MATAGALPA – To be a coffee picker in these northern highlands means to wander from hacienda to hacienda, looking for work that rarely pays enough to buy more than rice.
“I guess we’re idiots because we keep accepting it,” said Antonio Godínez, a 60- year-old father of three who has picked coffee since he was 12. “But if you stand up for yourself, you risk getting fired.”
On these slick mountainside haciendas in the country’s prime coffee-growing region, time seems to have stood still for Godínez and other experienced pickers. Though some plantations have tried to implement fairlabor practices, most campesinos live not much differently than their parents and grandparents before them.
It’s a struggle to survive, and few expect their children will ever know a better way of life.
This year’s harvest promises to be a good one – more than 500,000 quintales of coffee, requiring some 120,000 pickers to harvest. The workers, who begin in earnest this week as the cherries mature, make an average of $2 -3 per day. Many who can find a way to leave do, legally or not. Local officials say the region loses between 500-600 of their most experienced workers every month to the promise of higher-paying jobs in El Salvador, Costa Rica or the United States.
“The life of an immigrant is never easy,” said Francisco Lanzas III, president of Matagalpa’s Coffee Growers Association.
“Still, that’s not to say that one won’t leave to look for better horizons. Sometimes it’s necessary if you have children, a wife, a family to feed. But there’s nothing like living in your own country, even if it means living poor.”
Struggling to Survive
In the tiny village of San Ramón,Hermilia López sleeps on the dirt floor of a mud-and stick shack that sits on a piece of land without title. She lives with six of her daughters and one grandson.
Her two teenage sons support the household, having left school when they were 11 and 13 to work at coffee haciendas several hours away.
The family has no access to health care, running water or electricity.
“I ended up alone with the kids and their father doesn’t help,” said López, who lost two infants in childbirth. Another daughter was depressed and committed suicide.
“We don’t earn enough to buy shoes, clothes and food,” she said.
The typical Nicaraguan diet is beans and rice, but these weeks the López family can afford only rice. High inflation, increased fuel costs and a bean shortage have led to skyrocketing food prices across the country. Beans, for example, have recently doubled to about $1 per pound (see separate story).
Coffee is Nicaragua’s main export and an estimated $60 billion international industry. Only about 10% of that sum makes it to back coffee plantation owners, Lanzas said.
The rest, he said, ends up in the hands of middle-men and vendors.
The economic inequalities, combined with a lack of control of prices at the international market, is the reason growers can’t afford to pay their workers more, he said.
“It’s an unfair commerce,” Lanzas said. “And the life of one of our campesinos is a very sad one.”
Mario Orozco’s eyes glaze over when he hears explanations about international coffee prices. All he knows about coffee economics is that he earns an average daily pay of less than $2 for picking beans from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.
So he doesn’t want to hear about middlemen, profit margins and global market trends.
“That’s what they say to deceive us, the campesinos, because we don’t know about the law, about anything,” said Orozco, a 44- year-old father of eight children. “So they deceive us with some bullshit.”
Orozco says he’d move to Costa Rica or anywhere else to work if he only had a house in which to leave his family. But he doesn’t own property; his family stays on the farms where the harvest is, cramped into temporary living quarters provided to coffee pickers.
“We’re tied to these haciendas like slaves,” said Orozco, who is illiterate. “And we’re uneducated so we’re not qualified for another kind of work.”
Coffee Child Care
During the height of the harvest in November and December, children often pick coffee with their parents because nobody can stay at home to watch them, said Martín Rivera, the Ministry of Labor’s head Matagalpa inspector.
He said it’s illegal for children under 14 to work, but recognizes that it happens. “The regulations have always been there,” he said; “more than anything for the protection of children.”
Because of that, the Labor Ministry hopes to expand a child-care program that’s currently in eight of Matagalpa’s 140-plus haciendas.
“Clearly we see the problems,” Rivera said. “And we’re trying to get the haciendas to cooperate with us.”
Lanzas said that large hacienda owners can afford to participate in programs to improve labor conditions – including fair-trade certification programs – but the smaller ones need monetary assistance up front in order to qualify.
He has some faith in a new federal loan program to small businesses, and hopes the government also provides technical assistance to growers who have “stayed far behind the times on new coffee-growing techniques.”
Back at the Godínez household, 11-year-old Marcos prepares for school. He walks an hour each way, but doesn’t complain.
“My dad says learning is the most important thing,” he says.
Marcos also doesn’t object to picking coffee on weekends, but he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“My dad is a really old man, and he’s tired a lot,”Marcos said. “I want to finish university and manage a hacienda one day.”