BY LAUREN TABER
Across the highland region of Nicaragua, one will see a diversity of wildlife darting across twisting mountain roads, signs advertising the sale of gasoline and other provisions, and hills covered from top to bottom in crops: cacao, bananas, coconuts, and coffee. It is the latter crop that brings me to the Esteli region of Nicaragua, where I am being escorted farther into the hills to see firsthand the work of the producers of PRODECOOP, Pachamama Coffee’s member-owner in Nicaragua. Perched in the passenger seat of a new Toyota truck, I chat idly with Nohelia, Tommy, and Adolfo from PRODECOOP about the weather, the tobacco fields we pass, and what the day has in store. There are to be several stops during our excursion - a visit to Tommy’s sons in San Juan de Rio Coco, and a quick coffee break at Adolfo’s house in Quilali. The one everyone is most excited about, it seems, is our plan for lunch: we will be visiting a woman named Tonita, a producer from the San Juan de Rio Coco cooperative, one of the 38 that comprise PRODECOOP.
San Juan de Rio Coco is a small town set deep in the mountains. Formerly a gold mining town, there is a residual liveliness that results in a bustling city center. It also serves as the first stop for producers in the area - PRODECOOP has a processing center in town, and this is where farmers like Tonita bring their crop to be recorded and transported.
To get to Tonita’s house, we continue through town and through the countryside for upwards of an hour. Though the road is in good condition, its twists and switchbacks are inescapable and the journey is slow. We are surrounded on either side by views into lush valleys, and along the way Tommy points out areas that are farms operated by PRODECOOP members, and local landmarks.
Suddenly, our driver makes a sharp left turn down a dirt road, scaring a flock of hens away from their sunny roadside roosts. We pass by terraced farms and houses perched on steep slopes, eventually turning onto a small concrete driveway.
Waiting for us is a small woman with a welcoming smile. Tonita greets us as if we are family members with whom she has been waiting for years to reunite. We are escorted into the open-air dining area where we help to set the table for lunch. In the kitchen, we are given sweet coffee while Tonita and her daughter put the finishing touches on lunch - chicken soup with albondigas and an array of veggies.
A single mother of four, Tonita lives on her small scale farm with her daughter and one of her sons. Her situation is a perfect example of PRODECOOP’s slogan: “We think of the families that live in coffee”. For female producers like Tonita, coffee is not just a cash crop, it is a livelihood. This is why she strives to improve the functioning of her level of the industry, particularly in the form of women’s role in the coffee economy. As a member of a male-dominated Co-Op (of the 51 members of San Juan de Rio Coco Cooperative, only 14 are women), Tonita has been instrumental in the operations of gender equity projects since 1993. She keeps her Co-Op’s Gender Commission afloat during difficult times, involving entire families in discussion about the rights and capabilities of wives and daughters, and she has been instrumental in the development by her Co-Op of a 5-year program to address the negative effects of climate change and increase sustainability.
She is quick to sing the praises of PRODECOOP and express gratitude for the social impact they have within coffee farming communities. In partnership with local universities and domestic NGO’s, PRODECOOP works on water and sanitation initiatives, food security and nutrition education, and a literacy program for the children of coffee farmers. It is one of PRODECOOP’s goals to serve as an example in the coffee industry of how to effectively empower female members and improve the quality of life of their coffee producers.
Perhaps the most tangible and exciting of the opportunities that PRODECOOP works to provide their producers is a scholarship program for the children of active producers in member cooperatives. Thanks to funding from Fair Trade International and the support of PRODECOOP, farmers are able to send their children into the larger cities to attend University, and many of them end up in fields of study that serve to strengthen the coffee industry.
Tonita, too, has hopes pegged on the scholarship program. Next year her daughter will apply for the award, with plans to study Agronomy in Palacaguina.
Tonita walks the line of being an involved and supportive mother and an industrious business owner. Her son Alex, for example, has special needs and uses crutches to assist him with walking. While he cannot engage in physical labor on par with other coffee producers, he is still very much involved in the family business: during the harvest, he wakes up at 3 am to begin grinding corn to make tortillas for the workers his mother has hired. In return, Tonita supports his input and business ideas. He has a lot of initiative, Tonita explains - a trait that has most recently led him to add bees to the list of agricultural operations their family farm undertakes. They have a small hive, and Alex sells honey at local markets.
This venture coincides well with another PRODECOOP initiative in which Tonita is playing a large role: farm diversification. Tonita’s coffee enterprise is successful - she has a small wet mill on her property, and boasts significant drying capacity as well. Despite this self-sufficiency, Tonita faces a yearly problem that affects even the largest coffee producers: the off-season. The coffee harvest ends in late February, leaving little opportunity for profit during the spring and summer months.
At the urging of PRODECOOP, Tonita has begun to cultivate an assortment of other crops. She has oregano bushes, various citrus trees, bananas, coconuts, and several flourishing cacao trees. She graciously shares some of the cacao fruit (you can’t eat the seeds become chocolate, but they are coated in a sweet and sour fruit that is a fairly common snack) as Tommy explains yet another way that Tonita is contributing to the greater good of the coffee industry. She has donated two hectares of her land to a research initiative carried out by PRODECOOP that measures the effects of fertilizer on soil. The ASA (Air, Soil, Agriculture) initiative uses four indicators to measure the relative health of soil that has been exposed to natural fertilizer against soil that has not been been exposed to any fertilizer. At the end of the study, this information will be hugely valuable to coffee growers in the region and beyond, as they seek to engage in the most sustainable practices possible.
Above all, Tonita is a woman with a heart for the industry and a vision for the future. She recognizes the importance of investing in the younger generation - whether it is supporting her own children’s dreams, or empowering the children of coffee producers on a larger scale - , and of environmental sustainability within the coffee industry.
Spending an afternoon with her, it is not difficult to see why it is important to actively remember coffee producers when we work in the industry at any level. They are working within their families and producer organizations to better their farming practices and their family’s quality of life. Women like Tonita exist across the world’s coffee-growing regions: women who work hard and engage with their community, women who take pride in their role in the coffee industry and want to see it sustained for generations to come.
Today and everyday, we stand with women who work tirelessly to make a positive impact on the world, from whatever corner of it they call home.