“Look how green it is here. It’s hard to believe, but it actually rains more here than in other areas of Boaco. Wherever you look and see green, lush farms – those belong to members of the co-operative.” -Maria Theresa Mendoza Martinez
In April 2007, one of our Interfaith partner organizations, Presbyterian USA (PCUSA) used their Equal Exchange Small Farmer Fund to support a reforestation project in one of our Nicaraguan farmer partner co-operatives, Tierra Nueva. Equal Exchange created this fund for our Interfaith partners in which we donate a portion of every case of coffee sold to churches into a fund to support small farmer projects. The project, “Planting Trees for Life,” proposed to benefit 70 coffee farming families in three communities in the Department of Boaco by planting 200,000 trees: 180,000 coffee seedlings, 7,000 citrus trees, and another 15,000 trees to be used for timber and firewood. The project also contemplated the construction of 20 fuel-efficient stoves which would require the use of less firewood.
According to a handout given to co-op members at a recent General Assembly meeting:
The project provides us with an opportunity to improve the natural resources in our farms, increase our incomes, and thereby improve conditions for our families and our community. Our resources: water, soil and forests, are our principal wealth, since it’s from these resources that we get everything we need for our lives. Because we depend on these resources for life itself, reforestation and conservation of our natural resources are vital for our families and communities. We can contribute to the environment and the wellbeing of our families by expanding the forested area of our coffee farms and by planting high quality varieties of fruit trees. From the forest to our coffee farms we can harvest firewood and construction wood, which can also be sold locally. Coffee, in addition to providing income, is a crop which protects the forest, the soil, and our water: elements without which life in the countryside would be so much more difficult.
Tierra Nueva members “go crazy” and convert to organic
In 1997, 23 farmers formed the Tierra Nueva coffee co-operative. According to one of their founders and general manager, Pedro Rojas: “At that time, our neighbors were all watching us. We were terracing, using natural insecticides, and organic fertilizers. They said we had ‘gone crazy,’ that the coffee crisis (when world prices dropped below the costs of production) had made us crazy. Well, we didn’t care. In 2000, we obtained our organic and Fair Trade certifications. By 2004, we had grown to 600 crazy people.” The decision to switch to organic farming changed their lives. “When we started growing organically, we did it to get a better price,” Rojas said. “But organic sustainable agriculture has now become a way of life. It sets us apart from other farmers. Our soil is more fertile, our water cleaner, our forests are protected. Families are living better. The more benefits we see, the more enthusiastic we’ve become. We’re excited to keep experimenting with new ways to farm. Who are the crazy ones today?”
The Boaco region, where most of the members of Tierra Nueva have their farms, is cattle country and one of the first things people notice as they’re driving to the area is that the hills are dry and deforested. Most of the trees have been cut down to grow pasture and to make room for the cattle. And then as one arrives in the communities of San Juan, Las Mercedes, and Filas Verdes, suddenly something is different. Just as Maria Theresa boasted, the countryside is in fact green and lush – and the contrast is dramatic.
On a recent trip we organized for food co-operative general managers in the U.S. to meet the coffee farmers, Maria Theresa invited us to lunch at her modest home in Filas Verde. The food was delicious and fresh and almost everything she prepared for us came directly from her farm. “It’s all organic!” she said proudly. “Eat as much as you like, it’s good for you!”
Tierra Nueva grows stronger, as does its commitment to the environment
Each year we visit our trading partners in the Tierra Nueva Co-operative Union. Once in the pickup truck driving back from San Juan, a few of the Board members got to talking with us about their plans to meet with the mayor of Boaco. Rojas told us: “We want the primary schools to include a mandatory environmental curriculum to teach our children about the importance of our resources; that our lives depend on the soil, the water and the trees. We need to take care of them so the earth can continue to give back to us as well. When the earth does well, we do well.”
We were impressed with their level of enthusiasm and commitment to preserve and protect the environment and we wanted to do more to support their efforts. Equal Exchange has partnered with these farmers for eight years. We purchase four containers of organic, Fair Trade coffee per year, paying them some of the highest prices in the market. These prices have enabled Tierra Nueva to purchase its own dry mill and to build a cupping lab to ensure high quality. We have invited their cuppers to come to Boston and participate in “Cupping Camp,” a peer training in quality control, and have led youth trainings in Boaco. Today, Tierra Nueva has grown to 600 members legally organized into eight co-operatives and Tierra Nueva has become an umbrella union of these co-operatives. But what else could we do to support their efforts to care for their land?
At our 20th Anniversary celebration in West Bridgewater in 2006, we facilitated a meeting between Melanie Hardison of PC(USA), and Ariel Escobar of Tierra Nueva. After hearing about the co-operative’s vision to plant 200,000 coffee, citrus, and other trees for timber and firewood, Melanie decided to recommend that PC(USA) donate $10,000 in Small Farmer Funds to support the project.
In January 2008, Equal Exchange led two trips to visit Nicaragua: a staff trip and an Interfaith trip co-led by PC(USA). Altogether 20 people went to Tierra Nueva to learn firsthand about the co-operative, participate in the coffee harvest, and see the progress being made through the “Planting Trees for Life” project. To date, 100,000 coffee trees have been planted, nurseries have been established to grow the seedlings, 5,000 citrus trees have been planted, and 16 fuel-efficient stoves have been constructed and are in use.
Aaron Dawson, an Equal Exchange Interfaith Program representative, recalled one of his most inspiring moments of the trip. The farmer that he and Adam Fischer, of PC(USA), stayed with showed them first a coffee seed, then a tiny seed sprout, and then a seedling wrapped in black plastic. He took them to his coffee farm and ceremoniously unwrapped the plastic wrapping. Then together, they planted the seedling in the ground. As the farmer said, “Equal Exchange and the Presbyterians helped us with this project. These trees represent life to us. Now by planting this seedling together, we have all joined to continue this circle of life.”
For an update on this project, click here.
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