Coffee: Nicaragua’s Number One Export

According to a recent report by Nicaragua’s export authority – Centro de Trámites de las Exporaciones (CETREX) – coffee has reclaimed its position at the top of the list of the country’s exported products. Coffee reportedly accounted for $519 million in sales in 2012, with the United States being the top trading partner for Nicaragua’s exports, which include beef, sugarcane, beans, seafood, dairy products and peanuts. Coffee first arrived in Nicaragua in the 1800s and today there are more than 45,000 family owned and operated coffee farms, as well as a number of commercial coffee plantations, the majority of which farm in a manner that preserves the environment.

An estimated ninety-five percent of Nicaragua’s coffee farmers are small-scale producers who use the shade-grown method of cultivation, where they grow their coffee plants in the shade of primarily indigenous trees. This method of cultivation preserved the biodiversity and ecology of the region, preventing soil erosion, deforestation and water contamination. Many of these farmers also grow up to fifty percent of the food their families need, which is an important aspect of faming in a country with a high unemployment rate.

The importance of coffee to the economy of Nicaragua was demonstrated with the crash of international coffee prices in 1999-2003, compounded by the drought conditions of 1999-2001, which resulted in three of Nicaragua’s national banks collapsing. While the financial impact of the crisis can be quantified, the consequences for the people relying on the coffee trade for their livelihood were immeasurable and devastating. It is estimated that laborers in Nicaragua lost more than 4.5 million working days during the crisis. Hundreds of families survived on food donations as they lived in appalling conditions in public parks. Supported by the rural workers’ union, their appeals for assistance eventually received a response from authorities and more than 3,000 landless coffee farm workers received small plots of land.

Today, many farmers are participating in Fair Trade production practices and consumers around the world can support these farmers, and in turn the rural communities in which they live, by buying products with the Fair Trade mark, knowing as they do that the farmers have met criteria set out by the Fair Trade organization, including that of quality control. No doubt, the fact that coffee is back at the top of Nicaragua’s export trade is good news for many.