The history of coffee in Nicaragua

Geography and history

Nicaragua's history is punctuated by stories of conquest, resistance, revolution, disaster, recovery and, above all, humour, grace and struggle. Diverse indigenous peoples, including the Chortegos and Nahuas in the Pacific region and the Sumis, Miskitos and Ramas in the coastal Caribbean region, accumulated more than 10,000 years of history before Columbus landed on the peninsula 'Gracias a Dios' (Thanks Be Given to God) in 1492. By 1524, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led the conquest of the Pacific and founded the cities of Leon and Granada. After generations of indigenous resistance and negotiations with the Spanish conquerors, he led the natives and conquerors to associate with each other by marriage. The result was a rapidly expanding intermarried population in the Pacific region.

Atlantic coast

In contrast, the Atlantic coast was never colonized, although at various times it served as a landing place for British pirates and Africans who escaped the slave trade. Branches of the indigenous Miskitos and Sumas now live together on the Pacific Coast, making the Atlantic Coast an intense multicultural collage where people speak English, Spanish, Mayagnas and Mosquito. This region, rich in natural resources and culture, has supported Nicaragua as a nation and has sought greater independence since its incorporation under President José Santos Zelaya.

Geographical regions

Nicaragua has three primary geographic regions: the Pacific Highlands, the Central North Mountains, and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Rainfall is relatively rare in Nicaragua's arid Pacific region and almost continuous in the coastal plains. For most of the rest of the country, the rainy season begins in May and ends sometime in December. Coffee cherries are usually harvested from October to February.

The first coffee cherries in Nicaragua

Nicaragua's first coffee cherries were planted on the Pacific Plateau, but most of the production comes from three regions in Nicaragua's central northern mountains. These regions include Segovia (Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia), known for its floral aromas, strong flavours and bright acidity. The Matagalpa and Jinotega areas are also favourable for coffee growing, especially in the Isabelia and Dariense mountains. These areas have rich volcanic soils, a humid tropical forest climate and lush vegetation, including a large number of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The outer regions of the Matagalpa region border the BOSAWAS Nature Reserve, the largest soil conservation initiative in Central America. Matagalpa is generally mountainous, with elevations ranging from 600 to 1,500 meters.

Coffee culture and trade in Nicaragua

Coffee today also supports 45,334 families who own and operate small farms. These are important assets in a country of six million people with an unemployment rate of almost 50%. Ninety-five percent of coffee grown in Nicaragua is considered "shade grown" Farmers grow shade-grown coffee under a canopy of native and exotic trees. These trees and management practices help farmers maintain the ecosystem, such as biodiversity, soil and water conservation. As Nicaragua's environment suffers from high rates of deforestation, soil erosion and water contamination on 108,000 hectares of coffee land, maintaining ecological practices is becoming increasingly important .

The diversity of Nicaraguan coffee

Different farmers produce coffee in different ways, under different agro-ecological conditions and in different positions vis-à-vis the commercial chains that bring the coffee from the farm to the cup. Farm size is generally directly related to the different forms of coffee production and commercialisation. Medium, large and agro-industrial plantations maintain a permanent labour force. Most large and agro-industrial plantations have on-farm integrated processing facilities and occasionally export their own coffee. These farms usually provide living quarters and food for farm worker families. Rural landless workers still live in extreme poverty. During the coffee harvest, large plantations employ and house hundreds, sometimes thousands, of coffee pickers.

Small and micro producers

An estimated 95% of coffee producers in Nicaragua are small or micro producers. Families are the primary source of labor on these farms. These households often produce corn and beans or work off the farm. In contrast, micro-producers, smaller farmers, typically employ day laborers during the coffee harvest. Most Nicaraguan smallholder farmers grow more than half of the food they eat. These farmers also grow bananas, oranges, mangoes and trees for firewood and to build houses on their coffee farm.

Coffee and the crisis in northern Nicaragua

Nicaragua's economy is still largely dependent on agriculture. Coffee accounts for approximately 30% of foreign currency earned through agricultural exports. When coffee prices collapsed between 1999 and 2003, three of the nation's six largest banks failed due to high levels of coffee debt and other scandals. It is difficult to isolate the effects of the coffee crisis from the many negative shocks (Hurricane Mitch, drought, falling commodity prices) that continue to affect Central America. In Nicaragua, the 1999-2001 drought added further hardship to already low coffee prices. In tropical dry areas, including the northern sections of Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia, farmers harvested their subsistence crops. Small-scale farmers lived off the mangoes, yucca, bananas and other crops they grew alongside their coffee.

The impact of the coffee crisis

People's vulnerability to falling prices depends on their location in the coffee commodity chain and their access to assets such as land, credit, diversified sources of income and social networks. The coffee crisis is felt by the majority of the estimated 45,334 micro and smallholder farmers in the country. These small households sell coffee as their primary source of cash income. As the coffee crisis deepened, these farmers spoke of children being pulled out of school, migration to cities or Costa Rica, and increased health problems. Micro producers often work as day laborers on large plantations because their small plots and current management practices are not sufficient to support a family. Researchers estimate that Nicaraguan workers lost over 4.5 million days of work during the first two years of the coffee crisis . Rural workers without land are more vulnerable than small farmers.

Hungry and out of work

During the worst parts of the crisis, banks and plantation owners stopped paying and later stopped feeding their workers. Starving and out of work marched hundreds of families from their individual plots and large plantations to the main highway leading to Managua. Families clustered along roads and in public parks, where they lived in squalid conditions and survived on food donations. They demanded food, work, health care and land. After three years of these annual marches, the rural union won small plots of land for more than 3,000 landless farmworker families. This bottom-up land reform process and historic agreement is called El Acuerdo de las Tunas, named after the school near the Pan American Highway where the agreement was eventually signed.

Fair Trade cooperatives are growing alternatives in the midst of the crisis

Thecooperative movement in northern Nicaragua has a long history dating back to the early 1920s. Augusto Cesar Sandino created Nicaragua's first cooperative in Wiwila in the 1920s, and later Somoza dictatorships occasionally promoted cooperatives to maintain elite control over the agro-export sector and to fend off the risks of communism. In the early 1970s, however, there were only 11 cooperatives in Nicaragua with an estimated 460 members . The 1979 Nicaraguan revolution and the subsequent Sandinista government, which lasted from 1980 to 1990, had a significant impact on many - but not all - of the current cooperatives. During this time, cooperatives were given land that was redistributed to those who were once agricultural workers.

The unification of cooperatives

Equal Exchange promoted the alternative marketing of coffee from Nicaragua as part of the US movement against the wars in Central America in the 1980s. Progressive church constitutions in Europe, coupled with cooperatives inspired by liberation theology in southern Mexico, led to an initial demand for Fair Trade / Organic coffee in the late 1980s. After the election of the Revolutionary Party in 1990, many cooperatives collapsed; others began to unify and form secondary level organizations to secure ownership and later provide technical assistance and access to markets for their members. From 1993 to 2001, the total number of farmer cooperatives declined by 40%, while cooperative membership actually increased by more than 10%. As these cooperatives began to form more direct links with European Fair Trade and US specialty roasters, they realized that they needed to become even more unified to focus on specialized commercialization practices and meet the growing demands of the changing global coffee economy. These newer export-oriented cooperatives included specialized agricultural processing infrastructure, strong quality assurance programs, and highly trained professional staff. They developed this business component of their organizations while strengthening their ability to support education, housing and environmental projects among their members.

Success lies in collaboration

In addition to improving quality, many cooperatives use their Fair Trade premiums to reinvest in their cooperatives and create social programs for their members. For example, several cooperatives have managed to build their own dry processing factories - which are owned by members. This success allows farmers to better control quality, employ their members and reduce production costs. Many cooperatives have established educational scholarship programs for members and their children. Others have used their Fair Trade premiums to create savings programs, savings for women, and to support income diversification projects, including agro-eco-tourism programs and beekeeping.


Nicaragua's strongest small-scale coffee cooperatives have organized together and linked themselves to Fair Trade certified coffee as an important part of their organizational development strategy. After working together on a successful coffee quality improvement project, these cooperative unions decided to join together to form CAFENICA (or the Nicaraguan Association of Small Cooperatives) to represent their political and economic interests. CAFENICA represents more than 80% of the smallholders affiliated with Fair Trade cooperatives. CAFENICA serves as a platform to highlight the voices of smallholders and advocate for their interests. The organisation also seeks to influence coffee, rural developmentand Fair Trade policy at national and international levels. In Nicaragua, CAFENICA has represented the interests of smallholders at national coffee fairs, rural development policy debates, and as an active contractor for long-term research projects. Nicaraguan cooperatives have used CAFENICA as an umbrella organization to participate in international industry fairs, including the Specialty Coffee Association of the Americas and Hostelco (Spain). Ultimately, CAFENICA proved to be an effective collective platform for influencing Fair Trade policy.

Cup of Excellence

CAFENICA and small Fair Trade cooperatives actively participated in Nicaragua's Cup of Excellence competition. TheCup of Excellence is a competition to identify the best coffees in the country through international jury tests and blind coffee tastingtests (cupping). As recently as 2004, many skeptics continued to argue that small-scale farmers and cooperatives were incapable of producing quality coffee. In the end, farmers involved in the Fair Trade cooperativewon 9 of the 11 top prizes, with more than 60% produced by small farmers. Many Fair Trade allies still remember when the prizes were announced at an exclusive social club in Matagalpa. The hard-working hands of small producers were there to win the top awards. Merling Preza, general manager of one of the Fair Trade cooperatives, PRODECOOP also remembers it as one of the best moments in Nicaragua's history, "when we showed them we could do it." Later, at a press conference, he reminded everyone that producing quality coffee, as well as trying to improve the quality of life of people, is a 'Responsibilidad de Todos' (Responsibility of All).