Nicaragua: Landmines, Coffee and Hope
A Very Special Café is Born in Nicaragua
It has been more than a decade since the armed struggles in Nicaragua resulted in the planting of tens of thousands of landmines throughout the Nicaraguan countryside. The mines were planted by both sides and were meant to maim the population, sending a message of terror to all who worked the fields and travelled the roads of this country. Most remain active and buried, betraying reconciliation throughout the land. Many have been moved to the surface by the mudslides and swollen rivers caused by the hurricanes and tropical storms of recent years.
In a small, impoverished nation struggling to rebuild, the needs of landmine victims, mostly children and farmers, often go unheeded. For the past year, the Polus Center, a Massachusetts nonprofit dedicated to service and advocacy for disabled and other disenfranchised populations, has been working with Nicaraguan doctors and activists to create a clinic in the city of Leon, Walking Unidos. The clinic recycles used prosthetic devices and manufactures new ones, provides the devices and the needed physical therapy to the rural poor - all free of charge. Along with many others, we have provided funding for the establishment and operation of the clinic. In its first year of operation, Walking Unidos clinic provided prosthetic limbs and therapy for 18 poor Nicaraguans. Although a great technical success, Walking Unidos requires a continuous input of funds for equipment, materials, personnel and administration. What is needed is a means for Walking Unidos to generate its own funds to free the clinic from the continual need to compete for scarce grants and donations from local and international sources. Of course, this is the same problem that confronts nonprofit operations the world over.
Based on a project we created in rural Guatemala that lead to a financially self-sufficient indigenous women's health promotion and training program, we offered to set up a café/roasterie in Leon. The café would be owned and operated by Walking Unidos, thereby providing a critical income stream to the clinic. Just as important, the café will be managed and staffed by former patients of the clinic, affording an opportunity to normalize their disabilities in a very public setting, and provide jobs with good pay and dignity to an underserved population.
On December 20, 2000, Polus Center loaded a forty-foot container with hospital beds, prosthetic devices and medical supplies to be sent to Walking Unidos. We were there, loading on a coffee roasting machine, brewers, grinders and other equipment to start and operate a café/roasterie. In addition, we have arranged for Prodecoop, our Nicaraguan grower's cooperative, to drive the green coffee five hours from their fields above Esteli to Leon, on our account.
When the container arrives in Leon if February, we will head down to set up the roaster and other equipment, and teach the finer art of roasting organic coffee a la Dean's Beans. During our last visit, the Walking Unidos staff had already begun to restore a beautiful colonial building near the university for the café. We ritually "blessed" the site by sprinkling the building with Prodecoop's coffee, which we had roasted and brought with us. There was an incredible air of excitement and it was clear that the clinic and the community had claimed the project for their own before we had roasted the first bean.
We'll keep you up to date on this very special café. Next time you're in Leon, Nicaragua, drop by for a cup of hope. It's on us!
UPDATE!!! UPDATE!!! UPDATE!!! UPDATE!!!
I've just returned from installing the roaster and teaching roasting technique to the folks at Walking Unidos. After the machine was ready, a pick-up truck from Prodecoop arrived with a bag of organic green coffee for the project. When I went to pay them, our good friends said they wanted to donate the beans to this "beautiful project". We celebrated by going out that night to the final game of the Nicaraguan baseball championships, and our home boys from Leon won! The café was crowded that night with folk musicians, tourists, revelers, and a handful of Peace Corps volunteers who had loved Dean's Beans when they were at Smith College (they saw me walking down the street with my DB tee-shirt on and followed me to the café).
In twenty-five years of progressive development work, I don't think I have ever been as gratified as when Santiago Castellon from Walking Unidos dropped that first roast. The whole staff cheered, as this first piece of self-sufficiency dropped into the cooling bin and the smell of success and hope wafted into the street.
A Note About Dean's Beans
At Dean's Beans we try hard to use coffee as a vehicle for the expression of our highest values. It's not that hard to roast coffee, but it's another matter to confront the poverty, inequity and ecological impact that has been endemic to coffee since the early days. We are participating with many others to change these dynamics by only using organic coffee from grower-owned cooperatives and paying fair trade or higher prices when we can do so. We also design and support progressive, community-centered development projects like the café and clinic described above. By doing so, we are using the vehicle of business as a force for positive, peaceful change in our confused world, not as a vehicle to gain wealth at the expense of others.
Dean teaches Santiago and Esteban how to roast.
Local children at free computer classes at the cafe.
Preparing a new leg in Leon, complements of the cafe!