by Amanda Cooper (who joined Rick Peyser on this trip)
In the summer of 2007, CIAT (The International Center for Tropical Agriculture) conducted over 175 household interviews in communities that supply GMCR with coffee in Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to better understand the challenges and opportunities these communities face. The one-on-one interviews were conducted with coffee farmers or their spouse, and provided information about the interviewee’s family size, their levels of education, size of their land holding, types of coffee grown, earnings from coffee, costs of production, other income generating opportunities, and how the farmer and his/her family dealt with health and food security issues.
Rick Peyser accompanied the CIAT team and conducted a number of interviews with coffee farmers in northern Nicaragua, where a phenomenon known locally as “los meses flacos” (the thin months) surfaced during every interview he participated in, and was later confirmed when the results were complied from all three countries. During “los meses flacos,” families are unable to maintain their normal diet.
In Nicaragua and much of Central America, the coffee harvest begins in November and ends in late February. By the end of May most families’ income from the harvest is largely depleted. This comes at a time when the price for their basic grains (corn and beans) are at their highest of the year, for these crops are not harvested until the autumn. This leaves coffee farming families in Nicaragua with 3 months when their financial resources are very limited and the price for their basic food staples are very high. Since most families in the area do not grow their own food, they deal with these months in three ways:
1. by eating the same foods, but consuming less of them
2. by eating less expensive foods
3. by borrowing funds (i.e. going into debt) to purchase food
In early December 2007, Rick met with the management of CECOCAFEN, the cooperative in Nicaragua where the research was conducted, to share the results with the co-op’s leadership. They agreed that “los meses flacos” is a serious problem, and were receptive to Rick’s suggestion that GMCR help facilitate a process that would ultimately result in a pilot project in the communities that participated in the interviews.
In early February 2008 Rick met again with the CECOCAFEN leadership team, to design the process, which resulted in the following:
• March, 2008: Rick and a team of 4 students from the Tuck School (Dartmouth’s business school) returned to the communities where the interviews were conducted to share the results of the one-on-one interviews with the participants. In addition, the team confirmed the seriousness of “los meses flacos” with the communities and asked those in attendance in each meeting for their solutions to this problem. Before leaving Rick and the Tuck students shared the results of their community meetings with the CECOCAFEN technical team.
• April, 2008: Rick and Amanda Cooper returned to Matagalpa for a Strategic Summit, which included interview community representatives, members of the CECOCAFEN leadership team, and local NGO’s. Sam Fujisaka (CIAT) facilitated this meeting using a group participatory methodology that encouraged participants to list potential strategies to eliminate “los meses flacos.” Once a list was compiled on a white board, Sam copied the list on an easel paper, and participants held active discussions while they moved 100 coffee beans around on the easel paper and placed them next to the strategies to rank them in importance. This process lasted about 45 minutes, and was not completed until everyone was happy with the ranking.
• Two months after this Strategic Summit, GMCR received a proposal from CECOCAFEN to fund a pilot project that will last 3 years. The two strategies adopted by the communities are:
o Diversify each farmer’s coffee parcel by growing food for consumption and profit.
o Growing and storing basic grains
GMCR is supporting a “ground-up” approach to this project, believing that the
coffee farming families know better than anyone what the solutions to “los meses flacos” are. The company’s role has been to facilitate and support these coffee communities in the development of their solutions to this food security challenge that threatens the health, education, earnings, and self-esteem of their families.
Watch the slideshow of the strategic summit, narrated by Rick Peyser.