Explaining the ‘hungry farmer paradox’: Smallholders and fair trade cooperatives navigate seasonality and change in Nicaragua's corn and coffee markets.

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Elsevier B.V.


Latin American smallholder coffee farmers linked with fair trade and organic markets are frequently cited as models for sustainable food systems. Yet many experience seasonal hunger, which is a very common, but understudied, form of food insecurity. Northern Nicaragua's highlands include well-organized cooperatives, high rural poverty rates, and rain dependent farms, offering a compelling study area to understand what factors are associated with seasonal hunger. This participatory mixed methods study combines data from observations, interviews and focus groups with results from a survey of 244 cooperative members. It finds that seasonal hunger is influenced by multiple factors, including: (1) annual cycles of precipitation and rising maize prices during the lean months; (2) inter annual droughts and periodic storms; and (3) the long-term inability of coffee harvests and prices to provide sufficient income. Sampled households experienced an average of about 3 months of seasonal hunger in 2009. A series of five least squares regression models find the expected significant impacts of corn harvest quantity, farm area, improved grain storage, and household incomes, all inversely correlated with lean months. Unanticipated results include the finding that households with more fruit trees reported fewer lean months, while the predominant environmentally friendly farming practices had no discernable impacts. The presence of hunger among producers challenges sustainable coffee marketing claims. We describe one example of a partnership-based response that integrates agroecological farm management with the use of fair trade cooperative institutions to re-localize the corn distribution system. Increased investments and integrated strategies will be needed to reduce threats to food security, livelihoods, and biodiversity associated with the rapid spread of coffee leaf rust and falling commodity prices.