Susanna’s Costa Rican Sojourn: Finca la Bella
A farm of one's own

In the northeastern cloud forests, a decade-old cooperative project has helped landless Costa Ricans work toward economic independence and ecological sustainability

By Susanna Meyer
*Toucan drawing © Kevin MacDonald 2003
 

Farm at a Glance

Community Project Anne Kriebel, Finca la Bella
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

Operation: Sustainable

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."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome a new global traveler to the pages of our web site
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 tell.

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 Rivers.

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

Next:

Punta Mona
Manzinillo

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.

 

How 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/
monte.html
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August 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 birds.

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 cooperative effort.

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 most.”

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, and tourism.

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 sprout.

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 and beautiful.

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.