Seeds for Progress combating child labour with free education

Seeds for Progress

Global Coffee Report investigates how Seeds for Progress is providing free education during harvest to combat child labour in Nicaragua and Guatemala’s coffee industry.

In 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service reported that the Nicaraguan coffee industry was “in the middle of the worst crisis of the last decade”. Coffee prices were plummeting, farmers had little to no financial resources to support themselves, and years of poverty, political turmoil, coffee disease, and climate change had pushed the country’s coffee industry to its limits. This was all with COVID-19 and Hurricanes Iota and Eta waiting around the corner.

With children aged 14 or younger accounting for 46 per cent of Nicaragua’s total population, according to the 2020 United Nations Development Program, many youths continue to take part in coffee harvests to support their families amid spiralling conditions.

Addressing ongoing child labour is where foundations like Seeds for Progress are crucial in creating change. Established by green bean trader Mercon Coffee Group, the US registered foundation promotes quality education through companies, individuals, and local organisations across Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Seeds for Progress runs five different programs during the regular school period, designed for specific age groups between grade one to 11.

“Schools close from late November through to February, and during these months is the peak of coffee harvests in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and different coffee growing regions,” says Rosa Rivas, Executive Director of Seeds for Progress.

“These coffee families will either bring [their children] to the field while they work, helping them to pick coffee, or they will leave them with their sisters or brothers at home. When these kids are out of school, they are under a lot of risk.”

The Cultivating Education Program is held at schools on the coffee farm or in public schools that serve as community centres.

One of Seeds for Progress’ programs is the Cultivating Education Program (CEP), created to provide these children with a safe place to go. The program is a consolidated three-month curriculum based off the Seeds for Progress regular school programs.

“We developed it in 2006 in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank,” says Rivas. “Ninety per cent of families that attend these schools are either coffee producers or work in coffee farms.”

The CEP has two types of education centres: those held in established schools on the coffee farm itself, and others in public schools that serve as community centres.

“For CEP centres on coffee farms, we often have to build a separate building for the program and enlist a set group of educators. We have been training educators for the last three or four years and they come to these farms specifically for this program,” says Rivas.

The CEP community centres meanwhile cater to children from seasonal working families who come to assist during the harvest.

“Since most of the schools are located on the large coffee producing farms, seasonal workers that come to pick coffee for small coffee producers don’t have any other options but to bring their children to the fields,” Rivas says. “Now we are providing them with an accessible and secured alternative.”

As with any social movement, partnerships with local and international institutions are important in maintaining change, and Rivas says this is especially important for education.

“We work with private companies, coffee roasters, financial institutions, government institutions, and especially the Minister of Education and Health. We also work with local organisations, parents, and community leaders too,” says Rivas. “Education is something that is not only related to school, but is integrated throughout the entire community.”

With CEP starting at 5am and ending at 6pm, Rivas shares how Seeds for Progress has established partnerships with other non-government organisations to secure meals for the children. During the program, each child receives three meals a day.

Technology, such as computer and internet access, is also an important aspect of the education program, and one that took much development before it was introduced to the CEP in Nicaragua 2009.

In partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a doctorate student travelled to Nicaragua to study how the schools and communities operated. The student lived on a coffee farm for a year to determine the best way to integrate technology into the community.

“The idea was to introduce technology to enhance the educational process in Nicaragua,” she says. “This was a context where not even cell phones were used back then.”

Now, the pillars of technology, along with infrastructure and professional development of teachers, are considered key in the educational programs implemented by Seeds for Progress and are integrated across all of CEP’s curriculum.

Its more recent program, Seeds to Lead, focuses on developing entrepreneurial and agriculture skills in elementary and high school students.

“We developed this program in partnership with the Colombian Coffee Federation and right now are introducing the program to 11 schools across Nicaragua,” Rivas says. “Validating the programs takes time, and Seeds to Lead required developing a whole new curriculum.”

In 2021 alone, the CEP benefitted more than 200 girls and boys across its four centres. This includes its newest site, the Violeta Barrios School, which was opened in February 2021.

Named after the first female President of Nicaragua, and in Central America, the Violeta Barrios school has been supported by Seeds for Progress since 2017 and is located on the Atlantic coast of the country, where Robusta coffee is produced.

“We realised most of the CEPs until now were located in the northern parts of Nicaragua and only for the biggest farms,” says Rivas.

Rivas says the program received 50 children in its first year at Violeta Barrios, however, she predicts this number will double for the next coffee crop with parents often cautious about a new program.

“You have to convince them that they can leave their children there and they are going to be safe and will receive the necessary care. But after these families spread the word that their child receives free education, meals, and healthcare – it always has an effect,” says Rivas.

The Cultivating Education Program provides children with a safe place to go during the coffee harvest season.

The Violeta Barrios school also saw an expansion of school infrastructure with a kitchen, storage room, dining area, and sanitation system installed. Despite the multitude of benefits the program brings, however, Rivas says many barriers are still present.

“There are some areas where children don’t have any access to education and technology,” says Rivas. “We have been working hard with the schools to gain internet access and have been donated a lot of equipment, but this is still generally a barrier.”

COVID-19 and its long-term impacts are also presenting a challenge, both for the children and wider community.

“We haven’t been able to have regular attendance due to the pandemic and in the community, we are expecting a lot of migration. [We predict] a lot of young families will leave Nicaragua and Guatemala looking for different opportunities,” Rivas says. “This immigration is not only related to the COVID-19 but other themes such as the current economic situation.

“We aim to educate these children so they can fully appreciate the resources they have locally and to develop skills that will help them to improve their own communities, so they don’t have to leave.”

Changing the cultural practice of bringing children to harvest is another barrier Rivas says will be a long-term process. Seeds for Progress continues to be at the forefront of this movement and is preparing to open seven more education centres, and reach more than 500 children, during the November 2021 to March 2022 coffee harvest.

“Sometimes families don’t recognise how education can contribute to changing the coffee sector because they only see that they are picking and producing the coffee. But this is part of education, learning the value of coffee and how valuable their contribution can be when they develop skills that have the power to preserve the coffee industry,” says Rivas. “By making education available and providing quality education, we believe it will help us convince families to be more involved with the education program and to value it, not only for the children but for the community and country as a whole.” 

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This article was first published in the September/October edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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