Resilience in action - a visit to young cocoa farmers Yamileth and Santiago

Resilience in action - a visit to young cocoa farmers Yamileth and Santiago

in News
This news is part of the following focus areas:
Aäron De Fruyt
Aäron De Fruyt
+32 499 31 75 04

In the community of Rancho Grande, wooden houses dominate, as if you were near a coast or a river that flood regularly. In this landscape adorned by coffee trees, you will find the farmer organisation Ríos de Agua Viva. Here, some 366 associated producers work cultivating cocoa not only in the volume and quality required by the buyers but also respecting the tropical forest that still covers the north of Nicaragua.

We were supposed to interview two young farmer members of the cooperative in April 2020 with a camera crew. Unfortunately, not one but two crises postponed our visit with Rikolto: first the Covid-19 crisis, and in November, two severe hurricanes that caused irreparable damage in Central America. We arrived on Yamileth and Santiago's land nine months later. This is their story of resilience.

2020, a year of ups and downs and more...

Fair prices for the producer: a core message of the mission of Rios de Agua Viva, which produces 245 tonnes of cocoa and 660 tonnes of coffee a year.

With this promise in mind, the cooperative, together with Rikolto, has set out to involve young farmers in its daily operations and management.

When we greet Yamileth (26) and Santiago (27), we immediately realise that they are good friends. Santiago's family's property is a twenty-minute walk from the main road, which tests our physical stamina as it is an obvious witness to the heavy rains of the previous weeks.

We are dumbfounded when Santiago tells us that after each harvest he has to "sacar" (carry the heavy sacks of bananas or cocoa on his back to deliver to the cooperative or sell in the village).

Start on the road to Santiago's house, the same road he walks on foot to get his produce from the farm to the main road.

Santiago's mother welcomes us with open arms. The camera team settles down in a dry place because it is still rainy. Next to the stool where Yamileth and Santiago will sit for the camera, dozens of bunches of red beans are drying. Santiago was able to harvest the beans just in time before the hurricanes made landfall.

Yamileth and many other farmers were less lucky. The heavy rains caused the beans to germinate too early: many of them lost an entire crop.

Yamileth is nervous: she doesn't like talking in front of a camera. But as soon as the camera starts rolling, another person sits in front of us: a strong, self-confident woman. Her attitude and language almost sound like those of a politician. She calmly explains how 2020 hit her personally very hard. In April, she was infected with Covid-19. Many people around her fell ill, and some died.

However, Covid-19 is not the first crisis Yamileth and Santiago have had to deal with.

With the pandemic, Central American farmers faced a challenge of a different kind: markets closed their doors. Transport to and from the countryside came to a near standstill. There was no more export. People were afraid and stayed at home. Prices on the informal market fell...

After her illness, Yamileth went back to work: if you fall off a horse, you have to get back on it very quickly. But in early November, fate struck again. Hurricane Eta made landfall in Nicaragua, leaving behind a trail of destruction in Central America. Farmers in the region were relieved: the damage in the Matagalpa region was less severe compared to other regions of the country. Two weeks later, Hurricane Iota hit much harder. Yamileth's greenhouse, where the small cocoa trees gain strength before being planted, was devastated.

Agroforestry Systems, "shielding" crops and farms

These storms came sooner than expected, according to Santiago - because agroforestry as a production model should protect Rancho Grande's farmers from such calamities in the future. Cacao trees can play a very important role in that. Santiago takes us to a field where his oldest cocoa trees are. Here, an agroforestry system stands strong against wind and rain.

The principle of agroforestry sounds logical: the natural biodiversity of a forest is recreated. Cacao trees grow together with maize, bananas, beans.... Various animal and plant species will flourish naturally in the recreated habitat.

Santiago showed us the cocoa plantation with SAF that was almost destroyed by the hurricane winds.

Diseases have less chance; natural compost feeds the soil with fertile minerals; and storm winds are stopped by the diligent trees. Over time, the watercourse, the soil, the air and the surrounding environment will also be purified by this small island of biodiversity.

The patch of forest we see, planted years ago, is indeed still firmly rooted. The difference with a hill where Santiago just planted new cocoa trees last year is enormous. The devastation seems irreparable, and in this region of Nicaragua, the eye of the storm had not even passed nearby.

Santiago and Yamileth remain optimistic. "This was a confirmation for us of why we need to commit ourselves to agroforestry in the long term".

Those who plant cocoa trees should not expect to reap the benefits quickly. Cocoa trees take about three years to bear fruit. That is why it is so important to also invest in cassava and plantain (which bear fruit annually) or in beans and maize (which can be harvested several times a year). Both Yamileth and Santiago plan to work in the longer term: the cedars offer protection and the wood is in great demand.

It is touching to see two young farmers looking so optimistically to the future. Climate change, Covid-19, two severe hurricanes: others would have given up hope at least. But here in the countryside, there is only one way forward. And Rikolto wants to provide the right tailwind for that.

Investing in youth inclusion is more than an “utopia”

Two years ago, Yamileth and Santiago participated in a youth seminar organised by Rikolto and funded by the Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt Group (through its Collibri Foundation). They took part in workshops on agroforestry systems as well as on business management and marketing.

Educating farmers is not something that is done only in the field: an economic context strengthens the opportunities to grow as a farmers' organisation.

Watch the stories of Yamileth, Santiago and more young people driving the change in cooperative Rios de Agua Viva. (Video in Spanish)

Yamileth has only positive memories of the diploma course for young people. "It was wonderful to enrich the rest of our community with this knowledge afterwards. A small group of young people can have such a big impact on a whole generation".

Both Santiago and Yamileth take on responsibilities in the cooperative. The Rancho Grande farmers' organisation has deliberately opted for rejuvenation and a greater role for women, which is not evident in the Nicaraguan countryside.

Yamileth relaxes when the cameras are turned off and the lid comes back on the lens. Santiago, too, was clearly not in his element in front of the camera's open eye. When Santiago's mother treats us to a delicious lunch, both young men abandon their diplomatic posture for a cheerful laugh. Let's hope the worst is over. But whatever the future may bring, these young leaders are ready for it.

Do you want to know more about what Rikolto is doing to support young people's economic and personal empowerment within food systems in Nicaragua? Write to our colleague or contact him via LinkedIn.

Jorge Flores
Jorge Flores
Coordinador de proyectos | Nicaragua