Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nicaragua emerges from the storm clouds

Although Central America finally saw the sun this weekend after nearly two weeks of rain, hurricanes in Mexico and Panama are threatening more rain on the already soaked region. The most severe storm of the rainy season to date, these recent rains have taken a huge toll on Central America leaving 105 people dead, 1 million people affected, thousands of houses destroyed and extensive crop damage. The worst hit is Guatemala where half a million people have been affected and $9.8 million lost in the agricultural sector alone. In El Salvador, 5 feet of rain fell affecting 70% of the country. In Honduras 42 bridges were destroyed. In Costa Rica, 1,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Here in Nicaragua, there are 13 dead, and 136,000 people affected by the storms. 12,000 families have lost their homes. 185 miles of paved highways are washed out, 465 miles of rural roads are washed out and initial estimates say Nicaragua will lose 3-5% of its most important crop this year: coffee.

At the El Porvenir coffee cooperative, René reports that everyone is fine. While the nearby community of Las Casitas on the slopes of the volcano was evacuated to avoid another tragedy like that community experienced during Hurricane Mitch, once again El Porvenir’s care of its natural forest has protected it. There is no damage to houses and they don’t expect their coffee harvest to be affected. In the community, individuals plant food crops – mostly corn and beans – for their own families’ consumption and also for sale in the local market. Of the corn and beans planted, they have lost about 30%, which means that while co-op members at El Porvenir will have enough food to eat this year, they won’t have the income they were counting on from the sale of the beans and corn, and their families will be in a tough spot. Additionally, 6 horses died during the storms, meaning folks will be left without transport.

What does the damage from this storm mean for the folks we work with in Ciudad Sandino and beyond? In the immediate term, damage from the storm will drive food prices up yet again this year. Costs of other necessary items, most importantly medicines, will likely shoot up as well. Already the cost of the basic basket of goods in Nicaragua for a family of 4 is around $450 per month in a country where unemployment is at 53% and those who do have jobs on average don’t even make 30% of that cost. On a regional level, all this has a cost as well: experts say that over the next several years, 10-20% of Central America’s GDP will go to pay for damage wrought by climate change.

In short, Nicaragua and her battered people can’t afford more natural disasters.

But they’re likely to keep coming. The United Nations recently declared Central America one of the regions most affected by climate change – according to the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD), from 1960-1970, there would be 1 event like this per decade; in the 1980s 2 events; in the 1990s 4; and from 2000-2010 there were 7.

In an interview on the Telesur program Agenda Abierta last week, environmental adviser Halim Jordan noted that 80% of the population of Central America is responsible for only a negligible amount of CO2 emissions, yet this region is suffering disproportionately from storms brought about by climate change, can do nothing to control them, and finds it so hard to recover from them. Consumption in the United States (which emits more CO2 than Europe and China combined) is having a very direct and very negative impact on Central America, and here in Nicaragua people realize it…do those in the U.S. make the connection? – Becca

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Java Jive

It’s been a tough year in the coffee world: in April, international coffee prices topped $3 a pound for the first time in 34 years, and while prices have dropped slightly, the price hike is likely here to stay. Heavy rain falls around the world are to blame for last year’s poor harvests, but in the long term, unpredictable weather and rising temperatures due to climate change are affecting premier coffee regions in places like Colombia, where production on some farms is down 70% from just 5 years ago. Coffee plants are sensitive and changes in temperature, rainfall and spells of dryness not only affect productivity, but also the taste of the high end Arabica beans.

With conventional coffee prices staying above $2 per pound, “fair trade is in an awkward position” as Matt Earley from Just Coffee describes it in a recent article on building a better pre-financing model. For 18 years the official Fair Trade Coffee minimum price remained stagnant at $1.41, not even keeping up with inflation. Last year, the price went up to $1.51 including a social premium. Meanwhile market price for conventional coffee is currently at $2.25 per pound.

For many Nicaraguan organic coffee co-ops, this has created quite a dilemma: “In the past,” explains Matt Earley, “enthusiastic farmers turned coffee into [fair trade buyers] knowing [they] would pay more than local buyers ‘coyotes.’ As a result, farmers would tolerate buyers’ partial (or zero) payment on delivery of the coffee and wait for full payment after buyers received the coffee in the United States or Europe. However, in these years of high prices, local buyers pay a price competitive with ‘fair trade’ importers and roasters, and they pay cash on the barrelhead instead of [fair trade buyers’] two or three payments. This welcome development for cash-strapped farmers benefits them in the short-term but damages their cooperatives as they default on contracts with buyers, lose members and weaken as democratic forces in their communities.”

For small farmers, the decision to choose a higher short-term price over a better long-term relationship is a very real one. El Porvenir supports 43 families (más o menos), more than 250 people total. Although they grow their own food, the cash payment they receive for their coffee crop is the only cash they see all year long. Like farmers all over the country, by the time harvest season rolls around, last year’s cash is long gone and co-op members are desperate for money to buy medicines, clothes, shoes and school supplies for their children. Unlike other farmers, El Porvenir already had a much more equitable relationship with its buyers, making it easier for them to turn down cash in hand from the coyotes.

For years, El Porvenir has sold its crop to Their Bucks Coffee knowing that they would pay more than$2 a pound. Additionally, Their Bucks has contributed 100% of its profits from coffee sales to establish a revolving loan fund that the El Porvenir co-op can access for harvesting costs. Their Bucks pays El Porvenir in three installments: 30% in October, 30% in December, and 40% upon shipping, so that the coffee is completely paid for before it ever leaves Nicaragua. A decision to sell to coyotes last year might have benefitted the co-op in the short-term, but they had an agreement with their buyers – reneging on that agreement last year would have meant throwing away a relationship of trust they’ve spent a decade building, and putting at risk the sale of future crops. The El Porvenir co-op followed through on their deal to sell to Their Bucks at $2.25 a pound…and got ready to negotiate this year’s crop in light of higher international prices.

Last week the coffee buyers came to negotiate: Al Jenkins from Their Bucks Coffee in Mt. Pleasant, SC and Jervais Hollowell of Little River Roasting Company in Spartanburg, SC came to Nicaragua to meet with the folks at El Porvenir and brought with them their daughters, Christy and Leland. In their face-to-face negotiations, El Porvenir agreed to sell at least 20,000 lbs of their coffee to Their Bucks, and Their Bucks agreed to pay $2.70 per pound –the $2.25 international price on the day of the negotiations, plus $0.45 per pound organic premium. These successful negotiations mean that the folks at El Porvenir can count on a better price for their crop – including continuing the important upfront payments – and means that Their Bucks can guarantee its growing customer base a supply of the excellent 43 Families brand coffee it markets, a good deal for farmers, buyers and discerning coffee drinkers!

NEW! Look for El Porvenir’s coffee at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain – it’s their in-house brand organic coffee, Newton Farms! -- Becca

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Saying "No"

Last night, after learning that we have been in Nicaragua for going on 18 years, a first-time delegation member commented “Wow! You must love your work!”

In truth, if we had all the money we needed then it would be easier to love our work. The work would be more encouraging and the choices we have to make would be much, much easier choices. It’s so hard to say “No.”

Saying “No” is one of the most difficult things that we have to do. We can say “I’ll see what we can do” and we do, but it most often leads to a postponed “No.”

A clinic patient comes in and needs surgical equipment that costs a thousand dollars to get much-needed surgery and I have to say “No,” because the money the one patient needs will pay for medicines for many patients, or even pay the doctors’ salaries. It is painful for me to say “No” and it is devastating for that patient.

I often think of Jesus’ words “do unto others and you would have them do unto you.” I think of those words when I say “No,” and if I am in a good place I silently ask for forgiveness. More times than not, I just feel guilty and then angry. Angry that I cannot provide all that people need. Angry that money is always an issue. And truthfully, angry that the poor ask for what I cannot give…or at least for what I feel like I cannot give.

Over the past five years, the Center has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Genesis Cooperative yarn spinning project, and most recently has invested in a temporary work solution for them while they continue to wait on spinning equipment: we set up a cattle feed operation to make feed using agricultural by-products like sesame and cottonseed which will give the Genesis members work half time. In June, we agreed with Genesis that they would begin work on the cattle feed once they finished their bathrooms and break room and got their city water hooked up – they’ve been working on those “finishing touches” to their factory for more than two years. The cattle feed operation is ready to go, and Genesis still hasn’t finished, so we’ve hired the seasonal cotton gin workers to make cattle feed until Genesis finishes their bathrooms. Then, today, they came and asked for bus fare to attend a marketing training. One. More. Thing.

When we ran shelters in Statesville, NC, in the 1980s, we had a friend who ran a home for the homeless in Atlanta. He would speak about the Divine No…when you just have to suck up all the good intentions and say “No,” then you say “No” with humility and with an act of forgiveness.

Again, on my good days, I can do that. On my bad days, I want to rail at the Divine and yell, “Why don’t YOU say ‘Yes’ more so I can say ‘Yes’! Help us find the money! And while I’m at it…give that man who accepted our $150,000 and didn’t deliver equipment some kind of bad rash in the most sensitive of all places!”

Saying “No” is the hardest thing we do…it is the most painful because we know that it is we who do not suffer. -- Kathleen