Juan doesn’t know too much about Starbucks. Why should he? Juan, after all, lives on the tranquil island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. He has spent the bulk of his adult life working in the Magdalena Coffee Finca – a farmer’s cooperative that harvests shade-loving Arabica coffee on the rich and fertile slopes of an extinct volcano. To him, the world of sugar-iced pumpkin scones and decaffeinated skinny lattes probably seems like a million miles away.
The coffee we grow here is organic,” says Juan, pointing out the green plants with their ripe red beans, “and our Finca – the Magdalena – has been running as a form of worker’s cooperative for over 20 years now. We’ve outlasted even the Sandinistas.”
In 1986, a small group of volunteers from Bainbridge Island, Washington State in the US decided to club together in a bid to counterbalance the Cold War hysteria that was being ignited by the Reagan administration throughout Central America. Inspired more by ideas of rapprochement and cultural interaction than the military tactics of the US-backed Contras, the group travelled south to Nicaragua in search of friends, enlightenment and a decent cup of coffee. By some indeterminable chance of fate, they stumbled upon Ometepe.
The idea was a simple one. The American volunteers advocated the establishment of a mutually beneficial ‘sister-island’ project between Bainbridge and war-stricken Ometepe. The objective: to build a viable north-south alliance that could outlast the shortsighted dogmas of individual governments. The binding thread: coffee.
Winter 2005 and I’m sitting on an old requisitioned school bus as it jolts its way a little uncomfortably along a pot-holed road into the isolated village of Balgüe on Ometepe’s northern shoreline. I disembark by a small cluster of modest wooden houses and tackle the short hike up to the Magdalena Coffee Finca on foot. Above me, Maderas, the smaller and less active of the island’s two volcanoes, glitters majestically through the early morning mist.
Juan meets me with mucho gusto on the Magdalena’s front deck. String hammocks are slung from the rafters and off-duty coop workers quietly rub shoulders with groups of itinerant backpackers over a hearty breakfast of rice and beans.
The Finca, Juan explains, as he leads me around the back of the main building to where four large concrete patios act as drying floors for the harvested beans, was first set up in 1983 during the halcyon days of the Sandinista revolution. Farms that had once been the monopoly of rich absentee landlords were promptly confiscated and redistributed between the local people. The new workers formed cooperatives and started to organise their affairs amongst themselves with a little more autonomy and dignity.
But when the Sandinistas fell in 1990 the people were afraid of what might happen,” explains Juan cautiously as we look out over the cool, blue expanse of Lake Nicaragua, “They feared fines and taxes. Many cooperatives broke up. They sold their land back to the government.”
But not the Magdalena. Thanks primarily to the Bainbridge-Ometepe alliance, the Magdalena still functions today as a viable fair-trading coffee cooperative. Not that the path has always been an easy one.
“There are 27 families involved here,” Juan informs me proudly as we make a tour of the ingenious de-pulping plant, “and over half of the yearly harvest – that’s over 4000 kilograms – is bought by the Bainbridge Island people at fair-trade prices.” From here it is sold onto the burgeoning specialty coffee markets in the Pacific North-west.
The latest income-earner for the Finca, I learn as I take a sip of the rich aromatic brew which is sold on-site, comes in the form of alternative tourism. In more recent years the Magdalena – thanks to Nicaragua’s transformation from pariah state into viable travel destination – has attracted an increasing number of intrepid eco-tourists and backpackers. Some arrive intent on hiking the rough path up to the top of Volcan Maderas while others prefer to spend time helping out as volunteers in the Finca itself.
There is even a guest house offering rough-shod, but adequate accommodation for a giveaway US$3, plus one of Central America’s most spectacular views free of charge.
In 1990, with the US trade embargo on Nicaragua finally lifted, things took a turn for the better. Moreover, through a combination of shrewd planning and ethical business practices, the sister-island project has been able to ensure that one hundred percent of Ometepe’s coffee profits are pumped directly back into the local community.
Taking advantage of the spare cash, the Finca has constructed water pumps, built classrooms and initiated Permaculture farming projects, often with the help of the western volunteers themselves. For the Nicaraguans, it’s an unprecedented turnaround. Rising from the ashes of a bitter civil war, a once impoverished community is thriving like never before.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, ethically minded coffee-drinkers from Seattle to Vancouver are contentedly sipping their lattes in the sure-fire knowledge that the rich organic Arabica beans have been farmed in a way that is environmentally-friendly, fair and free.
• The Finca Magdalena offers meals, accommodation, short guided tours of the property and longer treks up the Maderas volcano.”