Nicaragua Study Tour Reprise - 2007
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College
Revised August 1, 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.

(c) 2007 Matt Kadey

The 2006 tour page provides more detail about many parts of that tour. This page describes some of the highlights of the 2007 trip. All of my 2006 photos, some with annotations, are posted on Flickr, along with my 2007 photos.

We were lucky enough to have Canadian professional photographer Matt Kadey along for several days of our trip. He stayed on for a couple weeks, taking some amazing photos of the coffee lands and coffee people, and the fun photo of myself dancing in La Corona. Matt later published an excellent story "Nicaragua: Ecotourism allies with fair trade in Central America," in Fresh Cup magazine.

Hear student Tom Zimmerman talk about this trip on bPOD, along with other BSC study tours in Belize and India.

Most of this page was posted directly from Managua on January 15, a few hours before we left.
Nuestra Tierra
Bridgewater students were enchanted with the children of Nuestra Tierra, a grower's cooperative on the Matagalpa-Jinoteca border. The feelings clearly were mutual.

FSLN - Daniel Ortega
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.

The arts

Lord Byron
Natural Cycles
Not only 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.

This year, we added a small but important stop to our itinerary. As we entered Matagalpa for the last time, we stopped at one of the many roadside, independent coffee buyers, known less charitably as coyotes. This buyer was gracious enough to talk to our group for a few minutes during an unannounced visit. He told us that he typically pays about $50 per bag for coffee that has been through the depulping and washing processes. In this photograph, he is demonstrating his techniques for evaluating coffee based on sight and aroma.


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 relationships.

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.

Coffee drying patio

If this page interests you, you may wish to visit my other international travel pages or the international section of my home page.