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Sustainable Coffee: The Road Back for Nicaragua?

by Elaine Sosa

While many of us are familiar with organic coffee and its eco-friendly approach, the buzzword of the moment in coffee circles is "sustainable" coffee. As defined by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), "sustainability is growth which satisfies the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their own needs." In other words, the big picture is key where sustainable coffee growing is concerned. The SCAA believes the coffee industry should take the lead in sustainable agriculture worldwide, involving everyone from producers to consumers.

In essence, sustainable coffee is a melange of cultural, political, environmental, economic and agronomic influences. Many sustainable coffees are "shade grown," meaning that a canopy of trees covers the actual coffee plants, allowing for a slower growing cycle and time for the sugars in the coffee beans to mature. These shade trees also provide a natural habitat for migratory and other birds, thereby working hand-in-hand with the environment. While some plantations employ forest-like conditions such as those found in untouched rainforests, other coffee growers use a combination of trees (banana, citrus and timber are popular) for shade as well as income derived from the tree products.

The practice of sustainable farming

Most sustainable coffee is grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides, making it organically sound as well. Care is also given to maintaining the integrity of the ground cover on the coffee plantations as well as protecting any nearby rivers which might interact with the liquid by-products of coffee processing. Sustainable coffee growers are also keenly concerned with the issue of deforestation, as many of these growers are in Latin America and in close proximity to rainforests which are clearly at risk. Stewards of the environment, these growers realize that it is they who must protect their land for generations to come.

It is not uncommon for sustainable coffee farms to be family-owned or cooperatively-run enterprises. Much emphasis is placed on the worker – his education, livelihood and general well-being. As important as this is to the producers themselves, this is also a hot button with many consumers today, as a heightened awareness of working conditions around the world is dictating buying decisions.

The time, care and concern which goes into producing sustainable coffee means that the consumer will likely pay more for the end product. Even so, the high quality makes it more than worth the price.

What the Nicaraguans are doing

Eager to capitalize on this growing trend are the coffee growers of Nicaragua, ideally situated in the prime coffee growing region of Central America. Although Nicaragua produced over a million bags of coffee per year during the 70s, that output had fallen to somewhere around half a million by 1990. The disruption in between was the Sandinista revolution, which caused many growers to abandon their farms outright and flee the country. The Sandinistas nationalized a great number of coffee farms, and proceeded to plant beans and corn instead. A country which once produced some of the finest coffees in the world let its lead slip away.

Upon the return of democratic rule to Nicaragua in 1990, coffee growers started to re-establish their farms. Luckily, Nicaragua is blessed with some of the best soil in the region. With coffee taking the lead, it was hoped that other crops might start to flourish anew and with them, a rebirth of the economy. Nicaragua’s coffee growers have decided to start fresh with an approach geared toward greater environmental and social responsibility. Read: sustainable coffee. With this in mind, these growers have pledged themselves to quality in three areas: quality of life for their workers, a quality environment and quality in every cup.

Along with this commitment to quality, Nicaragua’s growers are also looking to educate consumers on the virtues of sustainable coffee. The SCAA is also leading the charge in this arena. When it comes to environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible farming which produces a great cup a joe, who can argue?

Nicaraguan coffee today

If Nicaraguan coffee comes back to where it was twenty or thirty years ago, the roasts will easily rival the best Costa Rican and Guatemala Antiguan brews. The better Nicaraguan coffees are likely to come from the north and center of the country. Regions to watch are Matagalpa, Jinotega and Nuevo Segovia. The better-grade beans are classified as "Central Estrictamente Altura," which means that they are grown at higher altitudes. Once again, the Nicaraguans are reaching for the top!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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