Producer Profile: CECOCAFEN

Written by Cafe Campesino on Apr 1, 2004 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |
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by Beth Backen of Peace Coffee and Larry Larson of Larry’s Beans

We arrived at our Nicaraguan coffee farmer co-op CECOCAFEN with our backpacks full, video cameras rolling, and still cameras clicking. The visit to Nicaragua was planned as an exposure tour for members and clients interested in learning more about CECOCAFEN — confronting the development needs of 20+ base-community organizations, while operating a processing plant and large-scale marketing operation for national and international exports in a time of on-going coffee price crisis. You could say that it was a meeting of two worlds. The co-op members came with the ingenuity built from necessity and endless enthusiasm to share with us their newest community project, The Coffee Tourism Trail.

What we found most impressive about CECOCAFEN were its programs designed to build empowerment among the farmers. Being part of a larger co-op, producers can search more effectively for buyers in the fair trade market, bargain collectively, and receive help with paperwork for organic and fair trade certification. But at the end of the day, even with a good portion of their coffee selling at Fair Trade prices, coffee sales alone are not enough to provide for all the farmers’ needs.

So CECOCAFEN is helping the families look for ways to diversify their income. Some women are learning to make herbal medicines with hopes of creating a marketable line of products; others are experimenting with new crops and are learning tasty ways to cook with soy for an inexpensive source of protein; and still other families are participating in the coffee tourism project, hosting groups like ours.

During our community visit, we stayed at Dionicia Valdiria Hernandez’s home. “Dionicia was clearly the maestra of the house,” recalled Larry. “With 13 kids underfoot, she orchestrated a beautiful command and control center. Our first afternoon, the three of us — Beth, Amy, and myself — were off with doña Dionicia and company cutting down sugar cane and digging up yucca root. Damn, it tasted good!”

We spent the next days learning about the tasks at hand — picking, sorting, de-pulping coffee cherries, drying the pergamino, and again sorting the now-dried beans in preparation for final inspection upon entering into CECOCAFEN’s processing plant. We were impressed with the amount of time it took us to fill a small basket with coffee cherries, and then how much that pile of cherries reduced, once we took it through a de-pulping machine! Doña Dionicia then demonstrated the tasks of sorting through the dried pergamino, pulling out the unacceptable beans, hand husking, and the roasting and grinding for our morning, noon and evening cups of java.

We definitely gained a deeper connection with the farmers, after witnessing the labor-intensive tasks involved with growing coffee. But we also had time to talk with them about their lives and to learn about their hopes and goals for their families and communities. When asked what they would do with the extra earnings, most people said they would send their kids to high school.

Dionicia’s children are all good readers; they proved it each evening, reading to us and correcting our Spanish. Education for the children is a clear priority. But for most families in this region, the bus ride and fees for high school are beyond their budgets. In response, CECOCAFEN has developed a scholarship fund. As the Fair Trade market grows, these farmers hope to be able to sell all of their coffee at Fair Trade prices, rather than having to sell a portion on the conventional market.

“I carry home from my experience in Nicaragua,” said Beth, “greater understanding of the importance of empowerment not only for rural people in developing nations, but also for those of us living in North America. As families in Nicaragua continue the struggle to better their situation, American workers face the loss of jobs and access to health care. We must learn to work cooperatively. While the global economic situation continues to swing in favor of enormous corporate interests, we will find another path.”

“It inspires me to see such a positive cooperative model,” Beth continued. “My hope grows as I see more folks here forming coops, and participating in fair business practices. More and more, I see that the work we do to protect ourselves from powerful corporate interests and the work we do to protect our international neighbors is one in the same.”

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