WIWILI, Nicaragua – Armed with picks, shovels and chainsaws, a battalion of peasants get down to work clearing roads in this mountain municipality in northern Nicaragua that was battered by two hurricanes in succession just three months ago.
The farmers are racing to repair the dirt roads so they can transport to market the coffee beans that represent their main source of income.
Landslides caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota last November cut off 16,000 people living in communities on the slopes of the Cerro Kilambe, 1,750 meters (5,737 feet) above sea level, one of the six protected areas making up the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.
For the volunteers, such as 52-year-old coffee grower Ivan Antonio Centeno, the memory of carrying sacks of coffee and grain on their backs in mud up to their knees remains fresh.
Standing at the foot of La Esperanza creek, which flooded during the storms, Centeno tells EFE that he and his neighbors began organizing to repair the roads even when the land was still saturated and the threat of further landslides was real.
“The roads were destroyed. There was nothing. It was horrible,” grower Coronado Valdivia Montenegro, 50, told EFE.
While residents evacuated in time to avert casualties, the hurricanes, especially Iota, did incalculable damage to infrastructure and crops, he said.
Farmers found themselves cut off, with no safe way to get home, whether on foot, by mule or on a motorcycle. And the coffee that withstood the hurricanes’ onslaught was in danger of being lost.
“We had to cross from one side to the other by hanging on a rope that we tied between trees, or on tree trunks that we placed over the creeks,” Valdivia said.
Desperate to salvage their crops to avoid defaulting on their debts, the farmers used chainsaws to fashion bridges from fallen trees and moved piles of dirt to make some roads passable, enabling them to transport the beans.
“We were stranded for about two weeks, with no way out. Nobody sold coffee for a week,” Ariel Lagos Centeno, 37, recounted to EFE.
Despite those Herculean efforts, coffee beans from Cerro Kilambe were taking too long to reach the buyers, who visited the area to assess the damage caused by the hurricanes.
“What (the producers) told us was nothing compared with the reality we saw,” said Jorge Eslaquit, regional sales director at Cisa Exportadora, part of the Mercon Group, one of the world’s leading coffee companies with almost 70 years of experience.
The visit led to an alliance between the growers and the Mercon Group’s Seeds for Progress Foundation to create a hurricane relief fund to finance road repairs in 11 coffee-producing communities in Nicaragua and Honduras.
The initiative raised $178,000 to meet the urgent needs of the coffee-growing regions, Deglys Rodriguez, civil works supervisor at the Seeds for Progress Foundation, told EFE, with more than 20,000 people in Nicaragua and Honduras benefiting.
Eslaquit said Mercon supported road repairs in Wiwili because of their long-standing relationship with the growers there.
Thanks to its altitude and fertile land, the Cerro Kilambe produces some of the finest coffee, which tends to command higher prices than those set on the futures market at the New York Stock Exchange.
While damage from the hurricanes is still visible in the Kilambe reserve, so is the pride and enthusiasm of the farmers, who refuse to stand idle, preferring to grab their picks, shovels and chainsaws in pursuit of reviving hope.