FINCA EL RECREO, MATAGALPA – Strange, really. No snake bites. No amputees from machete accidents. No injuries from drunken fights. Zero malaria.
It’s a wonder how Antonia Esperanza, the mild-mannered nurse at the Finca El Recreo coffee plantation, manages to keep herself entertained these days.
Esperanza, 49, used to work at the Health Ministry clinic in nearby Jinotega, the regional watering hole where farmers and ranchers from surrounding crags and hillside fincas descend to seek health-care and other services.
There, at the government clinic, she used to see all of the above.
But now her job is a lot more mellow. Esperanza’s new place of employment is a haven for developing human capital in the rugged northern highlands. The coffee plantation, run by a quaint couple, also functions as the Education and Health Ministry for its more than 100 workers, as well as for coffee pickers from surrounding plantations.
The couple, Carlos Ferrey and his wife Ileana, has set up a clinic and provided workers with bi-monthly checkups, a focus on preventive care that is foreign to these mountains.
The finca also has a schoolhouse for the workers’ children, and recently opened a training facility that will give coffee pickers vocational value-added training to identify quality coffee through a cupping lab and other technical knowledge.
Harvesting the ‘Best Cup’
Fifteen years after the Ferreys re-purchased the same land they claim was taken from them illegally in1974, they are now producing the beans for what New York based environmental group Rainforest Alliance has dubbed the “best cup of coffee in Nicaragua.”
The plantation sells its coffee to Starbucks and the Massachusetts-based Atlantic Coffee. The Rainforest Alliance, a non-governmental conservation organization with programs in some 50 countries, has nearly 50 plantations in the certification process in Nicaragua, where coffee continues to be the top export and an increasingly valuable commodity.
With world coffee prices rising past $130 per quintal (an old Spanish measurement equivalent to 46 kilograms), the government last month deployed 500 Nicaraguan soldiers and 250 police officers to protect coffee owners and workers from theft during harvest season up north, which lasts through February.
“We asked the police for help and they gave us the backing that was needed to control robberies and assaults on coffee farms,” said Conny Perez, the manager of the Nicaraguan Coffee Exporters Association.
She said this is the first harvest that the government has responded to with such a concentrated force.
Perez estimated that the coffee harvest this year will reach 2 million quintales, a 10% increase from last year.
As the market grows and matures, the industry has become increasingly focused on distinguishing itself by producing a quality product.
“The trend is to produce coffee that is each time of higher quality,” Perez told The Nica Times, adding that certification is the best existing tool to control both quality of the product and the labor practices employed by the farm.
For certification, a third party, in this case Rainforest Alliance, awards a seal of approval to producers, thereby guaranteeing consumers that the products are the result of monitored business practices that are environmentally and socially responsible, according to Rainforest Alliance spokesman Pablo Hernández.
The Rainforest model, which began in Costa Rica, requires the farm to dedicate adequate resources to protecting the environment and improving farmers’ social conditions, while paying at least the government-set minimum wage, which for coffee workers is about $3 a day.
In Nicaragua, where 80% of the population lives in poverty, some 300,000 coffee pickers will bring in this year’s harvest.
Here at the El Recreo farm, the certification program is increasingly focused on training the workers.
The value-added training is the latest addition to the Rainforest Alliance’s repertoire of consumer-driven certifications that promotes “ethical” trade by paying workers better wages and giving them a greater role in farm management.
“We want other plantation owners to send their workers here to learn,” Ferrey said. Workers at the El Recreo farm are trained in wood management, plague-prevention, ecology, and human-resource management, as well as the art of cupping – or coffee tasting – among other vocational skills.
Ferrey says the progress he’s made in recent years to benefit the health and education of his workers doesn’t require a large financial investment, but rather “time, desire and effort.”
For instance, he says, it takes persistence to teach workers to use the bathrooms he constructed for them, and persuading them not to make hazardous makeshift grills inside their wooden homes.
Ferrey pays his workers 17 cordobas ($.90) per cajuela, or basket of coffee picked, and 51 cordobas ($2.70) a day when it’s not the harvest season. In comparison, the Nicaraguan Labor Ministry requires a minimum wage of 13.5 cordobas ($.70) per cajuela and 39 cordobas ($2.07) as a basic daily wage when it’s not harvest season.
Workers’ children are trained on the farm in Spanish and math, and the coffee pickers too can attend nightly literacy courses. The plantation also offers internships for high school graduates to seek vocational training.
“The pay is better than at other plantations, and the boss has always been good to the workers,” said plantation cook Maria Eugenia Leibe.