| Geography of Coffee
Matagalpa Study Tour -- 2011
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Bridgewater State University Geography
UPDATED January 26, 2011
I have expanded this site's information about coffee shops, coffee roasters, coffee tours, health effects, and coffee preparation, and have moved that information to other pages. You can continue the exploration at my main coffee page.
This page is about my January 2-14, 2011 study tour in León, Jinotega, Matagalpa, and Granada. See my Coffee-Nicaragua page for stories, insights, and photographs from the 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010 study tours.
Cafezinho in Florianópolis
The Coffeeland Landmine Victims' Trust connects the coffee industry to landmine victims throughout the coffee-growing areas of the world. Unfortunately, this includes the Contra War area of Nicaragua. This year the journey took us back to Ben Linder's grave in Matagalpa, also to the Ben Linder café in León, which was established with the help of Deans Beans. It honors the martyred North American engineer while helping farmers and victims of land mines. For the first time, we also visited the hydro-electric projects that Linder built and designed in El Cuá and Bocay, which still benefit coffee farmers (and visitors) in previously isolated mountains.
"To know the unexplored of northern Nicaragua"
January 2 to 4: León
Projects of the Polus Center, including PLUSAA, Walking Unidos, and the Ben Linder Café; Cerro Negro volcano
January 4 to 5: Matagalpa
City of Matagalpa and Ben Linder grave site; CECOCAFEN farmer-owned cooperative; volcanic geysers; weaving cooperative and panoramic views at El Chile
January 5 to 7: Selva Negra
Selva Negra coffee estate and retreat; hiking in the Cerro El Arenal reserve; visit to nearby farms including the award-winning organic Aranjuez farm and a farm meeting Starbucks "Cafe Practice" certification, but now selling to smaller roaster
January 7 to 8: Peñas Blancas
Soppexo cooperative; Guardianes del Bosque cooperative; Ben Linder's hydro-electric project at El Cuá
January 8 to 10: La Pita Community
Home stays with coffee-farming families; coffee harvesting and wet-mill processing; make traditional nacatamales
January 10 to 11: Matagalpa
Meeting with farm-workers union; Castillo Cacao (Chocolate Castle!); SOLCAFE dry mill, one of the first farmer-owned coffee processing plants in the world; volcano Masaya
January 11 to 12: Granada
City tour and Isletas de Granada
January 12 to 13: Managua
Masaya volcano and market; tour and weekly lecture at Casa Ben Linder
January 14: Boston
Return to Boston very early in the morning!
The stories ...
This update is written from the air, in what promises to be a terrific tour with ten students eager to learn about Nicaragua and coffee. I always rely on my students at least as much as they do on me, and from the students I learned that it was possible to track our flight while on our flight. Within a minute, I was able to capture the image below, showing that we were just passing the southwestern tip of the Florida peninsula. And minutes after that, I was able to post it for posterity and any friends who might be curious as to where, exactly, we are!
(Click to enlarge)
The communication, navigation, and mapping technology involved in making this small image boggles the mind. Integrated geotechnologies are key industries of both the near and foreseeable futures.
In Leon, we visited projects of the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, whose international director is a BSU graduate. (These projects are described in the 2010 trip page.) We also visited various cultural and historic sites in the city, including Leon's cathedral, the largest in Central America. Near the front of the cathedral is the grave of Nicaragua's national treasure, the poet Ruben Dario.
Cerro Negro is among the world's youngest and most active volcanoes. Having emerged in the
past two centuries and erupted as recently as 1999, it is far too young to support coffee. For students studying the
geography of coffee, however, it is was a vivid reminder of the importance of volcanoes to Nicaragua's position
as a world leader in coffee quality. In addition to the adventure of climbing the volcano and sliding down on sand boards,
the students were able to see an entire line of volcanoes formed from the regional subduction zone.
|As Robert Burns said, to
see ourselves as others see us is a great gift. For those of us from
the United States, it is a gift that is all-too rare. We live at the
center of such a network of privilege that it is often difficult to
know how some of those privileges have been maintained. In the case of
Nicaragua, the history of its experiences with the United States in the
20th Century is well known throughout the country. In the U.S. itself,
however, it is a history that is conveniently forgotten.
In many ways, the relationship between the U.S. and Nicaragua is improving, so it may be jarring -- and certainly disconcerting -- to see expressions that reflect a strong distaste for the neocolonial excesses of the not-too-distant past. Given a contemporary political climate in which conflicting notions of equity and freedom are very much in play, Nicaragua's love for linguistic and visual arts results in some rather compelling imagery. The small mural to the right is a rich example. Found outside a civil-defense office in Leon, it is in the form of a larger-than-life shadow of the revolutoinary leader Sandino, who is best known for having driven the U.S. Marines out of Nicaragua in the 1930s. (The occupation of Nicaragua on behalf of fruit importers is a "detail" of U.S. history that is somehow not always included in what we teach our children.
In the late 1970s, another battle was waged in Sandino's name, between the dictator Samoza (whose father had killed Sandino many years before) and a broad coalition of Nicaraguans. The Sandinista defeat of Samazo was and is seen, however, as a defeat of the United States, which is represented both by a humbled and gray Uncle Sam canine and by the dollar on the opposite thigh.
Although Spanish is not a prerequsite for the study tour, students at every level of fluency learn the value of language learning (something the current BSU curriculum wrongly ignores). This strong motivation results in increased fluency for most students, mainly through interactions with native speakers. During the 2011 tour, one of the long bus rides between site visits proved to be a good time for some vocabulary quizzing.
|Public monuments can reveal a
lot about a place and about how the past
is -- or has been -- viewed in that place. References to the revolution
that led to the 1979 removal of Samoza can be found throughout
Nicaragua. During my first visit in 2006, a relatively conservative
government was in place at the national level, but revolutionary
iconography was quite prevalent in Matagalpa -- including the statue in
the town square depicting three guerrilla fighters. This statue is a
bit unusual among war memorials, in that it acknowledges the important
role of female fighters in the struggle.
Since the return of the Sandinista party (albeit in a more pragmatic form), the pro-revolution signs and symbols have become far more common than they were just a few years ago. Most notable is the sombra (shadow) of Sandino, which previously was found only in Managua, where it looms over much of the city. Smaller versions of that icon are now found in town squares throughout the country.
economic diversification is a
critical aspect of economic development. Visitors are attracted to
Blancas in the northern department Jinotega to visit coffee growers, Benjamin
projects, and its towering white cliffs. The
community recently decided to offer
Spanish classes to visitors as part of diversification strategy that
has already begun to focus on tourism. Our Bridgewater State University
group (including the professor) had the honor of being the first
students to take classes with teachers Lilliam and Corina (front row, 1st and 4th from right).
The lesson was helpful for learners at all levels and a lot of fun.
Almost all coffee in Nicaragua is processed in two stages before being exported. The first stage, know as the wet-mill process, involves removing the outer skin of the coffee cherry (fruit) and using water to ferment the slimy "honey" that coats the beans. Economic geography posits that, all other things being equal, weight-losing processes such as this should occur as near as possible to the source of the material.
The dry-mill process begins with coffee that has been peeled, fermented, and rinsed. Spreading the coffee in the sun where it is repeatedly raked and turned over until it reaches a low moisture level, at which time the parchment layer is removed and the coffee is packaged for export. This is also a weight-losing activity that should take place as close as possible to the point of origin. High-grown specialty coffees, however are grown in cloud forests, where dry mills would be especially impractical. Farmers will, however, sometimes dry coffee in small quantities for local use. In this case, coffee is being dried immediately next to the restaurant where our group ate our meals -- and drank coffee -- in Peñas Blancas.
In Matagalpa, we usually enjoy a visit to a nice Italian restaurant that has terrific pizzas and a pleasant open-air dining area upstairs. Mariachis visit the tables, and play beautiful music for a lot less than I have seen in similar settings in Mexico These mariachis are a lot of fun, sometimes inviting our students to play along. The young man at the right in this photo is playing a basso sexto, a sort of double guitar that is very important in mariachi and Tejano music. I thought he looked familiar, and then I realized why. On my first study tour, he sold a basso sexto to one of my students, who carried it like an extra passenger for the rest of our trip. I remember that it got stuck in the x-ray machine at the Miami Airport. I can see that he invested some of his proceeds in a replacement.
At the top of El Chile -- near a spectacular, 360-degree view of the coffeelands -- we visited a weaving cooperative that we first encountered on the 2010 study tour. Marta, an Argentine woman who had come to found the cooperative in the 1980s, has retired and moved away. The women she worked with, however, are still weaving, and gave everyone in our group a bit of a weaving lesson. Some of the handiwork of these women will be for sale BSU's Just Trade Fair on April 14, 2011.
In Matagalpa, we visited the grave of Ben Linder, as we have on previous journeys. In the past, we have often seen other cemetary visitors honoring the deceased by cleaning, weeding, and leaving flowers. This time, we decided to do the same, and also followed the tradition of toasting the deceased with a sip of a beverage he enjoyed in life.
In Leon, we visited the original Ben Linder Cafe, which at the moment operates only as a roaster, rather than as a cafe. A proposal to operate a cafe under the same name in Bridgewater has been rejected by our university administration, but we have been promised some other interesting installations related to coffee education, including a Deidrich roaster much like this one operating in Leon.
When Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of the small Caribbean nation of Grenada (not to be confused with Granada, Nicaragua) in 1983, his excuse was that he was "rescuing" medical students from the United States that would otherwise be suffering under a new regime. Nobody really believed him, of course, but U.S. citizens in Nicaragua began weekly appearances at the U.S. Embassy, repeatedly emphasizing that fact that they did not need to be rescued from the Sandinista government. Eventually, in the 1990s, it was decided that the demonstrations were no longer needed, but the expatriate community wanted to maintain the weekly contact. By then, Casa Ben Linder had already been named in honor of the assassinated North American engineer, and it was decided that the doors would be open to the international community each Thursday morning.
We were able to time our study tour to end on a Thursday, so that we could attend the lecture and meet a few of the short-term, long-term, and permanent visitors who connect through the various programs of the house. We heard a fascinating presentation about Via Campesino, a world-wide movement of farmers who have been working to promote small-scale agriculture as a casualty of -- and an important remedy for -- global climate change. Because the speaker's arrival was a bit delayed, our entire group became impromptu guest speakers, sharing a bit about coffee education at BSU.