Fair Trade Coffee in Costa Rica

—by Jerry McClelland

A few years ago as my husband and I left snowy Minnesota for some Costa Rican sun, I was hoping to see coffee growing for the first time. Maybe I would even see fair trade at its source, so to speak.

A conventional coffee plantation

Once we arrived in Monteverde in central Costa Rica, I searched through flyers at our small hotel advertising coffee tours. The only tour I found was to the Don Juan Coffee Plantation (I’m not kidding; that was the name). We rode in a van to this plantation. Rows of beautiful, green coffee bushes undulated over the rolling hills, and the visitors' center was hospitable to North American tourists.

We had a young, engaging guide who showed us how the coffee was picked and processed. He gave us a freshly brewed cup of coffee, and invited us to buy coffee to take home. I asked one question during the tour: “Is this plantation designated as fair trade for the workers?” He said, “No. But the fair trade has some corruption in it, so we stay away from that.”

That evening I was pleased to have seen coffee up close, but I was disappointed I had not seen even a trace of fair trade. Browsing through my Lonely Planet guide book for the umpteenth time, I found it: Cooperative Santa Elena, with tours to a coffee farm and mill departing from the village near our hotel. My husband and I would try again the next day.

Touring Cooperative Santa Elena

We joined other tourists at Café Monteverde, the co-op’s store in the village, and along with a guide, we climbed into an old van and headed out to the San Luis Valley to visit the farm of one of the co-op members. The roads were so steep, the tourists so heavy, and the van so old, we had to stop half-way up one of the steep hills, where some of us got out and walked the rest of the way up.

When we arrived at the farm, we were met by Victor, a robust, handsome farmer, who was graying at the temples. He was dressed in a ball cap, t-shirt, shorts, and running shoes.

Victor first showed us the seedbed for new coffee plants. It consisted of two raised boxes, each about the size of an orange crate, and they were filled with sandy soil and covered with a square of burlap. When he lifted the burlap, we saw sprouts pushing up from coffee beans just under the surface of the fine soil.

Moving on a few steps, we saw small containers where the coffee plants were transferred and nursed along until they could be planted in the ground.

A different kind of farming

This is where farming went into a rabbit hole and became unfamiliar to me, because in the midwest our land was clear-cut over a century ago and made into fields bordered by wire fences.

As Victor was explaining that it took about four years for a coffee plant to start bearing beans, I looked around and began to grasp what the farm was. It was rocky land, slanting up a hill, and it had no fields. It took me a few minutes to identify the coffee plants amidst the trees and other shrubs. Each coffee bush was planted in the shade of an orange, grapefruit, lemon, papaya, banana, or non-fruit bearing tree, each of them being intermingled with pineapple and medicinal plants. And here is the best part—Victor had planted orchids in the trees to help attract bees to aid in pollination of the coffee plant blossoms.

Roasting, grading, and bagging

Our tour moved on to the co-op mill. Victor also worked at the mill, where he roasted beans in a shed that was open on one side. Another co-op member graded the beans when they arrived at the mill. The co-op sells only premium coffee, which means, in part, that there can be—and I mean literally—no more than five green beans per 100.

The quality control guy counts a random sample of beans. If six are green, the farmer gets the beans back. He or she can sell the beans elsewhere or go through them and throw out the green beans and return the rest to the mill.

Still other members unloaded, soaked, dried, and bagged roasted beans. A small portion of coffee beans is sold at stores catering to tourists in the village, and the rest are put in burlap bags and shipped to Texas and Montana, where they are distributed in the United States.

Cooperatives mean a better life

Talk turned to the co-op’s history and how it had been formed in 1989 amidst Costa Rica’s strong co-op culture. Victor has dark, intense eyes, and he turned them on me when I asked how the co-op had made life better for his family. He answered, “We get scholarships for our children to go to school. Farmers get loans to grow more coffee.” He paused then said, “Most of all we can negotiate for the price of our coffee. Before, the big growers paid us whatever they wanted.”

Pushing, I said, “May I ask you about corruption? I went to Don Juan’s plantation yesterday, and the tour guide said there was corruption in the fair trade coffee.” Victor flashed laser eye beams at me and said, “There is no corruption. We run our own co-op.”

I felt burning remorse at being a guest asking an inappropriate question in another culture. Still I was happy, having heard his denial, although I could not affirm the veracity of either the allegation of or denial of corruption.

There were two revelations for me that day. First, I saw how farming with nature—not against it—works. The soil was rocky and had been disturbed as little as possible; no clear-cutting here. And I saw that shade-grown, organic coffee can fit into a micro-ecological system with modest, earth-friendly inputs. Second, co-ops can have a significant, concrete impact on the quality of life for farmers and their families.

Coffee at our co-op

So what about the coffee sold at Hampden Park Co-op? First, we should acknowledge once again that categories of fair trade, organic, rainforest alliance, and co-op are conveniences for sorting out the complexity of the world, and at the same time the world we live in doesn’t fit neatly into them. For example, coffee buyers can buy directly from farmers, pay them fairly, and not be certified fair trade.

Second, although these categories are not perfect, they are levers that have improved the quality of the coffee we drink and pockets of the environment, and they have nudged us a little closer to justice in our food system. It is also true that some people co-opt these labels for their own, nefarious gain.

Our co-op buys coffee from Peace Coffee and Café Fair and will soon be stocking coffee from Flamenco.

Peace Coffee

Peace Coffee is located in Minneapolis. Here is its mission statement: "Peace Coffee’s mission is to make exceptional-tasting, organic fair-trade coffee that sustains the livelihoods of the people who grow, roast, and sell it; preserves and protects the environment that produces it; and delights the taste buds of those who drink it."

Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmjgKq5dDdo for a video about Peace Coffee.

Café Fair

Café Fair is located in Madison, Wisconsin. Here is the description from its website: "Always organic and socially responsible, Café Fair strives to make a difference in the world by emphasizing business practices that are socially conscious and environmentally sound. Café Fair is certified by either Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade International (FLO), as well as certified organic."

For more information, go to: http://www.steepandbrewcoffee.com/cafe-fair-coffee-selection.html.

Flamenco Coffee

Flamenco Coffee is located in Minneapolis. On its website it states: "Roasters Jesse Grote and Alan Erbach are dedicated to forming relationships with the farmers they purchase their beans from. Many of the coffees they source are also Fair Trade certified, Rainforest Alliance participants, and involved with Cafe Femenino, a program committed to the social justice of women involved with coffee production. Conscientious sourcing and positive environmental impact has been a focal point for Flamenco Organic since conception."

For more information, go to http://www.flamencoorganic.com.

The food justice chain

I cannot be sure about the veracity of all the claims made by and about the growers and the coffee that ends up in the bins along the wall at HPC. Nonetheless, our co-op, along with many other retail outlets, is a critical link in the food justice chain. HPC gets the best coffee to where java lovers can do what needs to be done—consume the coffee.

[Jerry McClelland enjoys learning about fair trade, the natural history of food, and nutrition.]