Nicaragua Coffee Trip
By David Cogswell
The Nicaragua tourist board, INTUR, invited a number of journalists to Nicaragua to attend the Central America Travel Market, Oct. 11-12 in Managua, and it scheduled a short itinerary to give the visitors a brief, but select introduction to the country. There were three segments of the trip, and I missed the first day’s touring because flights were not available to accommodate the schedule. Those who did make the trip toured Managua that day. That night when I arrived I met the rest of the group for a dinner at a fun little seafood restaurant lit up with a bright blue neon strip around its roofline.
It was called Marea Alta. It was cute, funky and friendly, with yellow walls decorated with elegant prints of palm trees, dark wood beams on the ceiling, hanging glass globes. The food was a sparkling delight to my airline-starved taste buds, especially a starter of ostiones, an oyster-like shellfish in a spicy sauce. The employees of the restaurant smiled back at me, and I knew I was in a great place when I found that the rest room provided a dispenser for Plax mouthwash with little plastic cups. Now that is service!
We checked in to the Holiday Inn Select in Managua for the night and the next morning we took off early for Matagalpa province, the mountainous area known for its coffee. We visited two places affiliated with The Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), an organization engaged in a complex program of activities to preserve environments and help local people live more prosperous live. On its website it describes itself as an organization that “works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior.” Coffee that is certified by the organization can be sold at higher prices in first world markets, so the alliance supports the farmers if the farmers take care of the land and the local communities.
We drove all morning through richly fertile country toward north central Nicaragua, gradually ascending into the mountain rainforest country. We saw occasional towns and villages and country houses along the way. Most of the dwellings were extremely modest, to put it euphemistically. The poverty of the people in the country is not something to romanticize. It’s shocking to the sensibilities of fortunate North Americans to see the conditions under which many people must live. Homes were constructed of seemingly whatever material was available, such as concrete, bricks, wood, sheet metal or plastic. And yet, the people were lively and friendly. We saw many school children. Our tourguide told us the primary school children attend school in the mornings and the secondary students go in the afternoon because they must share the facilities. Many of the children wore school uniforms. They appeared to be vivacious and fun-loving as they walked to or from school, teasing and playing with one another. It’s always amazing to me to see how even the most meager economic circumstances produce beautiful children. I couldn’t help wonder what kind of futures they had. That gets back to sustainable travel, but more on that later.
When we reached the foot of the mountains, we stopped at a hopping little town called San Ramon, unloaded from our small bus into two four-by-four vehicles for the last hour of the trip. From then on we drove mostly up steep inclines on bumpy, muddy roads, past many homes inhabited mostly by coffee workers. It was a rainy day, punctuated with sunny periods. As we rose into the cloudforest environment the surroundings were rich and moist. At the end of our drive we reached Finca Esperanza Verde (www.fincaesperanzaverde.org), a beautifully manicured eco-lodge, with a mission of providing an ecotourism experience for guests, being a forest reserve and a coffee farm that helps local people better their lives by sharing in the rewards of tourism and the coffee industry.
It’s been named the Best Eco-lodge in Nicaragua by Nicaragua’s Institute of Tourism as part of the Central American Green Initiative and given the Sustainable tourism Award for Conservation from Smithsonian Magazine and Travelers Conservation Foundation. It offers nature oriented activities like birding, hiking, horseback riding, trekking to see howler monkeys or learning about organic farming, butterfly farming, medicinal plants, orchids or the lives of the campesinos (farm workers). It is mostly supported by San Ramon brand organic coffee grown on the farm and neighboring farms it represents. It has accommodations for a total of 26 people. The accommodations are modest, and very inexpensive. It donates 10 percent of its profits to community projects and supports such activities as cooking classes, craft sales and band performances. It keeps the money it makes in the community and provides jobs and benefits for local people.
Next we drove to our final destination of the day, Selva Negra, an organic coffee farm and eco-lodge. Also certified by the Rainforest Alliance, Selva Negra, which means “Black Forest” produces half a million pounds of coffee a year and does it organically. That means, among other things, that it doesn’t use chemical insecticides. It has to come up with natural ways to counter coffee borers, insects that will hollow out the beans by harvest time if you let them. Instead of chemicals, it uses jugs tied around coffee plant stalks containing a solution of both coffee and alcohol. “The coffee attracts them, the alcohol gets them drunk and they drown,” says Mausi Kuhl, the co-owner of the farm.
Instead of chemical fertilizer, Selva Negra farms worms that it feeds with the waste pulp of the coffee beans, and the worms’ urine serves as fertilizer. It takes more of it than chemical fertilizer, but it’s sustainable. It doesn’t destroy the farm or its surroundings. The farm has cultivated hundreds of similarly ingenious techniques, and it draws many people who want to learn about how to create a sustainable farm. Its goal is to develop a carbon-free footprint, says Kuhl. It has not yet achieved that, but what it has done is impressive.
The farm is 1,500 acres. A third of it is primary forest, untouched land. And in order to be certified as organic, the farm must maintain a sizable strip of buffer land between itself and other farms that do use chemicals. The farm is almost self-sufficient. Most of the food eaten by its workers or hotel guests is grown on the farm, including vegetables, pigs, chickens, fish and cows for beef and dairy. It buys some groceries, such as pasta and soap. There’s a sugar cane area. The farm employs 300 workers year round and 1,000 during harvest time. They also house and feed them and give them benefits.
The hotel accommodations are rustic, very humble. This is not a place tourists go for luxurious amenities. People come for hiking, to commune with nature, to learn about organic farming or just to get away from civilization. Bird watchers, entomologists, biologists and botanists come to see the primary forests with 300-year old trees and land that has some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. The grounds have a storybook chapel for weddings.
As the effects of climate change become more vivid and frightening, and people become increasingly aware of other environmental problems that threaten our lives and those of our children and grandchildren, people are becoming more interested in sustainable operations. It is now well-known that the present course of our industrial civilization is not sustainable without some fundamental innovation. We are running out of resources that are essential to life as we now live, like energy, for example. So a place like Selva Negra that is actually functioning in a sustainable way, offers a valuable example of ways we could seek sustainable alternatives. Selva Negra and Finca Esperanza Verde and other enterprises associated with the Rainforest Alliance also offer ways to feel like you are contributing something to helping those children have some kind of chance for a decent future. For more information on Selva Negra, see www.selvanegra.com. -- David Cogswell