7th June: The pace of life in the Miraflor Reserve – 20 miles from Esteli, Northern Nicaragua – is a world away from the usual hustle and bustle of 21st Century living. There is no grid electricity (power comes from solar panels), no running water, and almost all tasks are done by hand or with the aid of horses or oxen. The main source of income is coffee, other needs are met largely by subsistence farming or trade in agricultural goods.
In the rainy season there is one bus a day that connects the reserve with Esteli – a bone-shaking, bum-numbing two and a half hour ride up an impossibly steep, rutted dirt road. The bus is always crammed to bursting point and chugs up into the mountains alternately blaring reggaeton, Latino classics and Western pop music from the tinny stereo.
Nine communities farm the land up in the reserve having clubbed together to protect the area largely in response to environmental degradation issues. The biodiversity of Miraflor, which covers three temporal zones, is extraordinary – for example there are over 200 types of orchid that flourish, plus hundreds of bromeliads clinging to the branches of the abundant trees.
At 1,200 metres the community of El Sontule seems a typical remote rural community in many respects. There are around 700 people living there, two churches (one Catholic, one Evangelical – a safe distance apart!), a small school, a tiny shop and a village water pump. The school and the water pump were funded by foreign NGO and government aid programmes.
There are a few things that make El Sontule a special place. The community is organised into three cooperatives: two that concentrate on selling coffee and one womens’ cooperative that also produces coffee and administers various other projects. The coffee grown in El Sontule is certified organic and Fair Trade – an expense that could not have been met without the combined resources of the members of the cooperative – helping to guarantee a better price for the product and a guaranteed buyer each year for the harvest. It took three years to convert the crop to organic and initially there were difficulties as the quantity of the harvest dropped. Now with more than 15 years experience the community is definitely reaping the benefits.
The womens’ cooperative was founded in the 1990s. With a loan from a German NGO they were able to buy two hectares of land to farm coffee – it’s not much, but it’s a start and it’s theirs. In addition to the coffee the women run a community tourism business that offers the chance for tourists to live with families and experience daily life in Miraflor. (It was this project that enabled us to so easily visit the community in the first place.) The income generated from tourism is distributed in the cooperative and has been instrumental in helping the women to improve their living conditions and invest in facilities in the hope of attracting more visitors.
The cooperative also gained funding for the community to install solar panels providing a small amount of electricity for light in the dark, dark nights, and charge a few electronic devices.
Members of the womens’ cooperative talk passionately about their involvement in the projects. In traditional, rural communities the opportunities of women are often confined to looking after the home and taking care of children (and in the past it was common to have 10+). Now the women have more confidence and the opportunity to improve their quality of life through education, empowerment and the solidarity of the cooperative. Machismo is still a problem and some women find that they have no support for their successes in the cooperative from their husbands. However, this seems to be changing and with 19 members the cooperative has critical mass and through the constant hard work of the women will continue to grow.
Myra – president of the cooperative, mother, boss of her busy household and our wonderful hostess – told us that before the cooperative was set up the women were shy and felt an inferiority complex in comparison with the women of the town down in Esteli. Now they are proud, and rightly so, for what they have accomplished. They welcome foreigners into their homes with open arms and continue to work hard in their home and community to improve their lives and that of their children.
The cooperative is called ‘New Dawn’ and this is exactly what it seems to have signified for its members in El Sontule.
(If anyone reading this is interested in visiting Miraflor it is well worth the effort. In Esteli you can arrange a homestay through UCA Miraflor or Cafe Luz/Hostel Luna. Martina of Hada del Cafe also has a lot of information on the area as she works there on social projects funded by her coffee company. Or, you can do what we did – get the bus and ask around until you find a family willing to take you in!)