Improving indigenous lives with coffee and culture

One of the richnesses of Central America is its variety of indigenous tribes. But in each country the indigenous population is suffering more from the region’s challenges, including poverty and environmental problems. Recently, I volunteered with an indigenous family in the community of La Laguna, near the town of San Ramon in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Here I learned about the many challenges that Nicaragua’s indigenous population is facing, including discrimination and land issues. I also learned how important it is for the indigenous community to stand up for their rights and to create change at a grassroots level. In this case change is happening thanks to two very different grassroots projects: a women’s coffee cooperative that is generating income and a school of indigenous culture that is creating identity.

School of indigenous culture in La Laguna
Once completed, this farm in La Laguna will house volunteers and become a school of indigenous culture for the local children.

Women’s empowerment through a coffee cooperative

Coffee production is an important part of Nicaragua’s economy, and the mountains around Matagalpa are considered to be the best place in the country to grow coffee. Coffee is also grown in La Laguna, and a few years ago a group of women from the community started a new women’s coffee cooperative. Named Tonanzintlalli, meaning “Mother Earth”, the aim of the cooperative is to give more economical, political and cultural power to the women involved. There are currently 24 women in the cooperative, meaning that 24 families benefit from the project financially.

Coffee farm in La Laguna
Coffee is an important cash crop in northern Nicaragua, including La Laguna indigenous community.

The cooperative started four years ago and that’s when the women planted their own coffee plants. At the start of 2017 these plants produced their first harvest, although the plants are still small and the harvest was minimal. To supplement the harvest, the cooperative took a loan so they could buy unprocessed coffee from other farmes. The women then processed the coffee and now they are working on selling it. Getting started and finding a spot on market is difficult, but working together in a group makes things easier.

Coffee of La Laguna indigenous women's cooperative
The coffee of La Laguna indigenous women’s cooperative is sold for example in tourist shops in the nearby city of Matagalpa.

School of indigenous culture

The season for harvesting coffee in Nicaragua is in December-March, and since I stayed in La Laguna in August, I didn’t get to work with the coffee project. Instead, I helped with the development of a farm that my hosts want to turn into an indigenous ceremonial center. The aim of this project is to help recover, preserve and transmit indgenous culture that is being forgotten under Western influences. Creating a stronger identity among the indigenous people will in turn help them fight challenges together.

The focus will be on the children of the community, and the center will become a type of school that teaches about indigenous culture and spirituality. The classroom will be decorated with murals portraying indigenous motives, and the space will be used to teach culture, music, dancing, languages and sustainability. Spiritual matters will be taught outside in a sacred circular space where ceremonies also take place.

Future school of indigenous culture
The area inside this green circle is considered sacred and it is used for rituals. Spirituality will play an important role in the future school of indigenous culture.

The farm will also house volunteers. These volunteers will help with the classes and the children, but also with taking care of the land. The goal is for the site to be as self-sufficient as possible with different crops, vegetables, medicinal plants, etc., growing on site. Relationship with nature and the land is also an important part of the school’s education.

Freshly planted garden
During my stay I helped with gardening on the farm, which is an important part of the site’s self-suffiency plan.

The construction of the center started a year ago and the goal is to have it finished in two to three years. My hosts are funding the project privately, raising money little by little by selling artisanal jewellery, and this means that progress is slow. But even with little resources it is possible to make an impact, and to achieve a better and more meaningful life for the indigenous population of Nicaragua.

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