The trucks came about 30 minutes after we had arrived, trailing a cloud of dust behind them. The dust was so thick along those unpaved roads that I could feel it filling my nostrils and coating my tongue every time one of them passed by us. I took another sip of the earthy, acidic and delicious coffee and watched them unload their wares. First one, then two and then what seemed like a hundred women and children poured out the back.
“Jeez, they must be packed like cattle in there,” I mentioned to my friend who is sitting beside me, watching the unloading.
“They are from the comunidades” he said in a slightly diminutive voice. The communities – this seems to be a widely used statement here to explain everything from poverty and crime, to being loud, humble, rude, compliant or just about anything that is socially adverse and embarrassing in any given context. “Most of them are coffee farmers” he continued“ and most of this” – he swept his hand over the spectacular view of lush green forested hills in front of us –“ is now coffee”.
I was sitting in San Juan del Rio Coco, a small coffee-growing town nestled in the hills of northern Nicaragua. It was March 8th, International Woman’s day and the Sandinista party was putting on one of those charmless mass assemblies-cum-celebrations in an old coffee-drying warehouse for the women coffee farmers from this region. My friend, part of a brass band, had been invited to play for them and knowing my hunger to see as much of the country as possible had invited me along.
As the band warmed up I wandered the rows of white plastic chairs littering the hall. Even though there were hundreds of chairs, the cathedral-like open space of the warehouse made everything feel small. There was a smell of coffee in the air, a smell that seemed to permeate from every house, every gutter, and every pore of the people from this town. The smell brought me for a second back to Café Artigano, a hip coffee house and one of my old favorite haunts in Vancouver. In my minds eye I saw the minimalist design of the coffee house and the baristas in their hipster garb behind the counter. I heard their shuffle of feet, the gentle rumbling of the coffee machines, and the folding of newspapers. I saw myself there, a well-made latte in my hand, arguing with my ex-boyfriend, debating the benefits of fair-trade “happy” coffee. I’m arguing about what I consider the injustice done to the small farmers by the coffee industry. My point is undermined slightly by the artistic black and white photos on the walls, depicting pictures of happy, smiling campesinos. Look at how happy the people are that are producing your coffee. Look at how healthy they are; they are just like you and I, only different.
In the Nicaraguan warehouse there were no colorful pictures of people drinking coffee; instead grime-covered cracks and crevices concrete decorated those walls. There were, however, the smiling campensinos. Over 1000 women, who, for one of the few days in the year, get half a day off to participate in this celebration and go home with prizes and a plate of food with meat, something they consume only once a week or on special occasions. Although we saw plenty of new SUV’s and pick-up trucks on our way back from San Juan del Rio Coco, I am told that the wealth from this “black gold” has yet to trickle down to the actual coffee farmers, who despite the well-meaning attempts of fair trade and organic certification, have shown little improvement in their basic standard of living.
A week later I drive back up to San Juan del Rio Coco with the coordinator of a food security project. The first community we arrive at, nestled in between the fecund green mass of rain forest surrounding it, is made up almost exclusively of coffee farmers.
I meet one while I am milling around the preschool, waiting for the coordinator to finish. She stands timidly in a corner; the young boy next to her seems about as much of an accessory as the machete hanging loosely from her side. She looks young, small and short, but it is impossible to tell the age of the women here.
“How old are you?”
I smile at her and gesture with my mouth at the boy: “and him?”
“Seven” she says, smiling down at him.
“Your first?” I ask.
“My grandson”. The fact that I am not shocked at all at the succession of 14 year old girls having children out here in the communities tells me I have been in this country a while.
“You farm coffee?”
“Do you like it?”
She wrinkles her nose at me, a gesture used all over this country to signify incomprehension of some sort. I wonder if she didn’t understand my Spanish, but most probably it’s the question. What do I mean by does she like it? Tied to coffee through family, history, politics, international trade and lack of other opportunities, choice is not a relevant question. Coffee is lifeblood here, making up a quarter of Nicaragua’s national export and employing over a third of the rural population.
She continues to stare at me with an emotionless face: “Do they drink coffee where you come from?”
In my mind I see the selection of coffee lining the walls behind the counter of Café Artigano: Espresso blend from Brazil, Dark roast blend from Mexico, Medium blend from Guatemala, Strictly high-grown coffee from Honduras.
“Do they grow it there too?”
“No…it comes from other places, like here”.
“Is it very expensive there?”
“Around 12$ a pound”
“Oh”. She looks a bit confused. I am too, considering that she only makes per pound around 10 Cordobas, or 50 cents, on a good day. I see the coordinator has turned on the car and is waiting to leave. I shake her hand.
I think back to the pictures of the smiling campesinos. I wonder if they are black and white for a reason.
“Can I take a foto?” I ask, my hand already on my camera bag.
She nods, puts her hand on her grandsons shoulder and smiles.