Just the Beginning

BY BEN MYERS

The final descent into Managua is mad. Overhead compartments seem possessed, plane wings teeter-totter like a drunken waiter, and scared straight silence becomes the silent mantra. For some 8 hours now we've been trying to land, making three attempts in a Central American thunderstorm only before pulling up lame. The feel of a large plane yanking up last minute barrels straight into your gut and pulls up along the spine with chills. Everyone is cursing the pilot and in the corner an older Nicaraguan woman is threading her hands over the beads of a rosary.

I'm traveling to Nicaragua to visit our producer partners at Finca Idealista and to learn more about the larger umbrella network of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers. It's the first time I have traveled since my Father's funeral a month prior. The journey offers me time to reflect. My father was a writer; he left behind boxes of detailed journals, letters, and notebooks on everything from brain science to personal feelings of failure. The question of what we leave behind is present with me. The presence of death entering the rattling plane only heightens it.

We land safely. The road out of Managua and into the Matagalpa mountains feels comforting. The taxi weaves and stretches like the silhouette of a modern dancer alone in rehearsal. I feel safe again and maybe with it a sense of carelessness.

Matagalpa is Nicaragua's second most populated city yet it appears small and town-like.  You can feel the influence of both indigenous populations and colonial Spaniards in the way the city has developed over time. Motos roar down the street, pickups blast advertisements with large black speakers tied down with bungee straps and tape, and dark skinned vendors lug kaleidoscopic wheelbarrows of harvested vegetables and fruit. It's the rainy season here now and the area is dense with lively green across the mountains. Matagalpa is a coffee mecca, a city where for centuries traders have gathered to tend offers and determine coffee's true futures.

Ben Weiner, my guide and leader of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, arrives driving an army green truck and smiling through the passenger seat. After stepping out onto the cobblestone, he welcomes me to Nicaragua. Weiner is slight with a pair of eyes that seem to open wider with each word: "You ready to travel to the end of the world?" He is excited about my visit—he knows what it means to have Americans come down and visit the producers first hand. It translates into a deep understanding of the project and greater commitment.

When we first spoke over the phone some three years ago, it was the first time I had heard of the term "social enterprise." Again and again, Weiner would come back to the fact that what he was doing was a social, not private, enterprise. Though I doubted it at the time, the coming days of traveling these mountains will make me believe. I will have gone to meet some 25 small farmers living in tiny shacks tucked in what small flat areas the steeps afford. I will watch Weiner patiently listen and respond with steps forward. You can get a good beat on someone's heart by traveling with them, through learning to be silent and witnessing.

Along the craggy forest roads that separate one farm from another we discuss in length a philosophy of developmental work. "Rather than giving handouts to coffee producers, we pay them price premiums for high-quality coffee and have them earn the ability to provide what they need for their farms and families. Partner producers have used the increased earnings and access to credit we give in order to put new roofs on their houses, install solar panels, build new houses, invest in coffee processing equipment, invest in inputs for their coffee to increase yields, and importantly, to increase the nutrition and standard of living of their families. As a social enterprise, we want everything we do to be economically sustainable for us and for farmers with whom we work. Handouts are not sustainable and create high levels of dependency and expectations rather than initiative."

We stop at a depressed one room school house shrouded in a heavy coat of low-hanging clouds. He tells a story, "There was an NGO that came to this coffee community with a water filter intended for the school. Because the school didn't have running water installed, the filter handout was essentially useless. We did "cleanup" for this misguided project by working with the community to install running water in the school. We donated the materials and parents of students worked together to install piping that brought water from its source to the school. We then conditioned further support on proper maintenance of the water system." He asks me to go over and test the water; indeed it works and runs fresh and clear.  

I tell him about my life back home. My father's passing, the hope of a new lover, time alone in the forest meditating. I can see myself saying this. That even now, so far from home, there’s something I am trying to leave behind. I can give you a clue, and maybe that's it as to what it is. I suppose that clue is a choice I get to make. We get to leave something behind, which is supposed to be the beginning.

Thirteen years ago, when Weiner was studying at Washington University in St. Louis, he traveled to Nicaragua for the first time to do research. At the time, Weiner was writing his senior honors thesis on a debt pardon for Nicaragua. Nicaragua is part of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) initiated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1996. The HIPC was intended to provide debt-relief and low-interest loans to cancel or reduce external debt repayments to sustainable levels. Nicaragua's economy is primarily agricultural and its unsustainable debt burden couldn't be managed with traditional means. Assistance was needed. 

For Weiner though, debt forgiveness was not enough. Necessary, yes, but sufficient to improve the economy? NO. In order to help a struggling economy develop, infrastructure improvements must be implemented – different improvements, not handouts. The people need to build the roads and make decisions where to place the money into their food strategies. They need to see new models succeed in their ecosystems. They needed to see new beginnings.

In 2007, after years of traveling back and forth to Nicaragua espousing his ideas and working with NGO's in the region, Weiner bought the farm. Finca Idealista was purchased from a peasant farmer who didn't want to grow coffee at such high altitudes. For Weiner, it was the perfect place to begin his work at building infrastructure first hand. The revitalizing process began by ripping out all of the existing coffee growing on the farm.

The more you pay attention to coffee, the more you realize the importance of varietals. Finca Idealista had long been growing Catimor. Weiner and his team replaced all of the Catimor with two distinct varietals which had been proven to produce better quality coffees: Paca and Caturra. The neighbors thought he was crazy, but Weiner had done his research and knew that over the long term the Paca and Caturra would prove superior when approaching specialty coffee roasters in the United States.

After a short stint as a member of a local Fair Trade certified cooperative, Weiner was soon looking for another way to export the coffee they had grown. From conversations with other members of the cooperative, it was clear that the benefits of membership were marginal. The road forward was taking the risk of doing it all himself. Growing, milling, exporting, importing, and eventually selling to roasters. Which is where I met Ben, over the phone selling me coffee.   Though by the time he had reached me, what began with one farm (Finca Idealista) had grown to over 100 different small farmers banded under the umbrella know as Gold Mountain. His neighbors soon realized he wasn't crazy, that in fact he was offering was more than forgiveness.  

The last conversation I had with my father, he told me that things were getting better everyday.   At the time, he was in bad health struggling with a failing heart and stomach cancer waiting in a hospital for surgery. I thought to myself, No father, this isn't true. You are sick. This might be the last time we speak. It is important for us to face the facts and talk about this. As evening falls on the road out of Nicaragua, I remember this staring into the long stretching horizon. There will always be something more to say and do, as long as this remains the beginning.

In August, 1000 Faces will release the first of four new lots of coffee from Finca Idealista. This is our third year of buying coffee directly from Finca Idealista and the Gold Mountain Coffee Growers. The plan is to continue buying this coffee for years to come.