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The Life of the Migrants, The Finca Workers, Nicaragua; more of the story.


New member
This image created some discussion when I posted it on one of the theme threads. As per Asher's suggestion, I am posting this in its own one here to so that we can delve a bit further into it.

First though, a bit of background about the image.

Last November (2007), I spent a few weeks in rural Nicaragua documenting the coffee harvest at various fincas (farms and plantations). I was fortunate to have contacts through my wife who had been down there at the time for many months conducting her PhD research. This afforded me some great and unique opportunities.

I won't go into a long history lesson about Nicaragua (I'm sure a quick google search will get you all you need) but coffee is playing a major role in the rebuilding of this once troubled country. It is their number one export and agriculture as a whole is the mainstay of their economy.

Every year workers flock to the coffee fields for the annual harvest (in some places it is harvested twice per year). For many, these couple of months will make up the majority of their family's annual income. I'm sure for some it might even be their only source.

There are various jobs that need to be done but the actual picking of the beans from the plant is reserved almost entirely for women. Their size, dexterity and small hands make it easier to pick off the beans in the dense vegetation that the plants grow in. At the end of the day, they take what they've picked to the side of the road (in some of the larger fincas) or back to the main structure (in the smaller ones) where the volume of their individual haul is calculated. This is how they get paid.

This image is of one such worker waiting for her daily haul to be calculated.


Dave, I am nicaraguense, so, at least I, don't have to google about the place... I have a few images of coffee harvesters but I would have to scan them... this one is on my web site and wanted to contribute to your thread ...



ps Things are very difficult at the moment in Nicaragua and I'm monitoring the situation that is very fluid this week...


New member
Ask and ye shall receive......

This was taken in the actual coffee fields (at different finca than above). It was very difficult to work in these conditions due to the extensive amount of vegetation. You basically took a few steps and couldn't see where you just were. However, these workers knew every inch of that place:

From the same place as above:

Sometimes entire families would work on the farm. This young boy belonged to one of the workers washing the coffee in the background:

This image was taken shortly after the portrait in the original post. These workers were on their way back up the hill to head for home:

I should add that the fincas that we went to were all certified fair-trade and most if not all were also organic/shade grown. These workers do have a much better quality of life than other non-certified farms. I also spent quite a bit of time talking to both the workers and the owners before ever snapping the shutter.


P.S. Sorry for the honking logo on some the images. Its just an automatic thing when it links back from my gallery. Hope it doesn't distract too much from the image itself.


New member
Dave, I am nicaraguense, so, at least I, don't have to google about the place... I have a few images of coffee harvesters but I would have to scan them... this one is on my web site and wanted to contribute to your thread ...


ps Thins are very difficult at the moment in Nicaragua and I'm monitoring the situation that is very fluid this week...

Thank you leanardo for sharing! In case you were wondering, the images that I posted were a mixture from San Juan Del Rio Coco (where I spent most of my time) and somewhere north of Matagalpa.

The trip and the people of Nicaragua had a profound impact on me and my wife especially (who was there for a total of 8 months). We are already planning our next trip back there and still keep in touch with all the friends we made.


Mike Shimwell

New member

these are remarkable pictures. I couldn't agree more with Jim's original comment about the first being reminiccent of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother. Your lady retains her dignity in the face of waiting, we presume, in a position of some weakness. The figure in the background adds to the sense of her isolation and vulnerability.

Thank you for sharing the others too. In the context of the first photo the colour seems almost out of place, but that may be just me? I particularly like the women on their way home. The backward glance, as if to ask what you are doing, and the softened texture of the path combine in a wonderful way.



New member

.... In the context of the first photo the colour seems almost out of place, but that may be just me? I particularly like the women on their way home. The backward glance, as if to ask what you are doing, and the softened texture of the path combine in a wonderful way.


Thank you Mike and everyone for your kind words. I really am touched by your words.

I agree about the coloured ones. To be honest these were originally meant just to show friends and family. As such, they are just quick edits. I've since realized that i should probably do more with them (possibly through a show?) but wouldn't know where to start. However, my intention was to turn them all in to B&W. Just sort of forgot about it for a while but this has given me some new energy.


Asher Kelman

OPF Owner/Editor-in-Chief
This thread is devoted to expanding our knowledge of the migrant workers who depend on the Coffee plantations. Who are they? Let's know more.

For deeper C&C of selected photographs, go here.


New member
Before we go further into exploring the actual workers I thought it might help to give a bit of background on coffee. Specifically, I'll start with how it is grown Nicaragua. I do not however profess to be an expert on the matter by any means. There are many people who have devoted their entire life's work to studying coffee and are much more knowledgeable on the subject than I. This is simply meant to give a layman's version of things and I apologize ahead of time for any inaccuracies. I also encourage anyone with additional knowledge to please contribute to the information in this thread. Now, back to the show......

I mentioned earlier about the economic impact coffee has on Nicaragua but what most of us don't realize that when we sip our designer coffees is that we are the last link in an economic chain that is second only to oil in value to the worlds economy! Although coffee was first cultivated in Africa (Ethiopia?), many developing nations around the world now grow coffee in an effort to get their own piece of the economic pie.

Like the grapes grown for wine, the coffee bean can be influenced by many environmental (and as I'll talk about later...political) factors. This is why coffee from each region of the world has its own unique and distinct characteristics.

Traditionally, the coffee plant was grown under the canopy of the forest ('shade' coffee). Not only was this beneficial to the plant (the forest provide a rich variety of nutrients) but it also allowed wildlife to continue living in harmony an agricultural product (hence 'bird friendly' coffee). However this restricted the yields (too many other plants, not enough coffee) and after years of experimentation, humans eventually created a strand of the plant that was able to grow on its own in a monoculture environment. This is referred to as 'sun' coffee. Since the forest was now limiting factor and was no longer needed, farmers began cutting them down to make room for more coffee plants. While it created a larger yield, sun coffee required much more human intervention and pesticide use as it no longer had the natural mechanism of defense that the forest provided. The increased yields and profit margins though mitigated any additional expenses for fertilizers and such. Soon, many growers around the world were changing their crops over to sun coffee. It was simple economics.

As environmental awareness became more prevalent during the past few decades, we began to see a demand for more ethically and environmentally sensitive products. Traditional methods of growing coffee began making a comeback. Certification organizations popped up to help identify shade grown, organic, bird friendly and fair trade products and were used as marketing tools buy these growers and distributers. It even allowed them to charge a slight premium for their beans. While the ethical reasons (and financial gain) were a big incentive to switch back to shade grown coffee, Nicaraguan farmers were far more influenced by war and happenstance.

During the political instability of the 80s and 90s in Nicaragua, many farmers were forced to abandon or hand over their farms. With no one tending to the fields, the surrounding forest began taking back some if its land. As politic tensions eased and farmers returned back to the fields, they quickly discovered that the forest had redrawn its own boundary. As opposed to cutting the forest back, many just left things as is and started planting shade beans. It also meant that they didn't have to shell out extra money (of which they didn't have) for all the extra pesticides required for sun coffee. Plus they could use the forest as an additional food supply taking advantage of other fruits (i.e. bananas) as well as have easy access to fire wood to heat their homes and stoves.

All of that is an over simplification of things but should give you a basic understanding of things before I go further into the process and the workers.


Below are a few images of what some of the farms and shade coffee look like. These images are purely shown to help illustrate the information above and are not meant to be works of art so please don't judge them on their artistic or technical merit.

A panorama looking out over a 'shade' coffee farm:

A view of the coffee plant from underneath the canopy of the forest. Some farms have more/less 'shade' than this one. The plants in this particular place were over my head (6'2"):

One of the larger farms. The structure in the back is where they begin the process of removing the outside layer of the bean and washing it. This is the first step in the processing of the bean:

Even someone with next to no land will grew a handful of plants for extra income. Every little bit helps...
Sorry, I get it now, here is where I'm supposed to post.... sorry again...

two things: Sorry it took me some time to scann, -I have other images to put, but I will be away for this Thanksgiving week, so it will take a bit longer-
and don't know if this is the place where I'm supposed to post this, but Asher will probably say if it is or it isn't--

This image was taken in the 80's and they are cotton harvesters going home after work. I have liked this image because the truck serves as a stage for the workers framing them, the sky is totally washed out and works as a seamless backdrop, and then there is that guy with looking the other way. For some reason they seam as interested in me as I was in them, but I always try to be as fast as I can to avoid that: "are you taking the photo?" look...


New member
Thanks Leonardo for sharing that with us. I can say that 20 years later, I witnessed many similar work trucks scoot by us on the dirt roads. Time has not changed much. I do not know anything about the cotton trade/workers, but I imagine that many of them will also work in the coffee and cacao fields too.

This sort of leads nicely into the next segment where I want to touch briefly about where these workers live during the harvest. Due to the remoteness of the farms, workers are either trucked in (as shown above in Leonardo's wonderful image) from nearby villages or are fortunate enough to have temporary shelter directly on the farm.

The quality of accommodations varies greatly. Usually though, they are just simple abodes with a series of wooden bunkbeds. No privacy, no bedding, just shelter from the elements:


Typical temporary housing for the coffee harvesters/workers.

It is not all so glim and bare though. One farm in particular that I visited could be held out as the poster child for all ethically and socially conscious farms. While the harvest is only seasonal, there is still much to do on the farms year round. This particular farm did an excellent job of supporting its year-round workers. They all were given proper shelter and homes with wood stoves and gardens to grow their own food. Along with the 3000+ seasonal workers (this was quite a large operation), they also could take advantage of the free meals offered three times per day. The children of the permanent employees were also provided with free education and additional trade training (ie carpentry) once their regular education finished.

This farm though is no the norm. Instead they have been quite creative with their use of recycling and other businesses (they also own a tourist lodge) to help generate additional funds to keep things going. Although they were nationalized Nicaraguans and had lived in the country for a few generations, the owners were still white (of German decent). It would be extremely difficult for traditional Nicaraguans to even come close to the resources, land and opportunities required to have such an extensive operation.


Some of the homes for the permanent workers. I love how the house of the owners still hovers over them on top of the hill like big brother. ;)


One of the children of the workers peaking out from her doorway wondering what this crazy gringo was doing there.


fahim mohammed

Well-known member
Indeed a very important document.

I was immediately reminded of Salgado's work
On migrant workers.

I wonder if things have changed the worker's
Conditions since David's post.

Maybe Robert could provide a current insight.