The Political Ecology of Food Insecurity in Smallholder Coffee Cooperatives in Northern Nicaragua
Putnam, Heather Renee
University of Kansas
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Food insecurity in smallholder coffee growing communities is recognized as a problem "deserving of a response that reflects its reach" (Caswell 2012, 1). Subject to structural factors including unstable coffee prices, extreme weather shocks, food price swings, smallholder coffee farming households must also access sufficient food and healthy diets amidst an historical trajectory that has incentivized homogenization of available land to coffee cultivation, and restriction of food production, leaving them even more vulnerable to seasonal hunger and chronic malnutrition. Although the relationship between coffee and food insecurity is recognized, its multiscalar dynamics have not been well understood. In this study I investigate and outline the "chain of explanation" (Robbins 2012, 88) of why food insecurity is so persistent in smallholder coffee growing communities. I explore the manifestations of seasonal and chronic hunger, as well as food resilience, which play out in eight first-level cooperatives that are participants in the Youth Leadership and Food Sovereignty Project executed by the cooperative organization the UCA San Ramón, in the department of Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua. Using a combined framework of political ecology, agroecology, and food security and sovereignty, I focus especially on the relationships that contribute to the phenomenon of hunger and insecurity in the eight cooperatives, identifying factors besides overdependence on coffee production on income that contribute to the phenomenon as it manifests in each of the eight cooperatives. My major findings agree with the established understanding that economic dependence on one cash crop (be it coffee or basic grains) leaves farming households unable to provide for themselves during the entire year. I find that more balanced dependence on two or more cash crops is related to longer periods of household provisioning. I also find that finance cycles that farmers must use to purchase seed and food exacerbate the situation. Other factors include the loss of knowledge of seed selection and saving as well as storage infrastructure, loss of healthy food consumption cultures, lack of access to markets for excess production, lack of access to transport and communication infrastructure, and lack of access to water for irrigation and consumption. However, structural factors including a persistent Green Revolution culture, international commodities markets, and contradictory interventions by the state and the coffee industry itself, lead to the conclusion that any set of strategies aiming to relieve seasonal hunger must move beyond price and beyond farm-level interventions to include the participation of actors at all scales.
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