Today was our last day in Nicaragua with the Lutheran World Relief delegation. We went to a village called San Pablo. We drove two hours from Matagalpa on really bad roads. It was worth it. LWR is part of the Safe schools project. The work assumes people have a right to a safe space. Safe means good education, good nutrition, and so on.
Working with a local development company, Centro Humboldt, the project team began by interviewing parents and students to identify risks. The found:
1. A lack of safe drinking water and poor waste management. Water was 100 meters away. A long walk. If the water wasn’t already contaminated, it was compromised by the time they got it home.
2. Children were having accidents because of playing in unsafe areas. Garbage areas. Rocks near stairwells. Drop offs.
3. Bad electrical systems. Exposed wires. Falling ceilings. Doors and windows broken and open. Slivers and cuts.
4. Playgrounds in bad condition. Swingsets. Chains.
The developed a School Security Plan.
Results. Accidents reduced. “We now have filtered water in our school. We’ve planted gardens in the risk areas and are raising our own food. They’ve cleared the areas full of rocks. We have signs by electrical outlets. Wires are insulated now and out of reach. We got rid of dangerous play structures.doors repaired. We’ve received first aid training, supplies and seeds. We’ve had workshops on helping people with psych issues.
“Our school has a 100% retention rate. 85% move to the next grade. We work to keep up the school garden. We have seven teachers.”
LWR has invested 132K in phase two o this project 2008.
POVERTY: CHANGING THE GAME WITH COFFEE
Tuesday afternoon we visited a processing plant owned by a coffee cooperative. We greeted with smiles, and of course were served excellent, strong Nicaragua coffee. We met with the director of the co-op, Fatima, along with Eddie, Edmundo, Oriel (who works with the Beneficion Seco Dry Mill), administrator Carmen Castillo, and Raúl in quality control, who is also son of a coffee producer.
Soppexco was born in 1997 out of a difficult history. Part of another organization, administrative corruption and reduction in coffee prices world wide led to a near collapse of the system, and widespread poverty. Coffee is a rich product in high demand, and yet most small growers live in poverty. They had no means of production, and were completely dependent on the large businesses for drying and marketing the coffee beans. These businesses set the prices to their advantage. “This is what we will pay you for your beans. Take it or leave it.” Most of the profits flow away from the growers with small business operations.
The coffee producers didn’t have the training to manage their own business. Neither did they have the extensive equipment required for post production. They had lost hope.
Fatima: “We decided to create a cooperative for small coffee producers, and Soppexco was born. It was extremely difficult because together, we owed $800,000 to six exporters. We addressed this problem with this arithmetic modality: Free trade would give us a minimum price of $121 for each 46kg of coffee. We were able to produce the coffee for $60 per 46kg, so 100% mark up. Making $60 a shots we used 50% of the earnings to pay off debt, and 50% went into developing the business.
We paid off the entire debt In 6-7 years, because:
1. We grew in the number of producers who affiliated with us. This meant more volume.
2. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief supported us, and helped us get on our feet. You supported us with training and technical support.”
LWR has given $2M to this project. USAID has given $1.5M. $580K has come from unrestricted funding.
LWR resources were used to create a dry mill ($250K) and a warehouse ($50K). They created and improved infrastructure for the environment and for working conditions. A house was built where workers can gather and eat. A state of the art solar drying system saves energy and keep them competitive. They used resources to get training and technical assistance. Wet mills were built for coffee processing.
All this has given small family growers access to a global market and control of the product from farm to market. Profits are shared with all partners rather than concentrated among a few. When the co-op wins, everyone wins.
LWR President and CEO John Nunes: “What difference has this made in the day-to-day life of local farmers?”
Fatima: “First, we are sustaining the land by keeping it in the hands of small producers and families. Second, we’re seeing improvments in the quality of life, education, etc, rather than farmers having to sell off their land, which is what we were facing.
“Third, and perhaps most importantly are the spiritual things. People are finding joy in working the land. We have hope. Fourth, we think that when very, very rich are surrounded by the very, very poor it creates a bad situation. It ultimately leads to violence.
“Fifth, human values. This has given us self-esteem. Respect. Non-violence. Sixth. People are improving their homes, the beds, the kitchens and in better living conditions.”
As I sipped my coffee, I was impressed with how articulate she was. I also had the sense that what they were doing was sustainable. This is not giving someone a fish, but helping them develop a self-supporting fishing industry. Not a hand out up a hand up.
Bishop Bruce Burnside: “Do you have control of marketing and packaging?”
Fatima: “When it comes to marketing, every year we have an annual assembly to make decisions. We work with eight exporters. We have to compete with the huge transnational corporations, but we have earned our place in the market by transparency, quality and integrity.
“We have used our profits to improve the community. We have built schools, libraries and hospitals. We created the first school of music in this region. We offer school scholarships.
“We began with 68 small producers in 1997. Now we have 650.”
“We are building structures to prevent landslides. Planting plants that stop land erosion when the rains come. We have bio latrines that produce gas from human waste. Before we had these, people defecated around their homes. It was unsanitary and a health issue. We are conserving our forests, planting plants that provide nitrogen for the soil.
“With LWR we were able to initiate this entire infrastructure. We bought the warehouse and machinery. We were also able to strengthen capacity of producers through exchanges, workshops and training. We are teaching our children, future farmers, the industry. We are handing out school kits to children who go to school in the area of the cooperative farms. There’s demand for the school kits. Pencils, pens, notebooks. They are very popular.”
This is far from easy work, and it is highly competitive. They are competing with the big boys in a global marketplace. They have significant expenses. Unlike some of their competition, they pay a living wage to their workers and invest in a safe, humane workplace and environment. They’re small, but they are strong. “The transnationals have us beat on volume hands down,” says Fatima, “but we have quality. They are volume, volume, volume. You get a ton of mediocre coffee. We are about quality, quality, quality, in every way”