Lessons from Nicaragua

For the first time in nearly two weeks we wake to the sound of rain. The region of Matagalpa, only a few hours north of the dry and hot capital Managua, is a lush green mountainous terrain with a very different microclimate to Nicaragua’s lowlands, and a welcome relief after the heat of the city.

We’re here to meet the communities who live and work in these mountains, farming small patches of land that’s unsuitable for intensive monoculture farming and largely dependant on manual labour. The farmers are mainly families with a few hectares of land working in groups of communities organised into cooperatives, and are a growing part of the fair trade movement.

The landscape of Matagalpa

Miguel Angel y Francisco Cruz from the charity Accion Medica Cristiana (AMC) takes us to the community of San Benito where they are funding a land bank project to enable families to buy land in instalments. We leave the trucks at the edge of the rough road and walk the rest of the way through the hilly terrain. It’s perfectly suited for growing the ‘cash crops’ of cocoa, bananas, sugarcane and in particular coffee, as well as fruit and vegetables for their own use. The forest canopy above us provides shade for the coffee plants and ensures a rich biodiversity and healthy soil.

The dozen families who meet us at San Benito tell their stories; of former lives working on large cattle farms for a pittance before moving here and starting from scratch, learning to read and sending their children to school, the dignity and satisfaction of producing not only food to eat but high quality products to sell, and facilities such as a communal playing field that’s improved their quality of life.

Later that day in the town of Matagalpa we meet with Santiago Dolmus of CECOCEFAN, the umbrella cooperative organisation which represents twelve cooperative of small-scalefair trade farmers. Established in 1997, they not only promote and sell coffee on behalf of their 2,500 members, but operate in a participative democratic (and gender balanced) way and run a range of social programmes from scholarships to cervical screening.

Santiago explained how all their coffee is produced to fair trade standards, but due to fluctuation in demand for fair trade coffee in the global market, not all their coffee is sold at the fair tradeprice.

However the fair trade premium is shared in the interest of all the communities, and invested in infrastructure such as a production plant, social programmes such as adult education and women’s empowerment, credit facilities and environmental stewardship measures.


Hearing from the families farming in San Benito

Fair trade farming hasn’t just happened by chance in Nicaragua. It has always been a major part of the Sandinista government’s philosophy and plan for developing the country in a socially fair and environmentally responsible way.

Since Nicaragua’s revolutionary hero Augusto Cesar Sandino established one of the first cooperatives there in 1933, the balance of political and economic power has shifted in favour of small farmers in Nicaragua, through the cooperative model and in recent decades fair trade.

Back in Managua we met with Nicaragua’s Minister for Community, Cooperatives and the Associative Economy, Pedro Haslam. He was one of CECOCEFAN’s founders and sees fair trade, or ‘comercio justo’ as it’s known here, as central to his ministry and the economy of Nicaragua.

And it’s not just about international trade – it’s about increasing the local economy and cultural pride in Nicaragua products. The Ministry supports markets in towns and communities across Nicaragua for a whole range of goods that meet fair trade standards – from food and drink to clothes and crafts.

We tell him how proud we are that Wales was the first fair trade nation and of the support for fair trade in towns and villages through out Wales – and present him with a ‘Fair Trade Fair World’ cotton bag that we brought over from the Caerphilly fair trade campaign.

Presenting the Caerphilly fair trade bag to Minister Pedro Haslam

For us visiting from Wales, life seems tough working these small patches of land with basic living conditions and few of the modern facilities that we take for granted. But for these families the opportunity and practical support such as affordable credit provided by fair trade has enabled them to make a good living in their communities, and to develop and improve their land and conditions year upon year. They are proud that their children now go to school, that they have an equal say in how their cooperative businesses are run, and that they can plan a secure and sustainable future.