Coffee farmers working to have it made in shade
Tucked into these once war-ravaged mountains of Nicaragua's northern border with Honduras, a growing number of farmers have started to cultivate a shady business they hope will drive their local economy for years to come.
After years of abandonment due to fighting, this remote part of countryside is slowly starting to make a comeback in the form of shade-grown coffee.
Rubén Sanabria, a 77-year-old local historian in the border community of Jalapa, remembers that just 20 years ago ''unexpected battles would erupt at every moment'' in the surrounding mountains, destroying any semblance of production.
''We couldn't take care of the fields in the mountains, we just picked what grew naturally,'' he said.
Two decades later, the same mountains have become fertile ground for production of shade-grown coffee, according to Iván Saballos, president of Nicaraguan export chamber, NICAEXPORT. The war allowed the trees to grow.
''In the 1980s there were no men here to cultivate the land; they all left to Honduras to fight with the Contras, and the women could not go into the mountains because it wasn't safe,'' explained Luisa Esmeralda González, who owns a small coffee farm 18 miles south of the border, in San Juan de Río Coco.
Today, González's farm, Finca La Esmeralda, is one of 53 small coffee farms belonging to a northern cooperative that produces shade-grown coffee under the Rainforest Alliance certification, which recognizes farmers that adhere to a series of environmental, social and labor standards.
The consumer-driven Rainforest Alliance certification model has caught on recently in northern Nicaragua, as well as the rest of Latin America. Since certifying its first coffee farm in Guatemala in 1995, Rainforest Alliance has certified 2,940 coffee operations in 12 countries in Latin America, and recently has branched into Ethiopia and Indonesia, according to Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture for Rainforest Alliance.
The certification allows qualifying coffee producers to market their harvests under the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval, which in theory should translate into better niche access and higher costs from buyers in the consumer-conscious world north.
Yet the driving motivation for farmers who are being certified in Nicaragua appears to be environmental conservation and best-management practices, rather than instant profit margin, according to interviews with local producers.
''We started transforming the farm 10 years ago, before we knew about Rainforest Alliance,'' said Henry Hüeck, managing owner of Ramacafe Fine Estate Coffee, a Matagalpa coffee operation that was certified by Rainforest Alliance three years ago. "The certification complements what we were doing by helping to order development and sustainable growth.''
The message from other participating coffee farmers is similar.
Hermes Rodríguez, owner of Finca El Encanto in San Juan de Río Coco, estimates that it will take him 10 years to recuperate the money he has spent improving his farm and switching his harvests to shade-grown and organic-coffee harvests -- a crop transition that results in smaller annual yields, initially.
But he's not complaining.
''It's worth it,'' Rodríguez said. "We are completely changing the culture of the farm. We are teaching the people to respect the environment and the future of our children.''
Long-term sustainability appears to be a common goal among the farmers participating in the Rainforest Alliance certification process. Instead of talking about the next harvest, many of the farmers seem to have set their sights 10, 20 or 50 years into the future.
''It's a shame to see deforestation; if we don't protect the forests for our children, who will?'' said Eddie Calero, whose Matagalpa coffee farm is in the process of being certified by Rainforest.
In addition to reforesting his farm to switch to shade-grown coffee, Calero also pays his pickers $.82 per basket of coffee cherries, or about double the going rate in Nicaragua. He says it's important to treat workers well in a part of the country where labor is scarce because many people have migrated to the cities or neighboring countries in search of a better living.
INVESTING IN FUTURE
Calero estimates that it will take him about seven or eight years to really start to turn a profit on his farm, but he insists it's worth the wait.
''I don't look at this as an extra expense, rather an investment in my business,'' he said.
Farmers participating in the Rainforest Alliance's model seem to have discovered that employing best-management practices not only results in a coveted certification for their coffee, but also means running a better business.
Calero says his efforts to treat his workers better and conserve his property have resulted in a recent sale to Starbucks, which pays $15-more per quintal (100 kilograms) than the going market prices.
He hopes the Rainforest certification will also help him gain better market access at a higher pay.
''If there's a reward of extra pay for these practices, then why not take it?'' he said.