Nicaragua Study Tour Reprise - 2007
In January 2007, I had the privilege of leading my second study tour of
Nicaragua, a course known as the Geography
of Coffee. One student -- Brandon Phinney -- actually participated
for a second time. We found that some things had changed in a year, and
the chance to see some things for a second time made them easier to
understand. I also found that things I assumed I understood were
actually more complicated than I had realized.
Bridgewater students were enchanted with the children of Nuestra Tierra, a grower's cooperative on the Matagalpa-Jinoteca border. The feelings clearly were mutual.
Shortly before the 2007 tour, Daniel Ortega was elected to the presidency of Nicaragua. The Sandinista leader returned to office with only 38 percent of the vote, thanks to a complex sequence of events. The U.S. government involved itself unduly in the elections, but failed to unite conservative voters against Ortega. The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory just before the election, when it became apparent that Ortega might win.
Thankfully, people saw this advisory for what it was, and ignored it. Ortega was inaugurated on January 10, in the middle of our journey. A heavy police and military presence was evident, especially in the capital, but the transfer of power (from Ballanos, whom we met last year) was quite peaceful. I am even more convinced that Nicaraguans are just tired of fighting.
Many people were killed in the Sandinista revolution that first brought Ortega to power in the 1970s, and more were killed when the Reagan-backed contras tried to remove him in the 1980s. Many people with large land holdings lost them, and many small farmers got access to land for the first time. The most surprising thing we learned about politics, however, is that political alliances are not determined by land-owning status. We found that a large farmer who lost much of his land is a Sandinista today, while at least one of his workers is not. We even found out that CECOCAFEN -- the umbrella group of coffee cooperatives -- includes an entire association (15 de septiembre) of former contras.
The most important political news is that even those who opposed Ortega are willing to give the new government a chance. I spoke to a large landowner who had fled during the revolution and clearly had voted against FSLN (Frente Sandinista para Liberacion Nacional ), but who would be willing to serve in the new government if asked.
Map: Central Intelligence Agency
See BBC's Nicaragua Profile
for an overview.
|This sculpture is one of
many we enjoyed in the museum that is now part of the former national
palace in Managua. On this second visit to Nicaragua, I was able to
appreciate better the variety of fine arts in the country.
During the first visit, I heard about the importance of the poet Ruben Dario, a Nicaraguan who is considered one of the best poets in the Spanish language. During this visit, I learned that a country in which people brag about the national poet is a country in which the spoken language can be very beautiful. Although my Spanish is not quite fluent, certain Nicaraguans speak with a grace that allows me to understand every word. I first figured this out when listening to an organic famer name Byron -- we call him Lord Byron, after the British poet.
is Byron exceptionally eloquent in general, and especially in his
ability to explain the advantages of organic farming as a holistic
approach to land and water conservation. He represents a program called
Campesino-a-Campesino (Farmer-to-Farmer), in which he works with other
farmers within a large watershed reserve. He is proud that his group's
efforts help to protect both the hydroelectric and municipal water
needs of the region and the country.
A critical part of the organic farming process is the capture of nutrients from the coffee fruit (cherries). All of the farms we visited use the pulp and skin for compost; it is shown here in the foreground being decomposed while also serving as chicken feed. On Byron's farm, compost is made from a combination of coffee and cow manure. He is quite proud of his cattle, which make his farm both productive and exquisite. His coffee has been named the best in the world by a major gourmet magazine. Byron showed us how close attention to the land and a deep understanding of its ecology can be reflected in the cup. For example, his cattle are fed a carefully-designed diet of local plants that provide protein and carbohydrates with special consideration for the coffee's ultimate flavor.
|In a short space of time, I
noticed several contrasts with what we had
seen in the grower cooperatives. First, the price paid to growers was
much lower -- about half -- with the balance going to this middleman in
exchange for providing access to the export market. Second, the
information provided to the grower about the quality of his or her
coffee is very limited, so that the farmer neither knows the true value
of the coffee nor knows how to improve the coffee for future harvests.
Finally, transactions are made at this roadside warehouse on a
one-time, cash basis, rather than as part of an established set of
At right is a small drying patio being operated by the buyer shown above. This patio is very small, and does not allow for complete drying. It does, however, alllow this buyer to complete some of the beneficio operaition.
Some independent buyers offer even lower prices, bringing trucks directly to the growers and offering cash at the edge of the fields. The lower prices result from the transportation costs being absorbed by the buyer and because the farmers involved are even more isolated from ultimate consumers.