Reflections from Nicaragua and Guatemala, November 2014
“I am not here to put on a show,”
“I want you to see with your own eyes how hard I am working. How hard we are all working. I have three other mouths to feed plus my own. We work hard for you.
I brought you here so you would not forget that.”
Those words resonate with me long after leaving the highlands of Guatemala where some of the world’s highest quality and best tasting coffee is grown. I was perched half way up a hill listening to the landowner share with me his struggle to combat La Roya, a debilitating coffee disease which has decimated much of coffee in Central and Latin America. It is not easy to forget his sense of urgency as he described his challenge feeding his family.
The week before we celebrated Thanksgiving here in the United States, I traveled to Nicaragua and Guatemala with the Coalition for Coffee Communities (formerly known as the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition), a group of seven coffee companies collectively investing in a pilot project in Jinotega, Nicaragua implemented by Aldea Global, a local partner of Mercy Corps, building year-round financial security for coffee farmer families and addressing challenges brought by seasonal hunger. Roya has complicated the efforts of Aldea Global, since rehabilitation of farms has became a priority, and feeding coffee families a necessity. Our group was visiting with the communities that are served by the program in Nicaragua. In Guatemala we visited with several communities benefiting from a similar food security program funded by Keurig Green Mountain.
While one should never grow accustomed to seeing the immense poverty that has overtaken smallholder farmers in the rural communities that grow much of our coffee, I leave each visit shaken and intent on affecting change however possible. That said, there are still tremendous difficulties that upon seeing first hand, seem almost insurmountable. A few reflections are below:
1. Food insecurity is just as much about lacking access to nutritious options as it is about lacking options period.
According to the FAO, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” What became quickly obvious to me during my visit to Central America was the ease of access to snack food and soda. Small ‘tiendas’ dotted corners across many of the towns we visited or drove through. In some cases there were people that appeared visibly overweight or obese. This can be perplexing in a debate around food security, since lacking food may not always be the challenge. Lacking healthy food is. Given that frame of reference, it is no surprise that just over 14% of U.S. households can be defined as food insecure. This is not just a problem for those in developing countries. One stark difference is many developed countries’ dependence on countries like Nicaragua for produce. As it turns out, snack food and soda are actually less expensive in produce growing areas like Jinotega than other foods (including lean proteins, legumes and vegetables) in large part because much of the ‘other’ foods are grown for export.
Can there be enough healthy food to supply us all?
In the case of Jinotega, the local government has created a food security task force to educate communities around proper nutrition, how to grow healthy vegetables in home gardens both for consumption and income generation, and even meal preparation techniques. In a meeting with the Jinotega government while on our visit, we heard that so much more is needed in the form of training, resources and education. Simple investments like seeds, nursery infrastructure, tools for water maintenance and resources for continued learning around health, nutrition and eating for a balance diet rose to the top of the list. These challenges are made all the more complex when incomes are low. Cheaper food becomes the only food. Sustaining families the entire year entails a balanced approach to growing and consuming.
2. Stunting is a real and often overlooked problem.
In Guatemala I met a young boy with big brown eyes and a wide smile in deep contrast to his coy demeanor. I spoke to his Mother for a bit, and mentioned that I have a 4-year old boy. It turns out that her son was just a month older than mine. He looked much younger than 4, as many Guatemalan children do, because of stunting. While stunting is a growing problem in most developing economies, half of all children under five in Guatemala are statistically stunted. By comparison, in the United States, only about 2 percent of young children are stunted. It is not entirely known why some children in developing countries are stunted, and others aren't, but much depends on the level of their nutrition from the time of conception to their two year old birthday (the first 1,000 days). Simple techniques like encouraging breast feeding over the use of water during times of sickness, or preventing sugar consumption, are critical for a new baby. Some women are not given basic care instructions when pregnant and/or when delivering their babies. According to the World Food Program, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. For coffee communities with little variety of income, a poor harvest is devastating. Over the last few years, Roya has led to greater instances of malnutrition as farmers' incomes fall rapidly. Addressing discrepancies in income, improving market inefficiencies and targeting livelihood improvements for farmers will help to improve issues like stunting in coffee supply chains and elsewhere.
3. Women leaders are emerging in times of crisis and exerting their voices in traditionally male-dominated scenarios
I met women leaders of every variety: farmers, business owners, project managers, program facilitators and even a vice-Mayor. As is often sited, women produce more than half of the world’s food, yet own only two percent of titled land and receive less than 10 percent of credit available for small businesses. While so many women are involved in agriculture, it has historically been largely male-dominated, and the institutions responsible for decision making even more so.
In Nicaragua, I participated in a convening of a rural women’s entrepreneurial and business group discussing challenges and needs for presentation to the local government. The energy was high, and in presentation after presentation, women of all ages shared what their farmer groups and small local businesses are doing to advance their families’ income. The applause filled the room after each presentation, a sense of harmony and teamwork all around. At the end the group was celebrated by a local musical band and joined each other for lunch.
Shortly thereafter I visited a farm owned by one of the attendees and marveled at the beauty and intricacy in which she grew flowers near her broccoli and cabbage. She owned the land outright and made all decisions accordingly. Her husband managed the coffee, although her land was equally profitable. Her pride was obvious.
Women leadership in Northern Nicaragua is not only helping families nearly double their income, it is providing a sense of unity and identify to a community struggling to dig itself out of La Roya.
In Guatemala, one of the most moving stories was of Magdalena, a 40-year old mother of seven children ages 8 to 21, whose husband’s coffee was decimated by Roya. Thanks to the Mercy Corps food security program, Magdalena is now growing a variety of herbs, greens, beans and maize to share with her family and sell to others. The program leaders are largely women, working with their neighboring communities to teach other women about growing home gardens, how to tend to their land, and even how to cook with better care to avoid illness.
Magdalena invited us into her home while she shared with us her story while serving us bochbol, a traditional dish native to the Northern Highlands made of masa and steamed greens. Together we shared in her pride of hard work and achievement.
Ensuring women are engaged in livelihood improvement programs is nothing new, but it is critical. According to the FAO, given equal access to resources as men, women farmers would achieve the same yields, boosting agricultural production by 2.5-4%. While this sounds somewhat minimal, this additional productivity could reduce the number of those undernourished in the developing world by 100-150 million people.
Now back in the States for more than two weeks, I continue to reflect upon my experience in Nicaragua and Guatemala. I feel grateful for the opportunity to better understand the basic needs in coffee growing communities while working with those who can affect change like the Coalition for Coffee Communities. We are dedicated more now than ever to do our part, working with governments, other donors and the entire coffee sector to do not just what’s right, but what’s necessary.