Sweet fortune from bitter beans

Falling prices and fungus attacks are two of the worst threats to coffee farmers in Nicaragua. SWISSAID supports the founding of cooperatives – and this boosts the population’s economic security.

This news makes the taste of espresso turn bitter, even for the biggest coffee fan. In Waslala, a rural district in northern Nicaragua, coffee and cocoa are such vital sources of income that the farmers now cultivate almost nothing else in their fields. Although they own plenty of land, they neglect the cultivation of fruit and vegetables for their own consumption and to take to the local market. The results are disastrous: according to official statistics, approximately 30 per cent of local people in Waslala suffer from malnutrition.

No easy starting point

SWISSAID has therefore been supporting small farmers for some time by offering further training courses on organic cultivation to increase harvest yields and protect their soil. As a further measure to safeguard their income, 324 small farmers have also set up the Nueva Waslala cooperative. They now take collective control of marketing their own cocoa, coffee, rice and bean harvests.

The starting point for the cooperative is not easy. The soil in Waslala is depleted and eroded, and species diversity is not in a good way either. The boom in the region’s cattle trade has also accelerated soil erosion. SWISSAID’s other measures to support the cooperative include funding further training courses on organic cultivation and the purchase of an agricultural vehicle (approx. 12,000 Swiss francs).

Things are looking up...

Since then, cooperative members have been trying through organic cultivation methods, mixed cultures and better marketing to feed their families, earn an income and enhance the fertility of the soil. Mixed cultures are extremely important for the cooperative: it can absorb low sales of one product with better sales of another, thus slightly offsetting the impact of the markets. This means a major increase in the economic security of the farmers.

The members have faith in their cooperative, as shown by the obvious improvement in the figures. Today, members market 75 per cent of their cocoa, 55 per cent of their beans, 50 per cent of their coffee and 22 per cent of their rice production via the cooperative.

Fungus is everywhere

A quick glance at the current situation shows how fragile and complex the interconnections can be between cultivation, harvest, income – and survival. As many coffee plants have been attacked by fungus, the harvest for the current production cycle is heavily in decline. Many farmers have had to uproot some of their coffee plants, so even over the next two to three years they will be able to harvest fewer coffee beans. At times like these, the supplementary income that farmers would normally earn from helping with the harvest at the big farms nearby would be even more vital. But since the fungus is also rampant at the big coffee plantations, demand for workers has collapsed. Many farmers have no option other than to look for jobs in neighbouring countries and to leave their farm and family behind.

A fight on all fronts

While small farmers continuously worry about producing enough to eat from their soil despite their hard work, others take an entirely different view of the same soil. Foreign investors greedily eye up gold deposits in Waslala and are doing everything in their power to extract the precious metal for their own profit.

The local population is not about to just accept this fate: in both the Rancho Grande and Waslala communities, environmental campaigners, teachers, farmers and women’s organisations as well as representatives from local churches and the authorities are fighting against the threatened destruction of the natural landscape. The government, however, would appear to support the gold mining projects El Pavón und Trebol and is expected to grant a concession to B2Gold Corp. The Canadian company already operates two mines in the region.

“Waslala” means ‘silver river’ in the native language of the indigenous population. The hope is that the local population will be left with more than just the romantic name, environmental pollution and the paternalist attitude of its government.

Project code: NC 02/14/17

Project duration: 2016

Project duration: 68'400 Swiss francs

Number of beneficiaries: 1,800 men, women and children