Coffee Politics

Selva Negra Arabica coffee beans

One evening after a dinner of wiener schnitzel at the Selva Negra Coffee Estate located in the highlands of Matagalpa, Eddy Kühl’s wife (descendant of the original German immigrants who began the coffee plantation in 1890) told me, “Nicaragua is a great place to live if you don’t get involved in the politics.” I suspected that there was more behind her comment, so I gently encouraged her to explain coffee politics.

Coffee and politics are synonymous in my book. Throughout history, coffeehouses have been venues for political activism and even revolution. ” Author Mark Pendergrast‘s book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World [Basic Books, 1999] traces the pairing of revolution and caffeine across the centuries, on down through the Beats of the ’50s to the bongos and tribal-art tattoos of today’s post-Beat coffeehouse crowd” (Gaines, S., Mountain Express, 2004). Coffee culture reigns supreme from our morning coffee and the newspaper, to coffee dates and coffee breaks. My daily rituals revolve around a good cup of java. And I know I’m not alone, with more than one-third of the world’s coffee supply consumed by North Americans.

So, when Mrs. Kühl explained her views of coffee politics, it dawned on me that my little tour of the coffee farm earlier that day was a significant historical event. I viewed, first hand, the complex web of international relations that swirled in each cup of coffee consumed throughout the world.

A painting of the coffee workers in the fields.

The complicated process begins with the poor workers. who get paid about nine dollars a day to pick and clean the coffee, to the Rainforest Alliance, who certifies that the coffee is organic, to the middle men, who export the coffee, and finally to the large corporations that buy the green coffee beans, roast and package them, and distribute them to the consumers, most of them who are blissfully unaware of the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when sipping their morning lattes.

“It’s just not fair,” commented Mrs. Kühl. “The Rainforest Alliance has a different set of rules for certification for Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We provide housing for our workers, schools for the children, and comply with all of their requests.” She went on to explain that the people who certify their coffee are Rainforest Alliance employees from Costa Rica. Here is where the politics come in to play. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have notoriously been at political odds for decades.For example, if Costa Rica coffee plants needs two shade trees for each plant to receive certification, then Nicaragua requires six shade trees for each coffee plant.

“Well,” I asked, “if the Rainforest Alliance is unfair, why don’t you go to another organization for certification, such as the Fair Trade organization?” She responded that it wasn’t that easy. The Rainforest Alliance markets their coffee certifications all over the world. They are powerful and strong. In reviewing the Rainforest Alliance website, I read that in 2004, their certified coffee went mainstream with Millstone Rainforest Reserve Coffee sold in most of the major grocery chains in the U.S. Kraft launched the Rainforest Certified Coffee in the UK, and international markets are expanding their lines of the Rainforest Certified coffees.

Today, Rainforest Certified coffee appears to be the leader in certifications. What coffee producer can afford to lose the valuable markets offered through the Rainforest Alliance certifications? Certainly not Selva Negra or any of the other small coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua. So, while the Selva Negra Coffee Estate struggles to comply with the unfair certifications, we sip our morning coffee, blissfully unaware of the complexities and politics surrounding a little bean.

Below are links to the fabulous Selva Negra Coffee Estate, and the impressive Rainforest Alliance.

The Selva Negra Coffee Estate

 The Rainforest Alliance




6 thoughts on “Coffee Politics

  1. Very interesting! I got your link from your Thorntree response. I am forwarding it to my friend, who is an organic coffee roaster in the States. We are planning on visiting Selva Negra in November. It seems there are politics in everything. I am guessing when you have the situation Nicaragua finds itself in with Costa Rica, things can get pretty intense and frustrating.

  2. Hi Debbie,
    Nice piece on an important, though complicated topic. I’ve both been to the wonderful Selva Negra estate several times (met the Kuhls) and I used to be a coffeeshop owner/roaster in the U.S. The certification game can really be rigged in many ways that the public isn’t aware of. In some cases the certification agencies charge inordinant fees at both ends to small producers and/or roasters. I’ve even heard stories about bribes required to be considered for certification. There are also sometimes ridiculous rules by some agencies. I’m not sure if it is still true but at one time small privately-owned coffee estates such as Selva Negra were unable to get Fair Trade certification no matter how positive their treatment of workers because they were officially cooperatives.
    Certification is needed and we all should want it to be fair and open. But sadly that isn’t the case everywhere yet as once again big money (coffee trails only oil as a world trade commodity) talks even in areas where people say they are trying to help the environment and little people.

    • Excellent insight, Jon. I had no idea of the complexities of certification until I had an opportunity to talk with Mrs. Kuhl. I’ve always been one to fight for the underdogs. But, how does one fight big business? I guess exposure to the problems is a beginning. The Selva Negra Coffee Estate is completely self-sufficient. I marveled at their ability to recycle everything. The coffee pulp is transformed into methane gas and the
      workers use the coffee pulp for cooking fuel. It is an incredible place. I
      can’t wait to return.

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