Re-inventing tradition

Nicaragua, September 1, 2004

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Magdeleno Benavides' family has been growing coffee on mountains near Jinotega, Nicaragua for more than a century. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Magdeleno Benavides' path is a difficult one.

In order to get to his coffee fields, he must walk a ways up a gravel road and turn onto a tiny, muddy narrow path. From the road, the path sinks steeply and immediately to a small stream with a tiny waterfall. After fording the stream, the path goes up - and up - and up some more.

After fifteen minutes of hiking, he arrives at the amazingly perilous slope where he's planted coffee under a grove of indigenous trees.

It's incredible to consider that Benavides, a man who's harvested coffee for over half a century, regularly carries nearly a hundred pounds of coffee seedlings along this treacherous path, only to have to navigate the steep slope to plant and maintain them.

It's obvious that Magdeleno Benavides is committed to coffee. Even though the coffee crisis has complicated his life in recent years, he could never give it up. After all, his family has grown coffee on this land for over 150 years.

"Coffee growing is a culture going back hundreds of years, a way of life," said Benavides. "It's hard to switch to other crops."

This sense of tradition has encouraged Mercy Corps and local partner Asociación Aldea Global Jinotega, a small farmers' association, to find ways to help traditional coffee farmers increase and sustain their income. Working together with farming families throughout the area around Jinotega, Nicaragua, the organizations are promoting the growth of organic, fair-trade specialty coffees.

These coffees, typically grown at higher altitudes under good shade, still fetch a premium price on the global market despite the worldwide coffee crisis.

Magdeleno Benavides has the skills, spirit and land resources to succeed in producing premium-quality coffees. He owns nearly six acres of coffee plantations on the outskirts of the lush Datanli-Diablo Cloud Forest. This land is perched at a lofty 1,275 meters (4,200 feet), easily qualifying it as "high altitude" coffee.

Coffees grown at higher altitudes (typically above 1,200 meters) usually net a farmer between eight and twelve dollars more per 100-pound bag than lower-altitude coffees. This added income is crucial to farmers who are trying to weather the current coffee crisis.

Benavides is also taking a more active stake in improving his coffee crop - and the environment - by practicing agroforestry techniques such as live fencing, contour lines and soil conservation. Aldea Global provides training to farmers who want to implement conservation measures on their farms and also pays them an extra premium on each bag of coffee during the harvest.

"Aldea Global has provided tools, financing and technical advice to support us," Benavides said.

The coffee crisis has challenged Magdeleno Benavides, but he's climbed steeper mountains before. As he trudges up the hill each day to tirelessly maintain his coffee crop, Mercy Corps and Aldea Global are giving him a boost.

"Coffee is the best crop to make a living from a few [acres] of land," Benavides said.

High in the hills above Jinotega, Magdeleno Benavides is growing some of the best coffee in the world.

For more information on Aldea Global, please visit the association's web site at