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306. The water interviews: Nicaragua

2012 October 1
by Michael Sheridan

My colleague Jefferson Shriver is an advisor on issues of agroenterprise and climate change for CRS programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.  He is based in Nicaragua, where he has lived and worked on-and-off for the better part of 20 years.  Over that time, he has collaborated with many of the country’s leading coffee cooperatives to help them improve productivity, processing, quality and marketing, all while conserving their natural resources.  He is driven by the pursuit and promise of triple-bottom-line solutions that grow rural prosperity, but not at the cost of forests, soil, rivers or the stability of the global climate.  In this interview, he shares insights from his experience with water resource management in the coffeelands of Nicaragua.

  • When did you first start to get involved professionally with coffee farmers in Nicaragua?

I first began working with small coffee farmers in 1995 when I worked for a Nicaraguan microfinance institution.  There we made some of the first large loans to pioneering cooperatives like PRODECOOP as they were getting off the ground after the revolution.  I was in charge of investor relations, and made frequent visits to borrowers to document the social impact of our loans.

  • And when did you come to appreciate the importance of water resource management in the coffee process?

When visiting coffee communities during harvest, the first thing that hit me was the smell of coffee cherry pulp fermenting and rotting.  It usually washed down the hill from a farmer’s wet mill and piled up close to the banks of the rivers and streams that are so commonplace in coffee communities..  Rivers were noticeably contaminated during harvest, and it was obvious that coffee processing was putting a lot of untreated water into streams used for many purposes by humans and animals.

It was also apparent that the wet mills used old equipment and a lot of water, running a constant flow for hours during depulping.  This was occurring in the broader context of Nicaragua where rivers were drying up and deforestation was getting worse in other parts of the country.

  • The issue of water is pretty broad.  Is there a specific framework you use to approach the issue of water in the context of the coffee process to make it more manageable?

As part of our support to small farmers in production and post-harvest processing, we narrow down the water issue to three central themes:  protecting water sources, preventing contamination and increasing efficiency.  There is an abundance of water sources on coffee farms, and we work with farmers to protect these resources by enhancing their agroforestry production systems and protecting their forest land where many of the springs are located.  There are also some fairly simple and low-cost technologies out there to prevent water contamination and increase efficiencies, and we are working to make those more accessible to small farmers.

  • Can you give me some examples of the kinds of technologies you have seen?

CAFENICA is an association of small farmer organizations in Nicaragua with 9,000 members.  It has designed a water-efficient wet mill system that reduces water consumption per coffee sack from 3,000 liters to 495 liters — an 83 percent reduction.  This wet mill design is being used by hundreds of farmers around the country, with a unit cost of $2000-4000 depending on size.

Another impressive technology is a wastewater management system designed for centralized wet mills.  These systems separate the solids, neutralize Ph in the water, and even trap methane with biodigestors to reduce GHG emissions and create gas for cooking.  Cooperatives like Soppexcca, CECOCAFEN, and others have invested in these centralized systems with good results.

Simple, affordable technologies like these are conserving water and preventing surface and ground water contamination throughout the country.

  • In your experience, how common are these technologies?

Not common enough.  In Nicaragua, only about 10 percent of all coffee farmers are using water efficient and clean technologies.  The result is that coffee farmers are creating a big environmental and public health problem for their communities and those around them that share their water source.

  • Why aren’t the technologies you mention more widely adopted, from your perspective?

Two factors come into play:  political will and financing.  On the one hand, local and national government laws are not being enforced enough to regulate water efficiency and contamination.  The state is not present enough in these rural communities, nor have they treated water as a priority.  Of course, neither has the coffee industry as a whole.  If water was a true priority for those buying the coffee and financing trade relationships, we would be seeing much more financing available and cost share investments forged to create this necessary infrastructure at the farm and cooperative level.

  • Do you see a role for the coffee industry in helping to narrow the gap?

If roasters, importers, trade finance institutions, international development donors, and even consumers began to raise awareness about this problem and dialogue about the need for investment, I suspect that we would see improvements quickly.  In addition to the financing, coffee industry actors could also sustain a dialogue with government actors at various levels to combine forces, as both investment and better regulation are necessary.

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