Child Victims of Coffee Trade Wars

BBC News

By Nicola Carslaw
BBC consumer affairs correspondent in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

However much you are prepared to pay for a cup of coffee, the growers just get paid a pittance.

Coffee is a commodity crop - the second biggest after crude oil - and due partly to over-supply world coffee prices have reached record lows in the past few months.

In Nicaragua, growers are having to abandon their farms.

Now, the United Nations World Food Programme says one-in-eight children is starving.

Children of the coffee crisis

Ellis is 11-years-old, but he looks six. His distended belly is scarred after the three operations he has had as a result of the damage starvation has caused.

His mother cannot afford to keep him. She is out looking for work on coffee plantations.

Ellis is one of 28 children in Nicaragua's only centre for acutely malnourished children.

They are the children of the coffee crisis.

The centre, in the city of Matagalpa in the heart of the country's coffee-growing region, is run by local church volunteers.

Director Adriana Bracamonte said: "Our government doesn't appear to know we exist.

"We have never had any local journalists here and certainly none from abroad.

"Everyone is ignoring these poor starving children."

In this area they have always been poor, but since the collapse of world coffee prices they are destitute.

Many have abandoned their farms and live in makeshift homes on the outskirts of the city.

In the Matagalpa mountains, farmers can not even cover the cost of growing their crops.

Seasonal work

Francisco, a coffee picker, gets paid for every full basket.

Like around 200 others he is a seasonal worker - earning under $1 a day - less than Westerners pay in a coffee bar for a cup of coffee.

But the harvest ends this week, and with it his income, and there is no money to tide him over. Two of his children are underweight and chronically malnourished.

He and his wife Johana have just had their third child in the earthen brick roadside hut they built themselves.

They have no power and no running water in the home that is the size of a small garden shed.

"I spend what I get on rice or plantain... Some days we get nothing to eat, us and the kids," Francisco said.

His wife Johana said: "When the kids get ill, we just don't have enough money even to buy a bus ticket. "So we can't go and get medicines."


We went with Johana to get help at the only local medical centre.

Here for the first time the UN World Food Programme is having to distribute food aid.

The programme's director in Nicaragua, Krystina Bednarska, says that 45% of under fives in these region are chronically malnourished.

One in eight children is starving as a direct result in the loss of income from the coffee crop, and no one knows how many children have died.

In just one hospital, 18 children have died of malnutrition in 2003.

Rich history

It is a far cry from the days when coffee growers were guaranteed rich pickings.

Those whose great great grandfathers made their fortunes in coffee now face ruin.

Margarita Rivera sells her beans to big multi-national corporations via the world commodity market. But now prices have dropped so low she can not afford to stay in the business. She said the livelihoods of 1,000 workers are at risk. "They rely on me for absolutely everything - pay, accommodation, medicines, education as we have a school on our farm," she said. "Unless international prices increase, these people will starve as we will have to close everything."


Elsewhere in the mountains we saw the beginnings of an end to people's dependency on big plantation owners, global markets or charity.

Oscar is a fairtrade farmer. He is in a co-operative which sells his beans direct to companies which guarantee to pay him a living wage, so that he and his family are protected from the ebbs and flows of the world market. "The advantage of being in the co-operative is that we form a group," she said. "We can organise ourselves and negotiate a better price. "We now have more resources. We have been able to set up training courses... Our kids have grants to study at school or college."

Free market

The problem is Oscar can sell only 30% of his coffee direct to fairtrade. Other companies are not yet prepared to pay what he says he needs to survive. The rest goes on the conventional market - sold at world prices, however low.

Multinationals say that is how the free market works. But Guillermo Denaux of fairtrade Organisation, Flo International, said that the business could change. "The fairtrade market can only increase if we have more consumers," he said. "If consumers decide tomorrow they want only to buy fairtrade coffee and let the big companies know, it can help us communicate this to the big companies who will have no choice but to join our system."

The big companies say they do support direct trade, as they put it, but they too are at the mercy of the market. They insist that however they buy their beans, it is fair. But that is not how the children of the coffee crisis see it.