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Nicaragua tobacco industry thrives thanks to US consumers

Cuba's cigars may be more famous, but Nicaragua has its own growing reputation as a tobacco producer, boasting a sector that is a big exporter and employer, thanks mainly to US demand. Esteli, a region in the north of the Central American country, has the dark soil and tropical climate propitious for growing the big leafy tobacco plants. And there's a lot of Cuban know-how on the farms. Many of the firms here are owned by families that emigrated from Cuba, says Juan Ignacio Martinez, the head of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco Growers. In Nicaragua, "the soil is of volcanic origin and well suited for any sort of crop," he says, "especially tobacco leaf, which grows big here, with a lot of flavor and a great aroma that smokers like." Some 27 big companies owned by US, European and Nicaraguan capital and 60 smaller local ones operate in the area, growing, curing, fermenting and producing cigars. - A magnet for workers - The activity has attracted workers from across the country, among them Isabel Ramos, whose family left the impoverished village of Murra to work in Esteli 17 years ago. Now, she, her parents and three brothers bring in $900 per month to support the family. "If it weren't for the tobacco, I would be working as a cook" for a paltry $50 a month, the 31-year-old mother of two teenagers said as she counted out dried shells used to make cigars for the US company Oliva Cigars. "Tons of people" fleeing poverty have come to find employment in Esteli, she said. Around 35,000 are estimated to work for the tobacco industry in northern Nicaragua, including many entire families. The deleterious health effects of smoking are not a consideration for people who otherwise would have not enough to eat. The influx has driven a boom in construction, shops and tourism, turning Esteli into one of Nicaragua's most important economic hubs. "Here we have a chance to work and get enough money to build a house," says Sergio Gadea, 25, who arrived a year ago with his 16-year-old wife. - Exports to US and elsewhere - Naksara Ochoa, 24, says eight members of her family work in the industry, making cigars in a factory while reggae music plays over employees too busy to raise their eyes. Yasmina Cruz, 47, says her family is there to "get enough money to make a home." She has been working here with her husband for the past 18 years. Nicaragua is one of Latin America's main tobacco producers, according to the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco Growers. Last year, it exported $200 million worth of tobacco products, a rise of 10 percent over the previous year. They went to 78 countries, the lion's share to the United States. The plantations sprawl mostly across the cooler valleys of the mountain range that surrounds Esteli, where a "Puro Sabor" festival is held in mid-January each year to celebrate the crop. This year, the event attracted 400 representatives of cigar factories and buyers. Nestor Plasencia, a plantation owner of Cuban origin, boasts about the region's product during the festival. "Nicaragua's cigars are very well received," he says, "with a spectacular aroma."

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