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Sierra magazine
Destination: The Java Zone

Nicaraguan coffee growers are preserving ecosystems that nurture banana trees, sloths, and a new breed of tourist

By Gregory Dicum

The mist was clearing, revealing forested hilltops that mark the edge of a protected national forest in Nicaragua's northern highlands. With a trio of toucans in a tall tree looking down their long, green banana beaks at us, I walked with Flora Montenegro, a coffee farmer, as she inspected her crop. Montenegro is always smiling. Her black hair flows in a bushy ponytail from under her baseball cap. She is descended from the German settlers who first brought coffee to this region, and her blue eyes scanned the scene around us: coffee and more coffee, shade trees protecting it from the sun, and above us the verdant forest. I've been drinking coffee for years. I love the way a warming mug of the stuff marks my daily transition to wakefulness. But I knew there was more to my morning jolt than just caffeine. I had come to the mountains of Nicaragua to peer into coffee's murky depths.

I'm not alone. At its most precious, coffee is becoming like wine: attracting connoisseurs so obsessed with terroir that they adjust their travels accordingly, eager to experience the rustic--and incredibly warm--hospitality of small coffee farms. As I discovered, Central American growers are increasingly eager to accommodate.

Coffee is native to Ethiopia's forested highlands, where it grows in the shade of tall trees. About 1,000 years ago, coffee became a trade item. It caused a sensation in country after country--a stimulating, darkly mysterious potion that whispered of another world.

But what really spread this shrublike tree around the globe was colonization. Coffee was the perfect colonial crop: a drug quaffed eagerly in Europe that travels well in its green, unroasted form and requires little more than tropical land and a hardworking labor force to flourish.

Moist, hot uplands from India to Indonesia to Colombia and beyond share many ecological characteristics with coffee's native habitat in Ethiopia. So it's not surprising that coffee grows best in these places. But these lushly forested areas are also among the most threatened. Every major gourmet-coffee-growing region on the planet falls inside one of the critical biodiversity hot spots identified by Conservation International. An estimated 17,000 plant species grow in the Mesoamerican hot spot, which includes all of Nicaragua, even though their native habitat has been reduced by about 80 percent. Hundreds of animal species, including highly threatened reptiles and amphibians found nowhere else, roam these forests, and songbirds such as orioles and warblers winter there. By the 1980s, North American birders began to notice a sudden drop in these birds' numbers and traced it to the loss of Central American habitat. Researchers attributed at least part of this loss to farmers trying to boost production by cutting down the trees they had traditionally used to shade their coffee.

Alfredo Rayo's farm in the village of La Corona, Nicaragua, is still like a forest--but one in which people have a use for every plant. The shiny-leaved coffee trees and cacao trees laden with purple and yellow pods grow under trees planted for future timber harvest and others bearing bananas, grapefruits, guavas, and avocados. A muddy path winds uphill past a natural spring crowded with huge, flat taro leaves. Pink impatiens and the occasional flutter of a big, electric blue morpho butterfly stand out against the wet, aromatic greenery.

I followed Rayo to the top of the farm. His father and uncle planted this riot of flora just a decade ago, on the abandoned baseball diamond of a coffee plantation that went bust. Now Rayo grows purple ears of heirloom corn here. His grandmother has been making tortillas from this corn for almost a century. I tried them at lunch, and they were the best I've ever had. The farm--all organic--is a cornucopia. And a refuge.

Around La Corona I strolled misty forest paths to thundering waterfalls, and along with countless birds I saw agoutis, sloths, and monkeys. In Nicaragua's coffee regions, the last remaining areas of native forests are protected by law. They form a core of habitat where most hunting and large-scale logging are prohibited. But by themselves they are too small and fragmented to provide for threatened species like the magnificent quetzal or the ocelot. Farms like Rayo's create bridges of habitat.

That's where certifications such as the Rainforest Alliance program come in. Take a look at the bags of specialty coffee in your local store. Besides certified shade-grown coffee, you'll see certified organic (which is often shade-grown, even if it's not labeled as such) and fair-trade coffee, which means the farmers who grew it had an equitable relationship with the importer and roaster. Taken together, these labels are like environmental and trade policies packaged on supermarket shelves.

Almost all the major coffee-producing countries are former colonies, and the problems inherent to colonization still haunt the industry. Deforestation continues in many countries--especially Vietnam and Brazil--and the appalling labor practices of early coffee cultivation, when slavery was commonplace, have given way to a system in which some 25 million impoverished farmers worldwide compete to grow the cheapest beans, regardless of environmental or social costs.

I visited La Corona in August, so the cherries on the dark trees were still green, but already Flora Montenegro was hoping the beans they contained would win the prestigious Cup of Excellence competition--an annual event at which buyers from around the world bid on the best coffee from nine countries. Montenegro's coffee has won three times.

With just a fourth-grade education, Montenegro is a leader in Las Hermanas, a cooperative of 195 women farmers whose coffee is sold in the United States by Peet's Coffee & Tea. In 2003, 12 families in La Corona got together to develop coffee ecotourism. With money from local co-ops and Lutheran World Relief, the families, including Rayo's, built tiny brick guest rooms, installed water filters and mosquito nets, and added improved stoves that keep smoke out of the houses. Working with outside advisors, they have developed visitor-focused nature walks, informational coffee tours, and cooking classes.

Using money from the awards her coffee has won, Montenegro has built a second level on her house out of rough-hewn planks from the huge sweet gum trees that grow in the area. Ever the entrepreneur, she said she is learning as she goes. "I always ask visitors what they like, so I can do a better job," she said. "When I started this, I didn't even know what a vegetarian was," she added, laughing at the off-the-wall customs of some of her guests.

Montenegro's husband, Antonio Arauz, is as reserved as his wife is jolly. Wearing a straw cowboy hat, an olive shirt, jeans, and a machete at his waist, he was ready to tend the livestock, plantains, and corn that are the family's staples. The pair live with four children at the bottom of their steep, rolling farm overlooking a broad, green valley. "I live to struggle," Montenegro said as she surveyed the chaos of children, dogs, pigs, and chickens in front of the house. "But I'm always happy."

The idealism of the Sandinista years, which gave birth to Nicaragua's modern cooperative movement, also changed the way coffee is consumed in the United States. While the U.S. government officially opposed the Sandinistas and secretly funded counterrevolutionary forces known as the Contras, many Americans traveled to Nicaragua to support the revolution. A whole generation of U.S. activists, or "sandalistas," learned that coffee is more than a commodity: It is a lifeblood in these mountains.

The first fair-trade coffee sold in the United States, Equal Exchange's Cafe Nica, was launched in 1986 specifically to challenge the Reagan-era embargo against Nicaraguan products. Later other former sandalistas helped launch the now familiar "Fair Trade Certified" label that appears on hundreds of coffees in this country (including the Sierra Club's, a blend that contains Nicaraguan beans grown not far from the places in this story).

In many ways, it's as good as it gets on the farms I visited. Montenegro, with her Cup of Excellence certificates proudly displayed on the wall, is a virtuoso coffee grower. Yet she's still looking forward to the day when electricity will come her way so she can host meetings of Las Hermanas. ("And a fridge would be nice," she added.)

On my last night at Montenegro's farm, the roosters woke me before dawn. I went out on the porch to contemplate a black sky filled with nothing but stars and the din of tree frogs. The spicy scent of the nearby woods wafted in the cool air. I could hear Arauz walking up the path toward the cow, fetching milk for our morning cafe con leche. Soon the rhythmic slapping sound of tortillas being made in the kitchen would call me down to take my turn at the metate. Roasted over a fire of trimmed coffee wood and accompanied by a steaming pile of corn tortillas I myself had learned to make, it was going to be the best coffee I'd ever tasted.

!Viva la Caffeine!

A homestay on a small Nicaraguan coffee farm is not for everyone. Conditions are rustic--roads are bad, hills are steep, paths are muddy, and latrines are ... latrines. But for those willing to brave the inconveniences, the rewards are immense. Coffee will never taste the same.

The CECOCAFEN co-op (it's a Latin American tradition for co-ops to have unwieldy acronyms) in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, can arrange visits and homestays in La Corona and other communities, as well as tours of a coffee mill and a demonstration of coffee cupping--professionally tasting samples to evaluate their quality. Contact the co-op by e-mailing turismo@cecocafen.com, or take your chances (and brush up on your Spanish) by calling 011-505-772-5427. For spontaneous visits, at least 24 hours' notice is required.

UCA SOPPEXCCA ("sopeska") is the umbrella group in Jinotega that includes Las Hermanas. Its co-op-run cafe is the only place local coffee farmers can sample the espresso drinks many of their customers drink on a daily basis. You can linger with a latte and maybe meet the farmers who grew your beans. To schedule visits and homestays with members like Flora Montenegro, call 011-505-782-2617 or go to soppexcca.org.

Depending on the activities you choose and the size of your group, homestays through the co-ops cost about $25 per day, including meals and guides--about what you might spend on a couple of pounds of coffee at home. Another option is to come with an organization, particularly if you do not speak Spanish.

Group tours through Global Exchange (call 415-255-7296 or visit globalexchange.org/tours) cost $950 for ten days. Many visitors arrive between November and February, during harvest season, and some really get into it, working for an entire week side-by-side with the coffee growers. "It's amazing," farmer Alfredo Rayo said after watching my dismal harvesting, "the Global Exchange people work really hard--just like us."

For a less strenuous and more broadly informative visit, try Java Ventures (call 415-595-2924 or 202-657-5708 or go to javaventures.com), a company that specializes in in-depth tours for coffee fiends and industry people. Seven- to nine-day visits run about $1,500.

If you can't make it to coffee country but find yourself in León, drop by the Café Ben Linder (011-505-311-0548), on a corner near the National University. Started by Dean Cycon, a coffee roaster based in Massachusetts, and named after a young U.S. engineer killed by the Contras, the cafe features fair-trade co-op coffee roasted on the premises. It also supports a rehabilitation project for land-mine victims, who staff the cafe. —G.D.

Gregory Dicum is coauthor of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry From Crop to the Last Drop (The New Press, 2006).

Photos by by Morgan Stetler; used with permission.

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