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Growing Pains:

the Rebirth of Nicaragua

By Krystell Maya Guzman

She holds her spoon to her mouth with the small sound of a beginning taster developing her own way of swishing coffee throughout her palate. In a white lab coat, she stands in the cupping laboratory, a small kitchen with a one-foot walk-space around a large round table.

In Matagalpa, the largest coffee-growing region of Nicaragua, most people work in the coffee farms or at the processing plants. From birth, many residents are destined to be farm workers. Hilaria Cristina Aguirre Salgado was born in Matagalpa, the twelfth of 13 brothers and sisters. Her parents being too old to continue working, she has worked since puberty to help support her family.

At 17, she found work at a coffee exporting company’s dry mill. Her duty was to stand by a conveyor belt watching thousands of coffee beans pass before her eyes. For eight hours a day, she shared the task of picking out blackened, broken, or fermented beans with ten other women. Being young and curious, she would watch the coffee taster examining and tasting samples, day after day. When she had the chance, she would interrogate him about what she had observed. He would occasionally let her try the samples, but disregarded her interest as a passing curiosity. One day the taster had finished and left the samples out, it was her opportunity to taste the samples. To her surprise, she was being watched by one of the plant managers who called her into his office. Trembling in fear, she approached the office where the taster and his two bosses were waiting.

It was their turn to question her about what they had seen. “What have you been doing tasting the coffee samples?” they asked. Her voice quivering, imagining facing her parents to tell them that she had lost her job, she responded, “I was only curious, I will not interfere again.” “Do you like tasting coffee?” they added. “Yes,” she answered. “We think our taster could use some help and would like to offer you the job of tasting apprentice, we’ll be able to pay you a little more,” one man responded. Hiding her excitement, but not her relief, she gladly accepted.

For three years, she learned as she worked, tasting coffees from all over Nicaragua. Struggling to pay her way through school, she would work from 8am to 5pm., and then run to school, where she was studying journalism. A year ago, she had to stop attending school to care for her older sister, who had become terminally ill with cancer. It was a difficult time for her family; they could not provide her sister with the best treatment. Because of increased tuition and her sister’s condition, Hilaria was unable to continue her studies. Instead, she looked for work in the big city. A tasting job became available in Managua, so, she decided it was time for a change. She accepted a job working for Bolsa Agropecuaria de Nicaragua, Agricultural Exchange of Nicaragua (BAGSA), one of two independent laboratories recognized by the government to certify grains such as beans, rice, and coffee for exports. Located in a house turned office, as are most businesses in Managua, they have three main rooms: one for scientific analysis of grains, one for roasting and sample storage, and the other for coffee tasting.

Hilaria’s story is similar to the one of her country, Nicaragua. Due to natural disasters and subsequent civil unrest, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America. In December of 1972, a devastating earthquake killed more than 20,000 people. Most of downtown Managua was annihilated during the earthquake, leaving only the cathedral and the theater standing. To this day, downtown consists of three buildings sporadically placed between barren lots of land. The lake that borders downtown Managua, with tons of rubble and concrete protruding from the water’s edge, serves as an indelible reminder of the destruction.

In 1978, an internal conflict began that is estimated to have killed 50,000 Nicaraguans in 1979 alone. The turmoil created by these two events set Nicaragua back 50 years, paralyzing development for over 20 years. It has only been in the last decade that political stability has permitted growth and slow, conservative development. After 28 years, they are starting to rebuild what was destroyed so long ago. The government and the business sectors are discussing economic development plans. They have decided to start with their agricultural resources, including promoting exports such as coffee.

Prior to the conflict, according to Jim Reynolds, coffee buyer for Peet’s Coffee and Tea, “Nicaragua produced some high quality specialty coffee.” However, coffee production at that time was limited to large estates with only a few small growers.

During the war, a large amount of land was re-distributed, which created a much larger percentage of small coffee farmers. There now exists a mixture of large plantations and medium and small independent producers. This new dynamic provides additional challenges to improving coffee quality at a national level.

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