Four years ago I had the opportunity to visit a community-based small-farmer cooperative in San Jeronimo, Nicaragua that is part of PRODECOOP, the well-known 2,000-member Fair Trade Cooperative. I was traveling with Raul Diaz, Director of CII-ASDENIC, and Chris Bacon, a researcher for the Community Agroecology Network. These organizations were part of a new food security project that was being funded by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters at the time. The goal of this project was to help families become more resilient to “los meses flacos” (the thin months of food scarcity) and to other potential shocks that they might be exposed to at the household level, like climate change, low market prices, and more.
San Jeronimo is a small, isolated rural hamlet in the municipality of Telpaneca, in the northern department of Madriz. One dirt road runs through village that consists of 40 or so small homes that are visible from the road.
This particular morning, we were planning to meet with the cooperative’s leaders to talk about the plans for the food security project. During the meeting I remember asking the co-op leaders what their dreams were for this project. First, they wanted to establish a seed bank so that they could save the seeds of crops that grew well in their community – seeds of products that their members’ families liked to eat. They said that the government often offered free or low-cost seeds, but these were frequently varieties that either didn’t grow well in the local micro-climate or were not vegetables that the families like to eat. Secondly, they also wanted to establish communal silos where families could store basic grains.
Two years later, when Raul and I again visited San Jeronimo, we met a very motivated woman who had left space in the middle of her small cornfield for a vegetable garden. She expressed concern about having enough water for the garden during the dry season. Twice a day, families in the area hiked almost a half-an-hour up a large hill with buckets to fetch the cleanest water at its source. They spent almost two hours a day gathering water to meet their families’ basic needs for this precious commodity. I asked Raul if CII-ASDENIC had ever implemented a potable water project. He told me the organization had worked on a few municipal water projects, and was hoping to do more. Two months later, a water component was added to the food security project in San Jeronimo.
Little by little, both projects took shape. Family gardens were developing, and the seed bank became a reality. During one of my visits, the entire community was out shovels in hand, digging a 3-foot deep trench and laying plastic pipe from the water’s source, downhill to the small hamlet.
This March, Raul and I met with the Water Committee, made up of co-op members. They provided an encouraging report on the project’s progress. Toward the end of the meeting I asked the Committee’s leader, Maximino Gutierrez Lira, if San Jeronimo had been affected by la roya, or coffee rust disease. He slowly shook his head up and down, and said that two years ago the community co-op collected 2,000 quintales of coffee; this year 300 quintales – an 85% drop in yield due to la roya. This was the harshest impact from la roya that I had run into in all of my travels. The norm was closer to a 25-65% loss. I was stunned. I asked Maximino, “Have you lost co-op members to migration?” He said, “No.” I was confused, and couldn’t imagine any family or community withstanding an 85% loss of income from coffee and not leaving this remote area for other paid work. I must have looked confused too, for Maximino said, “Follow me.”
We walked over to the side of the co-op building and entered a room that had eight 7 ft. tall metal silos filled with dried corn and beans. He explained that families filled these silos together, and together they would draw from these grains during “the thin months” to feed their families. If there was any extra, they would together decide to sell this excess into the local market as another source of income. Then Maximino said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
We left the co-op building and walked down the only dirt road in town. In front of every home there was a 4 ft. tall cement piling, painted bright green, with a spigot on top. Maximino explained that every home now had fresh, clean water delivered right to house. In addition to providing abundant clean water for drinking, families were using the water for their food gardens. We walked behind a few homes with their owners and saw beautiful and productive gardens. He explained that with fresh clean water, bountiful vegetable gardens, and the communal silos for food and income, families had no need to leave the community. In fact, they were better off now, even with la roya, than they were four years ago.
What has San Jeronimo taught us? Members of this community have withstood the shock of losing 85% of their income yet are still working their coffee. While resources are needed to start projects like this, this lesson is about more than resources. It is about the importance of motivation, the positive attitude of San Jeronimo farming families, and their willingness to work together for the common good. They are a model of resilience; a model that our industry desperately needs to replicate if we are to thrive from tree to cup in an increasingly challenging environment. If we are interested in the long-term health and resilience of our industry and a consistent supply of specialty coffee, we must follow the lead of the farmers of San Jeronimo, and work and invest in our future together, which starts on the farm.