A class picture at Poas Volcano in Costa Rica, 1997.
Before the introduction of coffee, Costa Rica was nothing like the way it is today. The concentration of people in towns only occurred with the enrichment of coffee as the mainstay of the economy. Railroads were built coast to coast in order to transport coffee beans to various ports for exporting. This, in turn, opened up many of the unexplored regions of Costa Rica. For more than forty years coffee was Costa Rica’s only export (Evans 16). Coffee became what some termed “brown gold” for Costa Rica. By the 1900s “Costa Rica had evolved from an unorganized, financially constrained country to one with a coherent national state, modest wealth, and solid infrastructure” (Hall 398).
Historically, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary sources of all foreign exchange earnings. However, with the passage of time, Costa Ricans learned that they were at the mercy of the foreign market and could not rely solely on one product. Between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, coffee production increased from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons. Although production increased, the price of coffee did not. In that same time period prices fell from 316 million dollars to 266 million dollars. No longer being able to rely solely on coffee, bananas and tourism became as equally as important to the country’s economy (Coffee and Environment 1). Although coffee may no longer be the country’s chief source of income, it is still critical to the economy. Between 1972 and 1996, coffee generated 10-39% of Costa Rica’s total export revenue (Hall 398). While coffee is very important to Costa Rica’s economy, it is also destroying the country’s environment.
One of the primary environmental concerns associated with the production of coffee is river and stream pollution. It is important to note that fifty-seven percent of the coffee bean is made up of contaminants. The rivers and streams pollution occurs at the mills. There, coffee beans undergo a separation process which uses large amounts of water. “After the pulp and beans are separated, the beans ferment in a water tank for 24 hours to break down the slimy gel that coats the bean” (Coffee and Environment 2). By the end of the coffee season there are enormous piles of pulp. Often times, these piles end up in the rivers and streams where it takes in all of the oxygen, killing the fauna. Also, the water that was used to separate the beans is returned to the rivers and streams full of contaminants. The individuals who live along these rivers and streams that use the water are then harmed due to the returning of contaminated water (Coffee and Environment 2).
Another problem that occurs with the production of coffee is deforestation and soil erosion. Beginning in the 1970s, annual rates of forest loss began to increase, and by the early 1980s, Costa Rica was losing nearly four percent of its forests each year (Coffee and Environment 2). This is the highest loss rate in the western hemisphere, including the Amazon basin. Also, with the reduction of trees, soil erosion began to increase. “According to a recent erosion and land degradation survey practically all of the land under permanent crops was subject to high to very high hydric erosions risk” (Coffee and Environment 2). Originally, these were only two main environmental problems associated with the production of coffee. This changed, however, in the 1950s with the invention of a new type of coffee plant that would produce up to three times more coffee than the original plant in the same amount of space.
This new type of coffee is known as sun coffee and is very different from the old type of coffee (or shade coffee) in many ways. Before 1950, coffee was a shade-loving shrub that flourished under the covering of many diverse tree species. The tree canopy kept soil erosion at a minimum and provided natural mulch for the coffee plants, making it unnecessary to use fertilizers and herbicides (Northwest Shade Coffee 1). The new sun crop cannot live under the protection of trees and needs open fields and large amounts of direct sunlight in order to survive. A number of trees are cut down and land is cleared in order to provide fields for the new coffee to grow in. The soil is no longer protected by tree cover and erosion rates increase (Coffee and Environment 2). In addition, farmers now have to use fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to make up for the nutrients lost during erosion. These chemicals then enter the rivers and streams and find their way into local drinking water supplies (Hall 605). Also, when shade coffee is used, a variety of birds ranging from hummingbirds to warblers to tanagers have been known to find a home in these shrubs. Upon switching to sun coffee, scientists and birdwatchers have noticed a significant decline in the bird populations that once used the shade coffee plants (Northwest Shade Coffee 1).
Costa Rica is in a tough situation. For the reasons discussed above, coffee is vital to the Costa Rican economy. However, it is also the cause of river pollution, deforestation, and soil erosion. In order to solve this problem Costa Rica has found two solutions. The first one is creating and implementing new laws and the second solution is creating business deals with foreign countries.
As early as 1938 the government of Costa Rica formed an anti-dumping law that prohibited coffee producers from discarding the pulp into waterways. This law applied to everyone, including foreign owners (Coffee and Environment 3). A new environmental law concerning coffee was not created until 1995. This new law would protect the environment and improve the quality of life for those living near the polluted areas that were coffee induced. “This law requires that every industrial company producing solid and liquid wastes must install special waste treatment plants in their production facilities” (Coffee and Environment 3). Many coffee producers more than likely had to modify production methods in order to comply with the new standards. Like the 1938 anti-dumping act, foreign owners were also subject to this new law. The 1995 environmental law also had a direct effect on the consumers of Costa Rica’s coffee by higher coffee prices in order to make up for the modification of production methods. While the new law helped the environment, there is an agreement that additional measures will have to be taken in the near future (Coffee and Environment 3).
Creating business relationships with foreign coffee producers are also being used as a solution to the coffee dilemma. One prime example of this can be seen through what is known as the Monteverde Story. In 1989, the American owner of Montana Coffee Traders traveled to Costa Rica and developed a type of business with Santa Elena Cooperative. Santa Elena is a coffee producer located in Monteverde. These two coffee businesses developed a dollar back program in which one dollar of every pound sold of Monteverde coffee in the United States is given to Santa Elena. In turn, Santa Elena Cooperative was able to develop and implement ways of producing coffee in environmentally safe and sound practices (Montana Coffee Trade 1).
Costa Rica and coffee were made for one another. The soil, precipitation, and temperature all provide optimal conditions for growing coffee. Coffee is very important to the economy of Costa Rica. Before coffee, the country had nothing to offer the world market, no infrastructure, and no towns or cities. However, coffee changed all of that and developed Costa Rica into the country it is today. While coffee is crucial to the economy, it also has profound effects on the environment. Coffee production pollutes rivers and streams, causes deforestation, and perpetuates soil erosion. The modernized coffee, or sun coffee, creates even more problems for the environment. At one point fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides were not needed, but now they are. These create major pollution problems for waterways and contaminate local drinking water supplies. In order to produce coffee in an environmentally safe manner, Costa Rica has implemented laws and set up business relations with foreign countries.
Coffee and Environment. TED Case Studies. Accessed World Wide Web March 23, 2004. http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/coffee.htm
Evans, Sterling (1999). The Green Republic. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Gudmundson, Lowell 1986). Costa Rica Before Coffee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Hall, Charles (2000). Quantifying sustainable development : the future of tropical economies. San Diego: Academic Press.
Montana Coffee Trade. The Monteverde Story. Accessed World Wide Web May 10,
Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign. About Shade Coffee. Accessed World Wide Web May, 10, 2004. http://www.seattleaudubon.or/shadecoffee/aboutsc/aboutsc.html.
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