Where: Hacienda Magdalena, on the slopes of Volcán Maderas, Nicaragua
What’s it about: Ensuring Nicaraguans geta fair deal for their coffee production by buying fair trade or better still, volunteering to work on a coffee farm
Top treat: Rich smell of beans roasting over a fire and a welcome brew after a hard day on the farm
Coffee for life
Whether we sip it bleary-eyed first thing in the morning or laze over a flamboyantly named cup of it in a café, most of us need our daily dose of coffee. In Nicaragua however, coffee isn’t just a part of many people’s lifestyles – it is their life. Hundreds of thousands of people grow and pick coffee and it is a vital part of Nicaragua’s export economy.
But just as our relationship with coffee is plagued by the dangers of caffeine over-consumption and addiction, Nicaraguans have found that dependence on the bean has brought far more destructive problems to the communities cultivating it. In the early nineties, Nicaragua embraced a new economic model of export-led growth. It increased its production of coffee and deepened its dependence on it, just as other developing countries did the same. The result was a glut of coffee on the market and an almost 50% drop in its world price since 1998. This has led to the shut down of many Nicaraguan plantations, leaving more than 250,000 Nicaraguans destitute and many living in roadside camps.
The situation is desperate but there is a movement that offers an answer: fair trade. This means that importers pay a decent price for coffee to producers (often co-operatives) and also provide technical assistance to help them make the transition to organic farming. Doing so earns them a ‘fair trade stamp’ on their coffee goods.
One co-operative involved in this scheme is the Cooperativa Carlos Diaz Cajina, based on the volcanic island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua. It is comprised of 30 families and has run since 1979 when the Sandinista revolution allowed them to take control of the land they had worked on for now absentee landowners. The co-op is supported by two partner organisations in the United States and Canada which purchase the coffee crop and roast, bag and sell it. All the revenue is returned to Ometepe to fund island community projects. Already, the network has paid for the construction of the island’s first clean drinking water system, benefiting thousands of island residents.
Joining in the coffee bean harvest
The Hacienda Magdalena, on the slopes of Volcán Maderas, is owned by the co-operative. The coffee grown by the farm is certified organic and is ‘shade grown’, protecting the beautiful surrounding forest habitat. The wonderfully tumbledown Hacienda is a base-camp for tourists wishing to climb the volcano and provides cheap lodging (around $5 US), meals (about $2 US) and guides for hire. Or you can volunteer to tend and pick coffee and get first hand experience of just how your coffee break comes to fruition – with your basic accommodation and meals for free!
You can help out with most parts of the coffee production process. After an early start, you’ll be taken up the slopes to coffee trees, given a wide wicker basket and shown how to pick the berries; the clusters along the branches are easily brushed off by running a fist along them. The rhythmic repetition of the work means your mind can wander in appreciation of your exotic office space. The surrounding forest resonates to the calls of howler monkeys and twittering birds and glints a perfect green.
Once collected, the berries are tipped into a separator machine that removes the red fruit from the bean. The beans are rinsed and sprinkled across huge patios adjoining the farm to dry out and shed an outer husk. Using a hoe, parallel lines are drawn through the beans every half an hour – an action that turns the beans and gives them all exposure to the sun. After days of drying the beans are ready to be de-husked of a second layer, this time by another machine, and then they’re all ready to be roasted.
There’s not a day that goes by at the Hacienda without the rich, reassuring smell of coffee beans roasting over a wood-fire stove. You can guarantee that you’ll be offered a cup after a demanding day of work. Take it out to the balcony and sip it in a hammock looking out over the peaceful lake vista below.
To get to Ometepe take a ferry from San Jorge to Moyagalpa, on the northwest of the island, or Granada to Altagracia on the northeast. From either of these places take a bus to Balgueand ask to be dropped at Hacienda Magdalena. It’s a 15-minute hike up the dirt track to the farm.
Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Friendship Association
Get yourself a taste of the Hacienda without leaving the comfort of your home. This is one of the two associations that support the co-op – and order yourself the perfect Café Oro de Ometepe for only $30 for three pounds (within the U.S.).
By Kate Griffiths