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Everywhere you go in the Central Highlands, a remarkable feature of the land is almost complete cultivation, no matter how steep the slope. Nationwide, some 11 percent of the land area is planted in crops; 46 percent is given to pasture. Agriculture’s share of the economy, however, continues to slip.
Despite Costa Rica’s reputation as a country of yeoman farmers, land ownership has always been highly concentrated, and there are parts, such as Guanacaste, where rural income distribution resembles the inimical patterns of Guatemala and El Salvador. The top 1 percent of farm owners own more than one-quarter of the agricultural land.
The mist-shrouded slopes of the Meseta Central and southern highlands are adorned with green undulating carpets of coffee—the grano de oro, or golden bean—the most important crop in the highlands. In the higher, more temperate areas flowers grow under acres of plastic sheeting, and dairy farming is becoming more important in a mixed-farming economy that has been a feature of the Meseta since the end of the 19th century.
Vast banana plantations swathe the Caribbean plains and Golfo Dulce region. Cacao, once vital to the 18th-century economy, is on the rise again in the Caribbean. And pineapples are important throughout the Northern Zone and Valle de El General (Costa Rica is the world’s leading pineapple exporter; in 2009 pineapples surpasses bananas and coffee as the country’s most important crop).
Cassava, papaya, camote (sweet potato), melons, strawberries, chayote (vegetable pear), eggplant, curraré (plantain bananas), pimiento, macadamia nuts, ornamental plants, and cut flowers are all important export items.
Bananas have been a part of the Caribbean landscape since 1870, when American entrepreneur Minor Keith shipped his first fruit stems to New Orleans. In 1899, his Tropical Trading & Transport Co. merged with the Boston Fruit Co. to form the United Fruit Co., which soon became the overlord of the political economies of the “banana republics.” By the 1920s, much of the jungle south of Puerto Limón had been transformed into a vast sea of bananas. The banana industry continues to expand to meet the demand of a growing international market, and plantations now cover about 50,000 hectares; Costa Rica exported 1.9 million tons of bananas in 2010 (up 28 percent over 2009), representing almost 10 percent of national export earnings.
Then, as now in some areas, working conditions were appalling, and strikes were so frequent that when Panamá disease and then sigatoka (leaf-spot) disease swept the region in the 1930s and 1940s, United Fruit took the opportunity to abandon its Atlantic holdings and move to the Pacific coast. Violent clashes with the banana workers’ unions continued to be the company’s nemesis. In 1985, after a 72-day strike, United Fruit closed its operations in southwestern Costa Rica. Many of the plantations have been replaced by stands of African palms (used in cooking oil, margarine, and soap); others are leased to independent growers and farmers’ cooperatives that sell to Standard Fruit. Labor problems still flare—a telling tale of continued abuse by the banana companies.
The Standard Fruit Co. began production in the Atlantic lowlands in 1956. Alongside ASBANA (Asociación de Bananeros), a government-sponsored private association, Standard Fruit helped revive the Atlantic coast banana industry (at the expense of thousands of acres of virgin jungle). The banana companies have cut back production in recent years due to overproduction (the country is still the second-biggest exporter of bananas in the world, behind Ecuador). Alas, it has been the independent growers (many of whom were encouraged to expand their acreage by the large banana companies) who have suffered, as the banana conglomerates have cut back on buying from outside growers.
By far the largest share of agricultural land (70 percent) is given over to cattle pasture. Costa Rica is Latin America’s leading beef exporter. Guanacaste remains essentially what it has been since midcolonial times—cattle country—and three-quarters of Costa Rica’s 2.2 million head of cattle are found here. They are mostly humpbacked zebu. Low-interest loans in the 1960s and 1970s encouraged a rush into cattle farming for the export market, prompting rapid expansion into new areas such as the Valle de El General and more recently the Atlantic lowlands.
The highland slopes are munched upon by herds of Charolais, Hereford, Holstein, and Jersey cattle, raised for the dairy industry.
Costa Rica, 13th among world producers, produces 2 percent of the world’s coffee, which represents 15 percent of the country’s exports. Beans grown here are ranked among the best in the world. Costa Rica’s highlands possess ideal conditions for coffee production. The coffee plant loves a seasonal, almost monsoonal climate with a distinct dry season; it grows best in well-drained, fertile soils at elevations between 800 and 1,500 meters with a narrow annual temperature range—natural conditions provided by much of the country. The best coffee is grown near the plant’s uppermost altitudinal limits, where the bean takes longer to mature.
The first coffee beans were brought from Jamaica in 1779. Within 50 years coffee had become firmly established; by the 1830s it was the country’s prime export earner, a position it occupied until 1991, when coffee plunged to third place in the wake of a precipitous 50 percent fall in world coffee prices and the onset of the tourism boom.
The plants are grown in nurseries for their first year before being planted in long rows that ramble invitingly down the steep hillsides, their paths coiling and uncoiling like garden snakes. After four years they fruit. In April, with the first rains, small white blossoms burst forth and the air is laced with perfume not unlike jasmine. By November, the glossy green bushes are plump with shiny red berries—the coffee beans—and the seasonal labor is called into action.
The hand-picked berries are trucked to beneficios (processing plants), where they are machine-scrubbed and washed to remove the fruity outer layer and dissolve the gummy substance surrounding the bean (the pulp is returned to the slopes as fertilizer). The moist beans are then blow-dried or laid out to dry in the sun in the traditional manner. The leather skin of the bean is then removed by machine, and the beans are sorted according to size and shape before being vacuum-sealed to retain the fragrance and slight touch of acidity characteristic of the great vintages of Costa Rica.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition