Farm at a Glance
Community Project Anne Kriebel, Finca
San Luis, Alajuela
Location: Finca la Bella is
located in Costa Rica's northeastern cloud forest
region, adjacent to the village of San Luis.
Size: 24 ha; divided into 1 ha plots
What is grown: Coffee for a
fair trade distributer, a variety of vegetable
and fruit trees.
||"Of the 24 families managing
land in Finca la Bella, only 13 actually live on their
plots. Even Gilberth, with his diverse and plentiful vegetables,
works half-time at the local corner store."
a new global traveler to the pages of our web
Pennsylvania resident Susanna Meyer is
on the road, WWOOF-ing her way through Costa Rica.
World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms –
an organization that facilitates visits and volunteer
labor on organic farms around the world –
proved to be a good guide for Jason Witmer in
his visits to Thailand, Laos, India, Nepal and
Spain earlier this year. And Jason proved that
overseas farms and farmers have rich stories to
To revisit those farms, go to Jason’s
first column, published back in February,
2003.We pried Susanna away from a cold, wet autumn
in Pittsburgh to spend nearly three months on
organic farms in the rainforests, coffee plantations
and lush mountain pastures of Costa Rica. Actually,
she decided to go on her own and offered to invite
us – and you – along for the quest.
She’s looking for agricultural principles
that will work in her organic farming learning
curve on an urban farm back home at the Three
Her travel plans are somewhat tentative, as she
juggles hitting the coffee harvest, finding the
right bus, and contacting farmers who tend to
be in the field more than by the phone.
But she’s already filed two reports that
show the ingenuity of U.S. immigrants to Costa
Rica who are learning all they can about their
new micro-climates. They are combining their knowledge
of organics with indigenous farming culture. In
an economic climate of falling prices and diminished
agricultural opportunity, they are helping to
craft cooperative techniques of production and
marketing to find profit in high-value products
from sustainably produced crops.
As Susanna’s visits solidify and her reports
come in, this list will grow
Punta Mona, or Monkey Point, is a peninsula that
juts off of Costa Rica’s southeastern edge,
about on hour’s drive north of the Panama
border and home to a sustainable living and education
center bearing the same name.
The lifestyle on Punta Mona also takes some getting
used to—we drink rainwater from the roof,
wash clothes by hand, and eat huge communal meals.
But 85 acres of gardens, greenhouses, fruit trees
and vegetable beds, peppered with thatched-roof
constructions and afternoon swims in the Caribbean
make the transition well worth while.
you can get involved
Finca la Bella is organized to accept volunteers,
who are vital to the farm's functioning. Volunteers
stay with members of the farm. To become involved
with Finca la Bella, visit www.fcun.org/sanluis/,
or contact them through the Monteverde Institute
on (506) 645-5053 or www.mvinstitute.org. For
more connections to the community, its coffee
and its grassroots organizations, see www.coffeetraders.com/
3, 2004: Gilberth Lobo, an energetic Costa
Rican who looks as if he’s in his 40s, leads us through
his 1-hectare farm. The crops are more diversified than I've
seen in such a small space – a patchwork in fluid patterns
on the hilly plot. Curved rows of spiky sugar cane and small
trees are arranged throughout the farm as wind and erosion
blocks for delicate vegetables like carrots, squash, and beans.
A patch of aguatillo trees shades the small stream
that cuts through the center of the property. Their roots
stabilize the soil while their fruits feed toucans and other
Gilberth explains his systems and methods. He grows red beans
and plantains between his coffee and throughout the farm, to
enrich the soil. His cucumbers sprout up through a sheet of
chicken wire, held a couple of feet off the ground by a wooden
frame – the vegetables rest on top of the structure, protected
from mold and bugs. Bushes of medicinal mint cropping up in
some vegetable fields repel ants. And some areas of the farm
lie fallow or cropped in beans to revitalize the soil.
Gilberth tells me that his father and grandfather taught
him to farm. He worked alongside them, learning their techniques
and strategies. Gilberth's passion for farming – and
his expertise – are evident in his artful placement
of crops, his practiced machete-swing, and the joy in his
eyes as he revisits each lush section of the farm. Bushwhacking
his way through the lower leaves of banana plants to a rock
as large and flat as three picnic tables, he remembers picking
coffee as a boy with his brothers and father and taking mid-morning
breaks in this cool spot. Back out through the bananas, we
come across fast-growing tuvu trees, useful for their
hard wood. They grow alongside some of the 100-plus fruit
trees Gilberth has planted on the farm in the eight years
he's worked this land.
Joining together for community change
Without membership in a collectively-managed plot of farms
called Finca la Bella (The Beautiful Farm), he would
not work land now. Finca la Bella, made up of 24 one-hectare
farms, rests in Costa Rica's northeastern cloud forest region,
adjacent to the village of San Luis. This farming and conservation
project was initiated in the early 1990s through the joint
efforts of a local Quaker group, a U.S. non-profit organization,
a cooperative in the nearby town of Santa Elena (Coope
Santa Elena), and concerned citizens in San Luis. The
Quakers, who settled in the areas around San Luis in the mid-20th
century, were especially instrumental in jumpstarting the
The community of San Luis had been struggling for years when
the project began. Huge tracts of land were held by just a
few people, and the village was suffering economically, socially,
and environmentally as a result. One Quaker woman, Ann Kriebel,
threw herself into the movement, and worked closely with the
San Luis community for improvement. She died an untimely death
before the Finca la Bella project was formed, and in gratitude
for her work, the farm now bears the official name Community
Project Anne Kriebel, Finca la Bella.
The U.S. non-profit group provided initial funds to purchase
the tract of land from its owner, who had used the land for
conventional coffee (the fields where Gilberth worked as a
child) and pasture. In 1999, after some economic issues, a
local higher education center called the Monteverde Institute
temporarily took over, and still holds the title. From the
beginning, 1-ha parcels of Finca la Bella were offered to
landless residents of San Luis. Those interested were accepted
by a committee and signed a legal contract entitling them
to manage the plots for 25 years.
Rainforest comprises about 15 ha of Finca la Bella, beyond
the land set aside for farms, and continues to be communally-managed
as a common resource. Gilberth explains, “The forest
in between parcels is the responsibility of everyone.”
In general, this means leaving the unique cloud forest untouched.
But there is some selective use. “If a tree falls,”
Gilberth says, “the wood goes to whoever needs it the
Finca la Bella has many guidelines, mainly to protect the
environment and keep the community functioning smoothly. A
20-page legal document outlines the organization’s mission
of sustainable use. It underscores the responsibility of all
humans to protect the environment, for quality of life now
and to preserve a resource base for future generations. Common
resources listed within the document include biodiversity,
the forest, potable water and streams, and the soil. Those
living within the community may build a house, shed, or workshop;
raise small animals; and cultivate land, with the condition
that they not destroy the soil's fertility. With the agreement
of the association, which includes four community members
and representatives from the other founding groups, families
can develop roads, potable water systems, electrical systems,
The document, though idealistic, also reflects the complexities
that arise in the struggle to balance an economically sustaining
lifestyle with environmental sensitivity. For instance, the
rules of the community dictate that garbage should be dealt
with in an environmentally conscious manner, that chemicals
and machinery should be used as little as possible, and that
some form of erosion control should be instituted. But specific
rules are vague, and enforcement is lax. Some landholders
continue to rely on chemicals, although the farm includes
many dedicated farmers who work without synthetic inputs.
Cherishing diversity and seeking new markets
We stay at the home of Marcos Marín and Lorena Leíton.
Marcos works at the renowned Monteverde Nature Reserve, a
15-minute motorcycle ride away, but his true interest is farming.
To support the family's four children (Costa Rica's labor
laws prohibit children from working until they are 18), he's
been forced to find a paying job off the farm. The vegetable
beds around the house have sprung up in weeds – Lorena's
back problems keep her from even minimal gardening. She tells
me, practically drooling, of a time when her family would
harvest most of a lunch from right outside the door. Once
a month, Lorena travels two hours by bus to stock up on bulk
food supplies in the nearest large city. The farm supplies
eggs, chicken, and pork to the family's diet.
Marcos and Lorena's situation is not unique. Of the 24 families
managing land in Finca la Bella, only 13 actually live on
their plots. Even Gilberth, with his diverse and plentiful
vegetables, works half-time at the local corner store. Those
who grow coffee sell it to the Coope Santa Elena – a
mercado justo, or fair trade, connection. Growers
involved with this organization are required to sell all of
their marketed coffee here. In return, they are paid a stable,
fair price, regardless of the current state of the market.
In this cloudy, cooler climate, Gilberth explains, coffee
is planted as a supplement, rather than a main crop. He knocks
the branch on a coffee plant, and several spotty leaves flutter
to the ground. Fungus ruins many plants and spreads easily
in the damp conditions. Gilberth shows me a white powder sprinkled
on some leaves – calcium carbonate. It helps control
the fungus a little, he says, but is an off-farm input. Usually
he chops back infected growth and waits for new branches to
Victoria Campos and Daniel Chabarillo live up the hill from
Gilberth, and also grow some coffee to sell to the Coope.
The sprightly older couple returns from Monteverde, where
they've been selling eggs from their 15 laying hens, just
as we're knocking on the door of their quaint little home.
The two are tired but emphatically hospitable – they
greet us like old friends and keep up a lively commentary.
We stroll through their cultivated backyard. The vegetable
gardens spread out from the house, laced with marigolds and
a purple ground cover that looks like shamrocks: trebol,
in Spanish. It's high in vitamin A, Victoria says, eating
a leaf. Victoria fills bags with organic waste and piles them
around the farm. Left out in the sun and rain, they compost
quickly, and she adds them to the soil as fertilizer. Behind
a clump of flowering sugar cane, waving like pampas grass
in the breeze, the land slopes down into coffee. Pasture and
forest extend as far as the eye can see. The farm is small
We have a chance to visit one other landholder – Mario.
He's an older man, stooped and weathered, and his Spanish is
hard for me to understand. But he patiently guides us through
his fields. Mario has been part of Finca la Bella for only two
years. Stumps of old coffee bushes protrude from his onions,
radishes, and mustard greens. It's obvious he's just starting,
but already several gardens are well-established, and he points
out sweet lemon, orange, mango, and cas trees – a sour
fruit used in sweet drinks.
Back at our home-stay farm, Marcos Marín tells me
of his personal hopes for Finca la Bella. He would like to
see all of the farmers growing organically, and certified.
As of now, no one has been able to afford the process. Marcos
and others envision a restaurant in the Monteverde Reserve,
supplied with food from Finca la Bella. He wants to see the
women's cooperative, which has already built a greenhouse
on common property, succeed in selling their vegetables. To
help make these improvements, he's relying on volunteers offering
their work in exchange for learning.
Learning seems to be a theme on this farm. Gilberth explains
how his practices have changed even in the few years he's
worked this land. The first year he used Round-Up as an herbicide,
but then he stopped, for health reasons and for the health
of the soil. He tells me that fertile soil – with living
microorganisms -- is the basis for strong plants, now and
in the future. He emphasizes the importance of leaving healthy
land for his children and grandchildren, and for passing on
a philosophy of conservation and respect to future generations.
Armando, one of Marcos and Lorena's young sons, shadows us
during our tour and conversations. His quiet attention and
occasional questions prove that he, too, is learning. Armando
is this future generation, absorbing the details
of sustainable agriculture just as Gilberth learned from his
father and grandfather.
Susanna Meyer is a freelance writer and urban farmer
in Pittsburgh, PA.