-Alyssa Leib, AMRDI CoffeLives Intern
Coffee accounts for 13% of Nicaragua’s total exports, nearly 6% of total GDP (World Bank, 2015). During the 2014-2015 harvest, coffee production exceed 120 million kg (USDA, 2015), valuing $381 million (OEC, 2013). Coffee production is concentrated in the northern regions of the country, with almost 84% of total output originating in the Matagalpa, Jinotega, and Boaca departments (Café Imports). Production is further concentrated among large-scale producers; although 80% of the estimated 48,000 coffee farms in Nicaragua are fewer than 3.5 hectares, larger farms produce more than 85% of total output (Vakila, 2009). In part due to this imbalance, about half of coffee farmers live below the poverty line (Santoyo, 2016).
Because of the seasonal nature of coffee production, farming only generates income during the three to four months of harvest. Additionally, small-scale operations are more likely to rely on middlemen to sell their product, thus reducing profit margins for the farmers, and are less likely to have access to credit, inhibiting farmers’ ability to scale up production.
Recent decades have seen increasing numbers of Nicaraguans migrating to Costa Rica in order to work, somewhat surprisingly, on coffee farms. This is part of a wider trend of Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica, however.
Costa Rica, in fact, receives more Nicaraguan immigrants than any other country. One estimate (Andrade-Eekhoff & Silva-Avalos, 2003) suggests that twice as many Nicaraguans migrate to Costa Rica as to the United States, with 56% and 28% of Nicaraguan migrants traveling to each country, respectively.
Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica is not a new phenomenon; rather, it began in the early 20th century and continued through three notable waves. The first wave was economic in nature. During the first half of the 20th century, the majority of migrants took advantage of pull incentives in the form of jobs on banana and cotton plantations and in mines (Ramos, 2006). In the 1960s and 1970s, motives for migration took a political turn, as Nicaraguans fled the political instabilities and military conflicts of the Sandinista Revolution and subsequent Contra War, seeking refuge in Costa Rica (Sojo-Lara, 2015). By the mid-1970s, about 50,000 Nicaraguans were officially registered in Costa Rica, and many more entered illegally (Ramos, 2006).
The third wave of migration began in the 1990s and continues into the present. Like the first wave, it is also economically driven. Push factors originated in the 1990 change of government following the Contra War, which brought about major reductions in the military and public sectors, privatization of the financial sector, and cuts in government support to rural areas, all resulting in a large surplus labor force (Ramos, 2006). Pull factors are based in demand for labor that, although relatively cheap for Costa Rican employers, still enables Nicaraguan migrants to “easily double what they make at home” (Hernandez Navarro, 2004).
More and more Costa Rican women have gained employment outside of the household, increasing demand for domestic laborers, in addition to other sectors of the economy in which Costa Ricans are not working, such as seasonal agricultural activities, construction, and private security (Ramos, 2006). Nicaraguans from this most recent wave of migration tend to be young, with 64% between the ages of 20 and 40 (Ramos, 2006). They are generally from the southern regions of the country, in rural areas, and with fewer economic resources (Andrade-Eekhoff & Silva-Avalos, 2003), and are evenly split between men and women (D’Angelo & Marciacq, 2002).
Researchers estimate that between January and May, the harvest season, which draws a greater number of migrants than any other time of year, there are approximately 400,000-450,000 Nicaraguans living and working in Costa Rica (Ramos, 2006). According to the 2000 census, only 5.9% of the population was Nicaraguan (Wilk & Barbosa, 2012). (The authors do note that during the high times of coffee harvesting, this percentage increased to 7.8%.) Despite these relatively low numbers, iin Costa Rica, discrimination runs rampant. Local media, for instance, inflates the migrant population, claiming that there are 800,000 Nicaraguans living in the country, corresponding to almost 18% of the total population in 2011 of 4.5 million (Arias, 2013). According to University of Costa Rica social science professor Carlos Sandoval, Nicaraguans “get blamed for nearly all social ills. Insecurity, lack of health provisions and the like… you just blame it on the Nicaraguans” (Kahn, 2016).
Xenophobia, combined with the undocumented status of many Nicaraguan migrants, creates conditions that foster exploitation and a violation of labor rights. Migrant workers receive significantly lower wages than their Costa Rican counterparts, despite working longer hours (Sojo-Lara, 2015). Children of migrants fare poorly in terms of schooling, with 20% remaining outside of the educational system (D’Angelo & Marciacq, 2002). Furthermore, in many rural areas, migrants are unable to meet their basic needs.
Migrants are faced with poor living conditions; a study from the late 1990s coined the living spaces of Nicaraguan immigrants conejeras, or “rabbit hutches”, due to the small space and high occupant density.
Despite a series of relatively liberal government policies in the 1990s (including the 1998 Migration Amnesty, which allowed Central Americans already in the country to normalize their migration situation (D’Angelo & Marciacq, 2002), rising anti-Nicaraguan sentiment resulted in the passing of a highly repressive immigration law in 2006 on the basis of “national security” (Ramos, 2006). The law allowed for the “open-ended detention of undocumented migrants” (Ramos, 2006), increased penalties for those who aid illegal immigrants—slapping those who employed undocumented immigrants with a $3,600 fine (Dickerson & Kimich, 2006)--facilitated deportations, and restricted the process through which illegal immigrants could gain legal residency (Mahler & Ugrina, 2006).
However, the Costa Rican government, recognizing the important role played by Nicaraguans in the Costa Rican economy, has since shifted its focus from enforcement to integration. The 2010 General Law on Migration and Foreigners allows certain unauthorized immigrants to regularize their migration status via employment-based temporary residence permits (Sojo-Lara, 2015). The law improves the position of Nicaraguan immigrants primarily at face-level; in practice, it has had little impact, in part because the cost of the application for temporary residence is prohibitive.
Despite a history of harsh government response and unfair treatment of migrant workers, Costa Rica has come to depend on Nicaraguans to fill vital roles in the economy. The issue of immigration has added to “long-running tensions” between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a dispute over navigation rights of the San Juan River (Dickerson & Kimich, 2006). Although we are likely to see the trend of Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica slow as the threat posed by roya, or coffee rust, decreases (Quintanilla, 2015), the two countries remain deeply intertwined, socially, politically, and economically. What this means for the susyainability of the small coffee communities, and small landholder farmers where we are working, remains to be seen, and is once focus in our ongoing Coffee Lives research.
Andrade-Eekhoff K, Silva-Avalos CM. Globalization of the periphery: the challenges of transnational migration for local development in Central America. Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales 2003.
Arias JP. Costa Rica tiene 4,6 milliones de habitants, segun correccion del Censo 2011. El Financiero 2013. Online. Available at: http://www.elfinancierocr.com/economia-y-politica/Censo_2011-INEC-Centro_Centroamericano_de_Poblacion-correccion_0_266373372.html
Café Imports. Origins: Nicaragua. Available at: World Bank. Exports of goods and services. Online. 2015. Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.EXP.GNFS.ZS.
D’Angelo A, & Marciaco MP. Nicaragua: protecting female labour migrants from exploitative working conditions and trafficking. Gender Promotion Programme, International Labour Office (GENPROM) Working Paper No. 6 – Series on Women and Migration. 2002.
Dickerson M, Kimich R. Costa Rica seeks to shut its doors to illegal migrants from Nicaragua. LA Times 2006.
Hernandez Navarro L. Migration and coffee in Mexico and Central America. CounterPunch 2004. Online. Available at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/12/15/migration-and-coffee-in-mexico-and-central-america/
Kahn C. Costa Rica becomes a magnet for migrants. All Things Considered. National Public Radio 2016. Online. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/09/01/492066728/costa-rica-becomes-a-magnet-for-migrants
Mahler SJ, Ugrina D. Central America: crossroads of the Americas. Migration Policy Institute 2006. Online. Available at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-america-crossroads-americas
Observatory of Economic Complexity. Nicaragua. 2013. Online. Available at: http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/nic/
Quintanilla J. Witnessing Nicaragua bounce back from Roya. Sustainable Harvest. 2015. Online. Available at: http://www.sustainableharvest.com/witnessing-nicaragua-bounce-back-from-roya/
Ramos AC. Nicaragua’s indispensable migrants and Costa Rica’s unconscionable new law. Revista Envio 2006.
Santoyo A. How impact investing is saving Nicaragua’s coffee industry. Solutions 2016; 6(6): 78-80.
Sojo-Lara G. Business as usual? Regularizing foreign labor in Costa Rica. Migration Policy Institute 2015. Online. Available at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/business-usual-regularizing-foreign-labor-costa-rica
United States Department of Agriculture. Nicaragua: Coffee Annual. 2015. Online. Available at: https://www.fas.usda.gov/data/nicaragua-coffee-annual
Vakila J. Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua—Sustainable development or a poverty trap? Ecological Economics 2009. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.07.002
Wilk R, Barbosa L. Rice and beans: a unique dish in a hundred places. Berg. New York, NY. 2012
World Bank. Exports of goods and services. 2015. Online. Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.EXP.GNFS.ZS.