Rural and community-based tourism harvests greater yields

By Felicity Butler

Felicity Butler works with CECOCAFEN and the UCA San Ramon in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. She has lived and worked in Nicaragua for the last four years. For more information, contact

Five cooperatives in four communities affiliated with CECOCAFEN (an umbrella organization of coffee cooperatives in the North of Nicaragua) are now beginning to see the fruits of a rural and community-based tourism project that has been developed with support from Lutheran World Relief. The project was a result of the historical drop in the international coffee prices, and is meant to give farmers new opportunities in alternative markets. Tourism has allowed farmers to continue harvesting coffee and yet diversify their incomes.

Coffee has been grown in the northern hills of Nicaragua since the 1870s, and is Nicaragua's main export crop. Sixtyfive percent of Nicaragua's coffee is produced in the north. Coffee provides a living for one fifth of Nicaragua's population of 5.4 million. In 2001-2, international coffee prices fell to an all-time low, meaning that coffee producers were receiving only half the cost of production; directly affecting 45,000 micro and small-scale farmers and their families. Researchers estimate that Nicaraguan laborers lost over 4.5 million days of work during the first two years of the coffee crisis. Rural landless coffee workers are more vulnerable than smallholders.

Under these circumstances, fair trade gave those small farmers that were affiliated to cooperatives not only land security, but an opportunity to diversify production and thereby secure sustainability. Fair trade creates infinite opportunities; CECOCAFEN and its rural tourism project are an example of this. The Organization of Northern Coffee Cooperatives (CECOCAFEN) is made up of nine cooperatives and two unions of cooperatives representing 2,000 small-scale coffee producers. The unions of agricultural cooperatives are called UCAs, after their initials in Spanish. It is in one of UCAs — the UCA San Ramon — that the community-based agro-ecotourism project is located.

CECOCAFEN is run as a business dedicated to social change: high-quality coffee in exchange for a better-quality life for their members. It exports the majority of its coffee to the fair-trade, organic and specialty coffee markets in Europe, the USA and Japan. It is the first cooperative business in Nicaragua to receive the ISO 9001-200 certification, which recognizes an innovative development organization that not only is transparent but dedicated to quality, equality and sustainability. This certification means that CECOCAFEN fulfills the rigorous demands of the fair-trade market and also satisfies the demands of tourists who are interested in responsible tourism which is committed to the same principals that the ISO certification represents and rewards.

Tourism is a relatively new commodity to Nicaragua, and as to be expected, it has created positive as well as adverse effects nationwide: a number of cooperatives have been replaced by a canopy-tour business in Mombacho; Granada has been sold as the new Florida (Adam Goodheart in GQ Magazine, August 2004) and as a result the oldest city in Central America has become the new mecca for greedy foreigners. Granada, Leon, San Juan del Sur — the top tourist destinations in Nicaragua — are now home to real estate companies and sex tourism. Tourism in Nicaragua has become synonymous with foreign investment.

However, it is in this context that a different type of tourism has been born: rural and community-based tourism which is a complement (not substitute) to traditional activities such as agriculture, poultry production etc. This is a type of community-based tourism which is run by a collective organization, in the sense that the land, management and benefits are in the hands of the community. It is tourism that is based upon financial profitability while assuring social and environmental sustainability and guarantees of land security for the collective organization or farmer.

Along with the recent boom of tourism in Nicaragua and the government's calls to welcome all foreign investment, there has been speculation that soon, tourism will be the first source of national income and the answer to Nicaragua's development. "It is Nicaragua's hidden treasure," said Nicaragua's President, Enrique Bolanos, in his best English to a group of foreign investors in Montelimar (a five star all-inclusive resort owned by the Spanish group Barceló) in 2005. In spite of this, Nicaragua is a relatively unknown and an unsought-after holiday destination in comparison to its neighboring country of Costa Rica. Its infrastructure (roads, services, communications, electricity) does not offer optimum conditions for the development of tourism nationwide, and less so in the rural areas which make up the majority of national territory, and which have been completely abandoned by the government.

A good example of this abandonment is the government's plan for national development (known as the PND from its initials in Spanish), decided mainly by — and in favor of — four superpowers: government officials, the World Bank and the IMF, transnational corporations and big Nicaraguan conglomerates such as those of the Pellas family. The government's plan has defined and prioritized areas for development, mainly in the Pacific, where "free-trade" zones and super-highways will be built, as well as large infrastructures to entice foreign investors, especially in tourism. It goes without saying that much of the land in the Pacific, which will benefit directly from the National Plan of Development, has been bought up by those in power. Rural areas are not considered by the government and so remain ignored by government policies and investment.

Nonetheless it is precisely in these areas, in rural Nicaragua, that a different type of tourism began more than three decades ago, during the Sandinista revolution. At this time, many international solidarity brigades visited rural areas to co-live with communities; in the north, many came to pick coffee, in the west, cotton and other crops at harvest time. Delegations were drawn to Nicaragua because of the history of the Nicaraguan people's fight against the Somoza government and in unity with the new task of rebuilding a country after forty years of dictatorship and a revolution. Delegations from all over the world -- from Cuba, Venezuela, Europe and the United States -- came to Nicaragua offering support and supplies during the revolution and the contra war.

In the 1990s, with the change of government to conservative President Violeta Chamorro, such delegations lost their principal reason to visit Nicaragua. However, a few years later, a new wave of solidarity and international cooperation resurfaced and has never since diminished, even though the flow is irregular throughout the year and between years. It is for this reason that many organizations such as CECOCAFEN began to look for ways to formalize such visits so that they could provide a real service to communities. As the coffee crisis deepened and fair trade became a trendy new word for a middle-class, socially-conscious sector with a little extra cash in their pockets, tourism became a viable industry and a way to not only diversify production, but a means to reeducate consumers. Fair trade is no longer synonymous with charity. Instead, it offers a quality product and an alternative to dominant macroeconomic structures by acknowledging the people behind the product. Tourism to rural sectors allows both consumers and visitors the opportunity to exchange with farmers and to witness both the craftsmanship and professionalism with which coffee production is managed within the cooperatives. Tourism in this field can offer a transformative experience for consumers.

Today, CECOCAFEN's tourist section, based in the UCA San Ramon, offers visitors the opportunity to visit a fair-trade coffee farm and learn about the craftsmanship in specialty coffee, to stay overnight on one of these farms, to explore with a community guide (son or daughter of a coffee farmer) the beautiful mountainous region and its history, to walk on rustic trails and observe the magnificent birds and flora and fauna of the region. Visitors are given the opportunity to understand in depth how a co-op works, the difference between organic and conventional coffee and the importance of shade-grown coffee. They can visit local women's organizations affiliated with the cooperative and their projects such as natural medicine products. In short, it gives them the opportunity to see how a bean is turned into a beautiful cup of coffee rich in citrus and chocolate flavors.

Undoubtedly, this project has created many benefits for the farmers and their families involved in this project, and also for the communities as a whole, since its creation in 2003. The thirty-six families involved in this project who receive visitors to their farms have improved their quality of life through the tourism project supported by Lutheran World Relief. Each house now has an organic vegetable patch, mosquito nets, water filter, an improved stove which eliminates toxic fumes, and an extra room to receive tourists, which is also an added space to receive their own family members.

The community guides are studying English and have received scholarships for their education in exchange for one hundred hours of volunteer work in the cooperative. These youth are the promising leaders of both their community and cooperative and, because of tourism, they are now valuing their home and community more and with new hope. The guides and their families are less likely to migrate to the "free-trade" zones or Costa Rica in search of jobs. In brief, the benefits from tourism for the cooperatives and the communities have been numerous, including an increase and diversification of income, increase in environmental consciousness and conservation, land security and an increased level of education, self esteem and empowerment in the whole family.

Blanca Rosa Molina, fair-trade producer, general manager of the UCA San Ramon and member of the board of directors of CECOCAFEN, states: "Fair trade means conserving and improving our land; it means looking after the environment; it means improving the air we breathe. It also means education for our children through scholarships and access to health care for our families. It means better opportunities above all for women, opportunities to organize and make decisions. Fair trade means that producers and consumers work together for a better life. Fair trade is much more than just a question of money."

The rural and community-based tourism project forms an important part of fair trade. It is in this context that those involved in the project are harvesting greater yields for their family and their communities.