Some people around the world rely on a cup of coffee to make it through their day. In Costa Rica, some people rely on that cup of coffee to make it from day to day.
Costa Rican 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 process from bean plant to manufacturing plant, and understand the perfect roasting technique. But how much do you really know about where (or should we say, who) coffee comes from? About what is given in return for the ideal product that so many of us consume on a daily basis? About what all goes into making the perfect cup of coffee (beyond the cream and sugar)?
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, as his shared accounts inform me that his experiences brought him joy throughout his years as a bean-picker, despite the multitude of challenges and difficulties he faced on a daily basis to complete his work. He reminds me that coffee production is manually intensive and that the success of the industry is a direct result of the hard work of the individuals working at the plantations, despite being overshadowed by the talents of baristas in-store and/or marketing campaigns run by ‘higher-ups’ in corporate offices.
He explains that the workday started early (usually between 4:00am and 4:30am in order to prepare breakfast and lunch for the day). The local buses did not run so early in the morning, so he had to walk to work if he wasn’t lucky enough to catch a ride in the back of a cow truck. Once at the plantation, sticks in the ground marked each bean-picker’s territory. The coffee plantations were divided into long columns that ran from the roadside to the top of the plantation hill. Each section’s incline from the road up was a steep one, given that coffee plants are best grown on a slope. 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 the packed lunch which was tied up high to prevent animals from enjoying the food before Ricky would later break for a meal.
With his lunch in place (and 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 (such irresponsible work was cause for termination), Ricky would balance himself (as well as the large woven coffee basket tied around his waist) as he made his way throughout the plantation, slowly collecting his income. Basket by basket, the collected beans would be poured into the coffee bags and stored by the Poro tree. After hours of the same routine (and a break mid-day for lunch), the end of the day came when the coffee truck arrived. Bean-pickers lined up for their turn to dump their coffee bags into cajuelas, which measured the total amount of beans collected. As Ricky recalls, the payment per cajuela was 50 colones (approximately 10 cents). On a good day, when anywhere between 12-16 cajuelas were filled, bean-pickers would go home with $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 a day of hard work is currently valued between $24.00-$32.00.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of it all is the lack of work security that the employment offers. Jobs at the coffee plantations are seasonal, and since the coffee season typically lasts between 3-4 months of the year (depending on the plantation’s exact location and the weather the area receives), bean-pickers are 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 (determined by the number of cajuelas they can fill according to the number of beans that are ready to be picked) is entirely dependent on the weather.
Payment (or lack thereof) aside, 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 standing on an 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 branch or hitting a knee on a rock when kneeling down, and going home with sore, cut fingers completely raw from picking beans all day. Mosquitoes, wasps, and snakes make regular appearances and there is no where to turn for medical assistance if it is needed. Ricky also notes that there were no bathrooms available, so workers were forced to visit a forest or secluded area nearby to relieve themselves.
I snapped the above photo of Ricky a few years ago when were driving through the Turrialba area. We visited the exact same location that the first photo posted above was taken at so many years ago. Now that Ricky is a successful white water rafting guide, safety kayaker, and business owner, it is humbling to remember the experiences that taught him to be responsible, appreciate the value of a dollar, and work hard from such a young age. One thing that will never change is his ability to see the silver lining in everything. Our visit to the coffee plantation brought back so many memories for Ricky – surely, both good and bad – yet, he had nothing but positive things to say. He explained that everyone who worked on the plantation was happy – happy with life in general and happy to be working where they were. He suggested that some people were quiet workers, however their silence did not signify sadness, rather it simply meant that they were working as hard and as focused as they possibly could. 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 (rancheras – yip! yip!). At lunch, the workers would gather together to eat, 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.
*Discounts for coffee tours are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca/
*American readers, if you are interested in learning more about fair trade companies in the US, please access the Fair Trade Directory.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you tried Costa Rican coffee? Did you enjoy it?