Nicaragua’s bullet proof coffee

Nicaragua’s bullet proof coffee

In 1988 Jeff went on a coffee brigade to help pick coffee in Nicaragua as the Nicaraguan labour force had been decimated by war. He now runs Twin Cafe in Sheffield with his wife Anne. This is the story of Jeff’s experience in the late 1980s and what has stayed with him 30 years later. 

Nicaragua has had a turbulent recent history. Military intervention, a dynastic dictatorship, revolution and a US-backed counterinsurgency have all happened since the beginning of the 20th century. During the civil war, which began shortly after the successful Sandinista Revolution in 1979 and lasted until the FSLN lost electoral power in 1990, thousands of international volunteers arrived in Nicaragua as ‘brigadistas.’ Their aims were to aid the struggling economy by helping a population decimated by decades of oppression and war by bringing in the coffee and cotton harvests, and to raise global awareness and solidarity with Nicaragua.

The USA funded the largest counterrevolutionary rebel group, the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense, the Contras or the Guardia as the people I met knew them. The FDN aimed to overthrow the Sandinistas by targeting the economy and terrorising the population. The CIA provided the Contras with arms, equipment and money. Nicaraguan government sources state that 30,000 contras, Nicaraguan military personnel and civilians were killed in the war.

Around 850 people visited Nicaragua between 1983 and 1990 on study tours, brigades and delegations organised by Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC).  The first two British coffee brigades went in December 1985 and the NSC continued to send on average four coffee, building and environmental brigades a year until 1990.

On the 17th January, 1988, I travelled with my mate, Geoff Whitham, to Nicaragua. We left Heathrow at half seven that morning and arrived at Managua the next day. It was strange to leave the airport and find a capital city that had so many ruins; an earthquake had destroyed much of Managua in 1972 and the money that had been collected for rebuilding mysteriously disappeared before recovery efforts could be made. We walked past entire blocks that were missing to get a beer and I remember feeling shocked at seeing the bare bones of a modern city.

We stayed in Managua for a couple of days, changed our minimum 60 dollars to Nicaraguan Cordoba, and we came out of the bank with a fistful of notes each (I think I was a cordoba millionaire).  Next, the banks closed and the currency was changed, part of the campaign to stop  the U S government destabilising the economy. We couldn’t spend the old money in the meantime so that was interesting and organising the transportation felt slow. Luckily, this only lasted three days, so we exchanged our money again and gathered provisions before we caught the bus that had been found. The government office that organised the co-ops took the opportunity to send supplies with us; between the equipment, supplies and people it was a packed bus.

To get to the Danilo Gonzalez co-op in La Reyna, we had to go via Matagalpa and San Ramon, which were the only notable towns close to where we were going. La Reyna was more like a place name, something to lead you to the farm up an unpaved road. The co op had 74 members and a pretty even gender split that matched our own brigade’s. They had started the co-op  about a year before we got there, and had been presented with the ownership of the land by Daniel Ortega a couple of months later.  The former owners had left sometime after the 1979 revolution. The house had obviously been very grand once, with lots of room to fit us all in, but it seemed to have sunk into itself a bit; it looked run down and was framed by overgrown gardens. It was multifunctional, too; used as a school for the local kids most of the year except the harvest months, as well as a medical post when it needed to be. We were fortunate enough that it still had a working toilet and bathroom, even if it was awkwardly split between our 34 strong group, as we later learnt other brigades had to dig their own latrines.

School was out for the harvest but there still seemed to be a load of kids running in and out of the house. They were primary school aged and were very drawn to things like walkmans and enjoyed making toys out of the things we tried to throw away. We had to bury old, broken biro’s in the vain hope this would deter them but they would dig them up and play with them in fascination.

The day began as if someone had switched the sun on at 6 in the morning, but most of us were up an hour before to wash and have breakfast. We would walk for about half an hour to the coffee bushes where we worked until we were told we could stop. We had to work up to picking the good beans to avoid damaging them with our unskilled hands, but we got better and by the end of the harvest the brigade had picked 401’ latas’ with a value of $2407.50. We voted to work everyday but ended up with Sunday’s off. Overall, we gave 252 days of labour with a value of $6,300.

We slept in one large room upstairs, but there was a veranda people could escape to if it was too hot. Unfortunately, we also shared the room with a rat that we never caught and we could hear it pottering around late at night as it made its rounds. One unlucky lad tried to sleep off feeling sick in the way of the rat’s usual route and was rudely woken up by the thing running over his face one night. Many of us fell ill at some point, but it’s important to count our blessings as at least we didn’t have a rodent on our sleeping faces.

The members of the co-op were concerned about our illnesses and offered to decrease their rations so that the brigadistas could have more. This was a very kind gesture that we appreciated a lot but we didn’t feel justified in taking it as people were ill not hungry. Feeling sick made us lose our appetites so it seemed pointless and wasteful to accept more. The food itself was only memorable because of how boring it was, every meal was rice and tortillas, it should have been rice, beans and tortillas but the beans hadn’t arrived. I managed to eat the food for about 3 and a half weeks, but some people couldn’t eat it after two days.

There were 74 members of the co-op, but other workers joined them temporarily to pick the coffee. The harvest ran from December to February. We met with Ramon the President, Blanca who did all the finance and Juan Pablo the vice president, we discussed work rota’s and food mainly.

Some of my most vivid memories are of the livestock and animals the co-op had. There was a massive pig that was so huge it did whatever it wanted and people couldn’t stop it. We tried our best to keep it out the house so it wouldn’t snaffle the food people kept in their rucksacks, but it was easier to stand aside and shoo it out than it was to be mowed down by a giant pig on a mission. I’m not sure if it ever went into the coffee fields but we did find a cute little creature that looked like a bushbaby once. We called a Nicaraguan lad over to ask what is was, and he immediately fashioned a noose to catch it with. I remember him being displeased when we stopped him from killing it so maybe it was some kind of pest but more likely food; when we came back later it wasn’t there anymore so I can’t say what happened to it.

The harvest ended early, in part due to the whirlwind of kids that descended upon the fields and cleared the rest of the beans and left us in a bit of a daze with their speed. Locals celebrated by shooting bullets into the air, which left people further afield rattled. I remember my mate, Geoff, asking someone if they wanted a cup of tea and when they hadn’t made their mind up by the time the gunfire started, he said quickly, “You better think fast, it could be your last.” We held a party for the kids that included a pinata and sketches performed by some of the brigadistas. It was a good time, spoilt a little by a kid getting smacked with a baseball bat when he got too close to the pinata. For the adults party, the co-op managed to get hold of musical equipment and played Michael Jackson while a blue emergency light acted as an intense disco ball. Two cows were paid for and were used for the feast; some of the group didn’t feel right with this and couldn’t watch, but were assured by someone who was an environmental health officer that they were killed humanely. We had meat in every meal for days after this.

With the harvest over, we had about 2 weeks free time to travel around the rest of Nicaragua  and the brigade split up so everyone could see what they wanted. One of the places I visited was Esteli, but that is another story…

If you’re interested in visiting Nicaragua, as part of a ‘brigade’ or as a volunteer, then there are plenty of opportunities. This year the Sheffield Esteli Society will be sending a group to Estelí (details here). If you’re a student at the University of Sheffield then they have an active group which sends a group of volunteers to FAREM University in Estelí each summer. Raleigh International send volunteers aged between 17 and 24 to Nicaragua (details here). Finally, if you’re coming to Nicaragua under your own steam then do get in touch ([email protected]) and we can organise a visit to UCA Miraflor the co-operative that grow our coffee while you’re out here. You’ll be able to meet the farmers, learn about what we’re doing and hopefully share your ideas on how we can improve.  

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