Where Your Costa Rica Coffee Comes From And What It Took For You To Get It
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ARE YOU A COFFEE DRINKER? BETTER YET, ARE YOU AN INFORMED ONE?
Costa Rica coffee is incredible. Arguably one of the best coffees in the world, it is no surprise that some of the biggest brewers including Starbucks and Tim Hortons opt for Tico beans. If you are a coffee drinker, you likely savour the flavour, know the exact blend that is right for you, and have your drink preparation guidelines nailed down. If perk peaks your interest, you may also know how coffee is produced, be able to describe the product’s process from bean plant to manufacturing plant, and understand the perfect coffee bean roasting technique. But how much do you really know about where (or should we say, who) your coffee comes from, about what is given in return for the ideal product that so many of us consume on a daily basis, and about what all goes into making the perfect cup of coffee beyond cream and sugar?
LIFE AS A BEAN-PICKER ON A COSTA RICAN COFFEE PLANTATION
A large part of Ricky’s childhood was spent working at coffee plantations in the Turrialba area of Costa Rica. His memories of the job bring both smiles and sadness to my face; while many of his shared anecdotes describe instances of joy experienced throughout his years as a bean-picker, others document the multitude of challenges and difficulties he was confronted with on a daily basis in order to complete his work. All remind me that coffee production in Costa Rica is manually intensive, and that the success of the industry is a direct result of the hard work provided by the individuals who mastered the plantations, despite being overshadowed by the decorative talents of baristas at work in dimly lit cafes and snappy coffee campaigns published by marketing representatives seated comfortably in corporate offices.
A day on a Costa Rica coffee plantation
As Ricky explains, the workday started early, usually between 4:00am and 4:30am in order to have enough time to prepare breakfast and lunch for the day. Since he needed to leave home earlier than the local bus’s first scheduled stop, he would walk to work, unless he was lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of a cow truck. Once at the coffee plantation, sticks in the ground marked each bean-picker’s territory. Divided into long columns that ran from the side of the road to the top of the plantation’s hill, each section’s incline was a steep one.
Beginning his hike, Ricky would make his way up the column looking for the perfect spot to stash his lunch and the coffee bags that were provided to him by the plantation manager. Poro trees were ideal–their leaves provided protective shade from the sun and their branches were strong enough to support the weight of his packed lunch, which was tied up high to prevent animals from enjoying the food before Ricky was able to break for a meal later in the day.
With his lunch in place and his empty coffee bags hidden nearby, Ricky would spend the day climbing up and down the side of the plantation in search of red and yellow coffee beans. Careful not to pick the green ones, as such irresponsible work was cause for termination, Ricky would balance himself and the large woven coffee basket tied to his waist as he made his way through the plantation, slowly collecting his income. Basket by basket, he would pour the gathered beans into the coffee bags and store them by the Poro tree. After hours of the same routine (despite midday relief for lunch), the end of work was signaled by the arrival of the coffee truck. Bean-pickers lined up for their turn to dump their coffee bags into cajuelas, which allowed higher-ups in the industry to measure the total quantity of beans collected. As Ricky recalls, the payment earned was 50 colones per cajulea, the equivalent of approximately 10 cents. On a good day, when between twelve and sixteen cajuelas were filled, bean-pickers would go home with roughly $1.20-$1.60 in their pockets. Nowadays, the going rate for a cajuela is closer to $2.00, however despite the 20x increase over the last 20 years or so, it is still difficult to believe that at Costa Rica coffee plantations, a day of hard labour is currently valued between $24.00-$32.00.
THE UNSETTLING REALITY OF COSTA RICA COFFEE PLANTATIONS
Perhaps the most unsettling part of how Costa Rica coffee plantation labour is valued in today’s society is the lack of work security offered by employment in the field. Jobs at coffee plantations are seasonal, and since the Costa Rica coffee season typically lasts between three and four months of the year (depending on the plantation’s exact location and the weather the area receives), bean-pickers are typically only guaranteed work for a few months at a time. For this reason, not only are bean-pickers limited to work at certain times of the year, but their degree of success and take-home pay (determined by the number of cajuelas they can fill according to the number of beans that are ready to be picked) is entirely weather-dependent and out of their control.
Payment for the work (or lack thereof) aside, Costa Rica coffee plantation workers face countless other challenges. Simply bracing the weather and its extremes–from torrential rain downpours to scorching dry heat and burning rays of sun–is an incredible feat. Work conditions are uncomfortable and strenuous on the body, including the requirement to stand on and climb over a steep incline/decline throughout the day, carrying large and heavy baskets/bags, reaching up high and bending down low to access plants, occasionally getting poked in the face by a lingering branch or hitting a knee on a rock when kneeling down, and going home with sore and cut fingers that are completely raw from picking beans all day. Mosquitoes, wasps, and snakes make regular appearances, and there is nowhere near to go to for medical assistance if and when it is needed. And, perhaps the the most inhumane form of neglect of the bunch, Ricky confirms that on the Costa Rica coffee plantation he used to work at, no bathrooms were available; workers were forced to enter the surrounding forest or a secluded area nearby to relieve themselves.
Of the two photos pictured above, I snapped the photo on the right of Ricky a number of years ago during many of our drives around the Turrialba area. We visited the exact same location that the first photo on the left–which features Ricky as a young boy–was taken at. After years of being a successful white water rafting guide and safety kayaker, and now with nearly a decade under his belt as a business owner, it is humbling to remember the experiences that first taught Ricky to be responsible, appreciate the value of a dollar, and work hard. One thing that will never change is his ability to see the silver lining in everything. Our visit to the Costa Rica coffee plantation brought back many memories–surely, both good memories and troubling ones–yet, he had nothing but positive things to say about his experience. He explained that everyone who worked on the plantation was happy–happy with life in general and happy to be working where they did. He suggested that some people were quiet workers, but their silence didn’t signify sadness, it meant that they were working as hard and as focused as they possibly could to provide for themselves and their loved ones. Other people (Ricky included) would compete with friends working on the same plantation to see who could fill the most baskets, bags, etc. Older adults would share stories about their families and some would even help the time pass by singing karaoke songs like rancheras (yip! yip!). At lunch, the workers would gather together, flip over their baskets to use as seats, and share their yuca, sausage, or plantain with one another. After all, the bean-pickers were more than simply co-workers, they were a family.
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QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you tried Costa Rica coffee? Did you enjoy it?