Thursday, January 14, 2010


I think it´s safe to say that León has been our favorite city so far, but that might be because we´ve been shown around by Rachel, a woman whose brother goes to Oberlin who is doing a Fullbright here on sustainable agriculture. She´s been here for over 10 months and has befriended a ton of locals and knows all the hot spots.

León is a colonial city, with enormous, gorgeous churches every few blocks, cobblestone streets and a breezy central park. It´s rougher around the edges than many other spots, and not so picturesque that you forget that people actually live here. It´s extremely walkable and in the few moments we haven´t been visiting organizations or having meetings, we´ve had a great time checking out the little restaurants and bars hidden around the city.

Yesterday after our thought-provoking meeting with CEPRODEL we were taken to another organization, Del Campo, a cooperative of cooperatives. We were delighted to learn that our beloved Finca Magdalena on Ometepe was a member, but we were mostly shown examples of their sesame coops (ajonjolí in Spanish). We were taken out to a sesame seed processing plant and learned more than I ever needed to know about cleaning and marketing sesame seeds.

It was inspiring to see a coop take control of the whole production process, ensure good working conditions for their members and achieve success on the market, but upon later reflection it bothered us that this was one more example of Nicaraguan farmers being pushed to fill a niche market instead of growing their own food staples. It´s fine and dandy that McDonald´s pays a high price for their sesame seeds, but what if they decide that no one really cares about the sesame seeds on the burger bun anyways and nix them? Without that income, Nicaraguans can´t buy the basic rice and beans (sold for less than the cost of production by subsidized US companies) they need to survive.

We also heard some really fascinating things about coops in Nicaragua in general. Basically, the U.S. embargo in the 80s allowed the coop movement to flourish, because the big multinationals stayed out, and went to exploit Guatemala and Costa Rica instead, both of which had governments much friendlier to the U.S. However, Nicaragua is now the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti (who is in our thoughts right now), so it begs the question if the embargo was a good or bad thing for Nicaragua, or if it´s a matter of interpretation.

With much on our minds we left the sesame plant, had a delicious lunch, and strolled over to the Museum of Myths and Legends, which one of the other girls will post about. Later in the evening, we met Rachel at a wonderful bar/café, where she treated us to quesadillas and we danced to live music. We only know a handful of people in León, but every single one was at this spot (La Olla Quemada)...from the Costa Ricans from our hostel to the hostel owner to people we met at Del Campo to a fellow traveler we befriended on the bus. All in all, León has been fun, friendly and fascinating. We almost don´t want to leave, knowing how much more there is to see here, but we´re excited for Estelí.

1 comment:

  1. It was great to meet you guys, and I'm enjoying reading all your posts. You are clearly getting a deep and diverse experience here in Nicaragua!

    I'd like to respond to your concern about the farmers in Del Campo being "being pushed to fill a niche market instead of growing their own food staples" and the vulnerability of putting so many resources into the production of a single crop. In this case, Del Campo being a second tier cooperative where all the decisions made are by cooperative representatives and ultimately the farmers themselves, the only force "pushing" them to put their resources into building a high tech sesame plant is the market itself.

    In fact the credit that Del Campo offers, which Maria de los Angeles explained about in the main offices, is given to the 11 cooperative members to autonomously manage. That credit is used as much to finance beans, corn, rice, and animal husbandry as for sesame. The sesame farmers of Del Campo ARE subsistence farmers. Generally all agricultural cooperative members in Nicaragua grow beans, corn, and pastures or sorghum for cattle for their family and local consumption, and set aside some land to grow a cash crop such as sesame or coffee. That is one of the main differences between products produced in cooperatives, by individual farmers who have their small diverse farms with kitchen gardens, and crops like the peanuts we saw or sugar cane, which are large agro-industrial companies which rent or purchase large tracts of land and only plant one crop. The difference between the sesame and the cattle that the same farmers are raising is that the cattle is sold to other companies who slaughter and market the beef, where as the entire chain of sesame to the point of export is controlled by the cooperatives, and ultimately the farmers who grow it. Remember Nicolas's comment about the difference the role of cooperatives play in farmers lives vs. the role that cooperatives or member organizations play in our lives as US citizens. The cooperatives also provide access for the farmers for education, health care and information about HIV/AIDS. Del Campo has chosen to organize itself around improving the processing of sesame within Nicaragua (and therefore the price they can get for it) - but that in no way discourages farmers from planting subsistance crops.

    As to the cooperative's vulnerability by relying on a corporate giant like McDonalds, last year 30% of the total sesame processed at Del Campo was sold to McDonalds Europe. Remember the oil that was being shipped to the Body Shop and L'Oreal, and the unhulled sesame that Japan imports by specific variety because of its flavor. If McDonalds was to pull out of Del Campo, it would certainly could affect some farmers but wouldn't be enough to cause the plant to collapse financially.

    Good luck on the rest of your trip, I look forward to reading your future blog posts. You are doing some really interesting things!