04 October 2010
True or not, it would be hard to over-state the importance of beans to life in Nueva Segovia. Their cultivation accounts for a large fraction of the income of many families, whether they own the land on which the beans grow or sell their labor during the two harvest seasons. Red beans are by far the most common, though black beans and a few other varieties can also be found in some of the larger markets. In addition to their economic role, beans are also a dietary staple, appearing in many forms: first simmered for hours over firewood with a bit of onion and salt, then served with tortillas and cuajada, ground up (molido), re-fried, put in soup, or fried together with rice to make the classic Nica gallo pinto. Not only are they a dietary staple, but a nutritional one as well. Red beans and rice combine to provide a complete protein.
They are also delicious. I eat them everyday and, after five months, have yet to get tired of them in the least. In fact, I probably like them more now than when I got here. It is likely that, for years to come, you'll find a slowly simmering cast-iron pot of frijolitos in my kitchen, regardless of the country in which my kitchen happens to be located.
Great reliance on an agricultural product comes with an inherent risk. In a good year, beans provide both affordable nutrition and a source of income with which to purchase other food and necessary items. In a bad year, however, you lose both. This year, persistent rains and the resulting flooding have put the current harvest (cosecha) in jeopardy. Many fields have simply washed away. Others have become infected with molds. Harvested crops have been lost and replanting for the next cosecha has been difficult. As the first level in the supply chain, we are unlikely to starve here in Jicaro. We just sell fewer beans into the market, but that means we'll have less money in the months between harvests. The best guard against this kind of agricultural shock is diversification, and, indeed, many larger farms grow a variety of crops (corn, beans, coffee, banana varieties, cacao). The farms with the ability to do this, however, are the ones that are less vulnerable to shocks to begin with. It is the small farmer, working his own small plot, feeding his family with half of what he produces and selling the rest, who stands to suffer the most.