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Nicaraguan Coffee: 20 Years, 3 disasters, immeasurable impact

The coffee industry supports over 40,000 families throughout Nicaragua. Over the country’s history, the industry has faced challenges which the 1880s farmers who received land from the government could not have predicted. Currently, of the 108,000 (10.8 million acres) hectares of land on which coffee is cultivated, 95% of the land is divided into micro or small farms. Micro farms often are run by single family subsistence farmers. During harvest season, these farms sometimes hire day laborers to help pick the coffee. When they are not harvesting coffee they are growing mangos, oranges, or bananas; in total producing roughly 50% of the food they consume. Though coffee exports account for 13% of Nicaragua’s exports, half of these coffee farmers still live below the poverty line.

Unpredictable natural disasters and periodic economic downturns regularly harshly impacted the industry; hurricanes, droughts, and global declines in commodity prices have all harmed the Nicaraguan coffee industry. Harvests on many small-scale northern farms are often negligible consequently depriving these families of their sole source of income.

In 1999, Nicaragua was drenched with over 50 inches of rain as Hurricane Mitch swept through the Caribbean. Coffee farmers bore the brunt of the hurricane’s fury as land slides and heavy rainfalls wiped out their crops and made the land uncultivatable. Just 2 years later, the farmers no long feared excessive rain; they were worried about the exact opposite. A drought began in 2001 and also severely decreased the coffee harvest in northern Nicaragua. The drought lasted for many years and persisted through yet another blow to the coffee industry as fungus from the African continent made its way to Latin America.

La Reya, or “coffee rust” is a yellow powder like disease which is passed from plant to plant through direct contact or by the wind. Soon after infection, plants that would normally provide coffee for twelve years, die after only one. The fungus has plagued coffee plantations throughout the world since late 1800s. In 2012, coffee rust infected coffee crops throughout Latin America, causing an epidemic in the coffee industry. Farmers were forced to either replace their coffee crops with a new, disease resistant plant or begin using fungicide to prevent infection. The economic impact of the epidemic was immense. Supply drastically dropped, and although market prices rose, they could not offset the skyrocketing costs to farmers.

The devastation from these three natural disasters followed Nicaraguan coffee farmers for the next 17 years. Then, to top it all off, the global market value of coffee plunged, adding to the already long list of struggles for the farmers. Many farmers were unable to make any substantial profits from what little produce they had harvested. In turn, they were incapable of supporting their families and their farms. Many lost their farms and many more were threatened with bankruptcy. But, amidst the disasters, something brought the coffee farmers hope cooperatives...

Stay tuned for the next Nicaraguan Coffee Instalation on the impact of cooperatives in Nicaragua!

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