San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rural Coffee Co-op Focuses on ‘The Future’

EL PORVENIR DE POSOLTEGA, Nicaragua – Once divided by the destructive politics of war, residents of this rural mountaintop community in the northwest department of Chinandega have discovered common ground in their poverty, and are working to unite in a new culture of communal labor in a village looking to the future.

Many of the mid dle-aged men of El Porvenir (which means “The Future”) are ex-Sandinista or ex-Contra combatants, and some of the older men are former members of the notoriously repressive Somoza National Guard.

But all that is in the past, a painful chapter in the nation’s history that is no longer discussed, says community leader René Gaitan.

NOW, this farming village of 255 inhabitants is coming together as an organic coffee cooperative to try to overcome its marginalization and shape a new tomorrow for the children. And like many grassroots efforts in Nicaragua, they are doing so without any help from a government they have grown to mistrust.

“[In the past] we were all used by different political interests, by the government of Somoza and by the government of the Sandinistas; 50,000 people were killed for nothing,” said Gaitan, a former Sandinista revolutionary soldier and founding member of the community in 1982.

“When ex-members of the Contra came up to our village after the war, we saw that they were poor campesinos just like us, and they joined with no problem,” he said.

“The past is closed,” he stressed, as he watched a group of children – likely unaware of the former conflicts of their parents – play baseball on a dusty patch of land.

EL Porvenir’s modest 2,000-acre swath of mountain range, almost half of which is protected dry forest, is communally held land – a product of the Sandinista government’s agrarian reform efforts in the early 1980s.

Two decades later, there are still no paved roads, no access to health care and no electricity or running water. The 43 families here live in simple homes with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Drinking water is supplied by the rains.

But success and progress are measured differently in the Nicaraguan countryside, and El Porvenir has become an example of what a community can accomplish when it gets organized and sets common goals.

During the past three years, the village has managed to expand its basic-education coverage – an agreed-upon priority for the community – from pre-school through sixth grade, and now has three teachers who trek up the mountainside each week from the city of León to live with the community and give classes. Construction has already begun on a new cinderblock classroom, paid for with proceeds from coffee sales.

TO economically support its bootstrap efforts, four years ago the community formed a coffee cooperative, which has been certified “organic” by a U.S. certification team. The coffee is grown on 120 acres of land, leaving 300 acres for the cultivation of basic food staples for the village. Approximately 800 acres have been set aside as community-protected dry forest.

With the help of U.S. activists Donna Tabor, a Granada resident, and Mike Woodard, of the Nicaraguan-based nongovernmental organization Jubilee House Community, El Porvenir was able to find a U.S. buyer for its coffee two years ago.

The cooperative sells its modest harvest at a preferential cost of $200 per 100-pound sack (as opposed to the $45 it would fetch on the open market) to a Pittsburgh non-governmental organization Building New Hope and Pittsburgh coffee roaster “La Prima Espresso Coffee.”

The village cooperative produced and roasted 450 sacks of coffee last year, 220 of which have already been sold in the United States.

LA Prima owner John Notte has nothing but praise for the quality of El Porvenir’s coffee.

“We give the coffee a fairly dark roast, and as far as other Arabica coffees we carry, it ranks in the top five,” he told The Tico Times this week. “Excellent flavor, light to medium body and very few imperfections. I don’t consider myself a professional taster, but I have been tasting and grading coffees for 10 years and give El Porvenir an ‘A’ rating.”

Cooperative Coffees, a U.S. trade union of 17 social-justice-minded roasters and coffee houses, also has taken notice of El  Porvenir and agreed to purchase a portion of the 2004 harvest, offering the promise of a more stable, long-term market in the future.

YET despite the town’s modest accomplishments, El Porvenir cannot yet boast a rags-to-riches story.

Gregorio Eugenio Laguna, president of the village cooperative, explained the community made the mistake in 2000 of taking out a short-term loan for $19,600 at the exorbitant interest rate of 36% to fund its attempted cultivation of a bean harvest for export.

The crop failed, and the community has had to pinch every córdoba for the past four years to pay back the debt.

The village has managed to repay the lender all but $2,000 on its principal, but through great sacrifice. Coffee farmers have gone three years without receiving any take-home pay for their labor.

Cooperative leaders say they hope to pay off the debt in full this year.

LAGUNA estimates that El Porvenir is about 60% self-sufficient, but is still heavily dependent on foreign donations and outside help, such as that brought by Jubilee House Community.

“Honestly, nothing is self-sufficient in Nicaragua,” he said. “The main problem is that there is no long-term credit or financing available in Nicaragua. If we had that, we could become self-sufficient.”

Another challenge to the community is recent irregular climate changes, which the farmers blame on the aftereffects of Hurricane Mitch. El Porvenir was in the path of the hurricane that tore through Central America in October 1998, causing a massive landslide in the nearby community of Las Casitas that buried alive an estimated 2,000-plus people.

Since that storm, rain schedules have been erratic, making it difficult to plant, Gaitan said. The community blames its failed bean cultivation on the unstable climate.

PERHAPS the biggest obstacle facing the community is the difficulty in getting certified “fair trade” – a label that ensures fair compensation for farmers and the promise of private long-term financing from roasters during one of the worst global coffee crisis in decades.

“Fair trade,” according to Matt Earley, founder of Cooperative Coffee member JustCoffee, “offers a model of economic interaction where all involved get what they need, where trade is based on respect and real relationships, and where no participant is exploited.”

Earley said fair trade was originally intended to make consumers think about market conditions, while breaking the rules of a free-trade-driven “modern hyper-capitalism.”

Although El Porvenir claims it complies with all the environmental and labor regulations needed to be certified “fair trade,” activists claim the community’s isolated location and relatively small coffee harvest have deterred fair-trade labeling giants in the United States and Europe from trekking up the mountain to visit El Porvenir.

The village applied for certification from the German-based fair-trade pioneer Fair Labeling Organization (FLO) three years ago, but has never been visited by a representative of the company’s spin-off labeling group FLO-Cert Ltd.

“FAIR trade has become a for-profit business, and it is more profitable for certifiers to go to areas that are more easily accessible and with greater production outputs,” explained Jubilee House’s Woodard, who has been at the forefront of El Porvenir’s attempts to break into the fast-growing market niche in the United States and Europe.

JustCoffee’s Earley agrees that the fair-trade movement has divided into two camps: the market-driven camp that  has patented the fair-trade label andcharges producers a certification fee, and the ideologically-driven camp that just wants to extend a helping hand to the “little guy.”

JustCoffee and three other members of Cooperative Coffee have decided to break with the “fair-trade” establishment and pursue a model they claim is more consistent with the original ideology of the movement.

THE cost of being certified “fair trade” by FLO also could be a deterrent for the community of El Porvenir.

The one-time certification fee FLO would charge a producer the size of El Porvenir is 2,000 Euros, or $2,431.

Additionally, FLO charges an annual $607 re-certification fee, plus $.02 for each kilo of coffee sold under the “fairtrade” label, for a total cost to El Porvenir of $1,100 for a good year’s harvest.

While the mainstream “fair-trade” market still appears elusive to El Porvenir, the community remains busy focusing on building something new, and hopes a socially conscientious segment of the foreign market will notice its efforts and support the cause.


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