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Nicaraguas core eco initiative fights greenwashing

by Karin Heinze (comments: 0)

Finca Esperanzita
Finca La Esperanzita. Photo Karin Heinze

Nicaragua is the biggest country in Central America but at the same time its a good six million inhabitants are among Latin America’s poorest people. Organic farming has slowly become established in Nicaragua. But the work of eco initiatives like Finca La Esperanzita and Sano y Salvo is being jeopardized by the increasing activities of so-called sustainability initiatives. Nicaragua’s core eco initiative Finca La Esperanzita is opposing this development.

Picture: The decades of work to encourage biodiversity and organic agriculture on Finca La Esperanzita is under threat.


Cocoa plant at Finca la Esperanzita
Cocoa plant at Finca la Esperanzita. Photo Karin Heinze



In the south-east of Nicaragua, near the town of Nueva Guinea, organic agriculture has been practised at Finca La Esperanzita since 1984. Elba Rivera Urbina, who grew up there, and her German husband Gerd Schnepel are not only committed to organic cultivation but are also active in teaching and propagating the ideas of the organic movement in Nicaragua. These two eco activists are heavily involved in education via a Montessori school with a good 300 children. They are also involved in environmental protection and biodiversity: in 1998 they founded the association Sano y Salvo for small-farmer families operating organically in the tropical rainforest on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.[nbsp

Impressions from the school area. Photos Karin Heinze
Elba Rivera in front of the central school building
Gerd Schnepel tries to prevent the organic farming in Nicaragua from agrochemicals
Elba Rivera and Gerd Schnepel at the Entrace to their Eco Museum
The outdoor classrooms

The organic farm Finca La Esperanzita in Nueva Guinea (45 ha) is financed by a foundation. The team is led by a brother of Elba and, using the methods of organic agriculture and forestry, they concentrate on as varied production as possible. In the forested area they grow coffee, cocoa, fruit and spices (ginger, turmeric, vanilla, lemongrass, cinnamon etc.) under the high trees, thus creating a productive forest.

“This method is closest to nature and is the best way to take care of the huge biodiversity in this tropical region,” Gerd Schnepel explains. On their farm, every family has one to three manzanas (1 mz = ¾ ha) of agro-forest where they grow a variety of crops. “The diversity of products forces the farmers to be organised, so that every single product is available in quantities suitable for marketing,” Schnepel explains.

Above all, what the small farmers in the region lack is the infrastructure to process and store the harvested products, and they also don’t have access to the market. This was one of the reasons why Elba and Gerd founded the farmers’ association Sano y Salvo. In a communal storage facility (acopio), currently the harvest from ten farms is dried, stored and processed and then sold all together. Robusta coffee and cocoa are the most important crops produced for the association.


Impressions from the farm "La Finca Esperanzita"
Leaf cutter ants
Nursery at Finca La Esperanzita
Members of Elba Rivera´s family are working at La Esperanzita
Drying room
The food industry concentrates on UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance
Farm of German company Ritter Sport
The big farm of German company Ritter Sport. Photo Karin Heinze

There’s quite a big problem with precisely these two crops. Take the example of cocoa: the German chocolate manufacturer Ritter has for many years been buying organic cocoa from Sano y Salvo. Gerd Schnepel says there’s very heavy dependence on Ritter. At the outset, at the end of the 1980s, the involvement of the German company was very helpful. The granddaughter of the founder, Marli Hoppe-Ritter, was involved in financing organic agriculture in Nicaragua. On the other hand, her brother, Alfred Ritter, is “pragmatic” and bought 2000 hectares of land in Nicaragua in order to produce his own cocoa. Schnepel points out that the productive years of the Ritter Finca are slowly approaching, and this means that the small organic producers are gradually losing one of their customers. Schnepel: “That is, of course, problematic but much more serious is the trend of Ritter and other big cocoa customers to opt increasingly for raw materials with the so-called sustainability logos UTZ and Rainforest Alliance.“ The trend is clearly in this direction, because the big players in the international food industry like Ahold, Mars, Nestlé and Tchibo are focusing on these logos that, without justification, promise sustainability and a better life for the small farmers.

Picture: The Ritter Finca measures 2000 hectares. Russian, Korean and other foreign companies have bought land in Nicaragua.

It’s got nothing to do with organic cropping
Nicaragua’s small farmers are still among the poorest in the world.
Most of the campesionos are poor. Photo Karin Heinze

UTZ boasts that almost 50 % of the total certified sustainable coffee is already UTZ-certified. The message of the certifiers is simple: “Better cropping. Better future.” That’s the slogan and, in fact, the Dutch company - financed by, among others, foundations, the Ministry of Agriculture and a Dutch lottery company - maintains that the certification criteria are strict (cropping, work and social standards). However, according to Schnepel, this is only partly true and, above all, he is angry about the agricultural practices and the greenwashing certifications of these organisations. “It’s got nothing to do with cultivating the land organically,” he says. And, moreover, organic farms already focus attention on the social aspects. The cropping methods are contrary to the way Sano y Salvo has operated for decades. Whereas the work of the small-farmer association, that also reforests and protects soils and water, improves incomes and contributes to raising the health of the rural population and, by creating jobs in processing, stops people leaving the land, the conventional production units – with, for example extensive cattle keeping, growing oil palms, coffee and timber in plantations, are destroying tropical land with, among other things, the high input of agrochemicals.


IFOAM must fight greenwashing
The great natural abundance of Nicaragua is threatened by agrochemicals and monocrops. Photo Karin Heinze

In a critical letter to the development policy organisation Inkota in Berlin  Schnepel makes what he considers to be a scandal absolutely clear. “RFA and UTZ are agrochemical standards. Agrochemicals are never sustainable, this kind of standard perpetuates the suffering... .” He is critical of the fact that UTZ for example is deliberately exploiting the “worrying trend“ found in consumers. He says they are focusing on monocropping a limited number of products like cocoa and coffee – goodbye, biodiversity – so that they can make higher profits. Since the market share of organic farmers is declining, that means direct economic damage to organic agriculture. Schnepel’s fear: “Also, there’s greater temptation for small farmers to switch from organic cropping to UTZ monocropping in order to make quick money.”

Schnepel is incensed above all by the fact that the “sustainability labels“ give the impression of being green and social. He appeals to IFOAM to call for a “boycott of these fraudsters, confidence tricksters and dupers of consumers.”  He wants to see the operations of this finance-driven business closed down. In a letter to the organic world umbrella organisation he writes: “We expect the World Board of IFOAM to give its full attention to addressing this issue SOON and not only to devise a strategy but also to implement it with full commitment.” An appeal to IFOAM to make it more difficult for organic certifiers to cooperate with UTZ and RFA has so far been rejected. In response to a report that Aldi now intends to use only “sustainable“ (UTZ, RFA) cocoa, Schnepel is demanding that IFOAM takes rapid action. In his letter Schnepel says: “The time has now come for IFOAM .... to fight, because... we are dealing here with an offensive launched by our enemies, UTZ, RFA and Aldi (all that’s missing is Walmart!).“


Elba Rivera
Elba Rivera in front of an outdoor classroom. Photo Karin Heinze

Elba Rivera´s education campaign

As the eldest of nine children, Elba Rivera Urbina grew up in a typical small-farmer family in Nicaragua. Tradition dictated that from an early age she had to look after her eight brothers and sisters and work on the farm. When she was 18 she fulfilled her dream – she learned to read and write and five years later she finished school with the highest grades. She later studied in Tübingen, returned home with two master’s degrees (education and political sciences) and launched the Jan Amos Comenius-School. By using the Montessori method and offering ecology as a subject, the school became a pioneer in the backward school system. Elba Rivera, since August 2015 “Doctora en Educación”, was and still is active in many political bodies and NGOs. She fights for quality of education, the human rights of the rural population and, above all, for young people and the promotion of ecological awareness.

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