The ants had been right: shortly after nightfall the heavens opened and the rain drummed down on the tin roof making conversation difficult. Later it softened considerably and was more like rain falling on canvas, a comforting lullaby. We had crossed the ants’ path around noon that day as we walked from tropical oak savannah higher into a zone of remnant cloud forest. Our guide Nelson had held us back with a hushed cry of “Hormigas de Guerrero” – warrior ants. Their column was about 40cm wide and stretched back into the forest to the front and rear. They looked like they meant business, pincers raised, a frenetic intensity to their massed advance as they moved quickly along the cleared path the front ranks had made through the forest debris.
“Ants feeding because rain coming” said Nelson going on to explain that these aggressive predatory foraging groups or ‘raids’ occurred quite regularly with the hunt aimed mainly at other insects, worms and larvae which are then taken back to the colony. The local people apparently have no trouble with the arrival of a raiding party on their doorstep as in a few short minutes they will have cleared the place of scorpions, wasps, spiders and other domestic nuisances. I later learnt that most army ants are nomadic and move almost incessantly during the time the colony exists, consuming up to 500,000 prey animals a day. When they do rest they form living bivouacs by holding onto each other’s legs to form a sort of ball that looks chaotic but is in fact a well-organised structure: these are often found in tree trunks or in burrows which they dig out. A colony can number over 10-million and have been reported in columns 20-metres wide and over 100-metres long.
Stepping carefully over the relentless column we continued on up. The Miraflor Reserve we were walking through is in the Northern Highland of Nicaragua and ranges from 800-1400 metres. Part nature reserve and part rural farming community it is difficult to get to with no large infrastructure in place and the communities scattered across the reserve in small pockets. But what does unite them is their commitment to the local environment and to hosting tourists who want to immerse themselves in a truly unique way of life.
On our first night we sat outside while our host Orlando sang a mix of old revolutionary songs and a few compositions of his own about life in Miraflor. The National Liberation day is celebrated here on July 16th three days earlier than the rest of the country and they are proud of the fact that when the Contras snuck over the Honduran border in 1979 planning to sack the local town and then march to the capital the local farmers rose up against them and helped turn the Contra war toward the Sandanistas. Augusta Cesar Sandino and his ‘Crazy Little Army’ have a firm link to this area as not only was it a Sandinista stronghold but Sandino was born here, married here and did much for the local people.
Our second night found us with energetic Marlon and his beautiful wife. We ‘shucked’ red beans by the bowl-full while tortillas were slapped into shape by his daughters. His father came round to meet us and we were regaled with more war stories. Everyone is glad to be enjoying a time of relative peace and security. There is a feeling that Nicaragua is heading for better days and that tourism will be a force for good in the local economy if managed responsibly. Marlon had visited England as an ambassador for Nicaragua and also to emphasis the vital role that Fair Trade can play in small developing communities. It was a happy, laughter-filled evening with good simple food, animated conversations in Spanish and English and a sharing of ideas and passions.
The intermediate zone had a glorious wildness to it, umbrella trees stood in isolation casting pools of shade on the lush grass. Oak trees were festooned with ‘Barbar de viejo’ – old man’s beard – that hung in long writhing garlands. Bromeliads and Epiphytes were everywhere as were orchids, though not in flower. Nelson also proved to be the very epitome of a ‘ bird whisperer’ and with a vast range of whistles, tweets and calls he gathered birds of all colours and size to the trees around us. Even the national bird of Nicaragua, the beautiful Guardabarranco (Motmot), was not immune to Nelson’s charms and was shortly after joined by a tiny Hummingbird who had migrated down from the US for the winter.
Another constant companion on our walks were leaf-cutter ants. Their narrow trails snaked across the ground everywhere and were always arresting because of the constant procession of ants holding aloft freshly cut pieces of foliage, often several times larger than the ants themselves. Next to humans leaf-cutter ants form the largest and most complex animal societies on earth. Their underground nests can be as much as 30-metres across and contain 8-million ants. The cut leaves are used to grow a fungus which they feed to their larvae, the ants themselves eat leaf sap. Thus they are actively cultivating a fungus as a food source for their young, a mutually beneficial process in which neither can survive without the other. This fungus based agriculture is an extremely complex societal and organisational feat.
On our last morning I sat on the verandah as the sun rose slowly and shone into the pretty garden. Sipping coffee that had grown in the shade mere feet from where I sat and that had been roasted the night before in the kitchen I thought of ants and men, soldiers and farmers both. The ants go about their business much as they have always done. For the local people the reality of immediate combat has faded and no bullets fly but they still are fighting. Fighting for a decent price for the coffee beans that they work so hard to produce and that grace the cups of affluent people the world over.
Coffee makes up over half of Nicaragua’s agricultural export and is a key player in the country’s jittery economic engine. That and the fact that coffee is more ferociously traded than any other global commodity, except for oil, make for massive uncertainty. The price of the raw beans is paramount to these producers but they are often hard-shouldered by overseas buyers who take their best organic beans at the ‘green’ stage and then add huge value by roasting, packaging and branding. Fair is often a very ambivalent word when bandied about between giant multinational corporations and small rural collectives: these coffee growers really are the ants in the equation who dodge and duck beneath the huge boots of deregulated capitalism’s relentless quest for greater shareholder dividend. The coffee tasted a little bitter now.