusingly, and is nearly always planted on a pretty serious slope.  We arrived at the end of the harvest, which was probably good, because the mood was very relaxed.  We also were stripping the bushes of everything left, and didn’t have to worry about quality control.  In this community, everyone pitches in and helps, and the harvest, which happens during school vacation, is a chance for the kids to earn some pocket money.  We had a wonderful time teasing them about stealing from us, and I challenged Ivancito to a picking contest and won – but not by much!

I learned a bit about coffee, and a lot more about how long term investment of social projects can really affect the quality of rural life.  Sontule has received quite a lot of attention from a women’s rights group in Estili, who come and offer workshops for both the women and young men in the village.  In addition there are three cooperatives that among other things work with coffee production, eco-tourism, vegetable gardens, and education.  The result – an impressively enlightened and well educated rural community.  Possibly most immediately visible are the results of the feminist organization, Xilonen.  The women talk easily about their hardships, are encouraged to co-counsel and learn concepts of psychology, and some of the men are very open about needing to change the accepted role of men by helping to cook, clean, and wash clothes.  The conscious examination of gender roles in everyday life are visible even down to the absence of the reggaeton I had noticed at the children’s parties, which many community member discourage because of its vulgar language toward women (similar to many criticisms of rap artists in the states).   Clearly this is a slow and difficult process, but one that with the support of Xilonen is fulfilling and gratifying for many of  Sontule’s residents.

Quien roba pan de la casa de San Juan?

Ivancito roba pan de la casa de San Juan!!

Quien, yo?

Si, tu!

No fui!

Entonces quien?

Raquel roba pan de la casa de San Juan!

– chant similar to the English game “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?”