Coffee in Costa Rica: An Environmental, Economic, and Social Outlook

This topic submitted by Laura Englehart ( at 2:28 AM on 5/18/03.

The Environmental Science Graduate Students at Watlings Castle, San Salvador, Bahamas.(TME 98)

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Coffee in Costa Rica: An Environmental, Economic, and Social Outlook
By Laura Englehart


Coffee is the second most valuable exported legal commodity in the world, second only to oil (Pendergrast xv). Costa Rica has a long democratic history of coffee production. Its traditional shade-grown coffee plantations are environmentally friendly and have great social and economic benefits. Coffee export revenues have built the country and continue to help maintain its economy. However, increased consumer demand in developed countries and greater global market transactions have forced Costa Rica to increase coffee production. But shade-grown, small, family coffee plantations do not provide the high yield demanded by a global world climate. The modernization of agriculture has attempted to accommodate to these conditions and has allowed for new varieties of coffee-growing to emerge. New sun-grown, mono-crop plantations have arisen, boosting yields, increasing exports and revenue, and creating a competitive position for Costa Rica in the world marketplace. However, the environmental and social consequences of sun-grown plantations can be seen as detrimental to Costa Rica.

The Early History of Coffee: The Spread of Cultivation

Coffee was first discovered high on the mountainsides of Ethiopia under the canopy of the rainforest (Pendergrast xv). It began as a medicinal drink for the elite, became part of a religious ceremony, and quickly moved into the sphere of everyday life. Ethiopian trade with Arab nations across the Red Sea began the spread and regular cultivation of coffee (6). The drink easily became an everyday commodity for it provided an intellectual stimulant and increased energy with no apparent ill effects. Widespread use throughout the region was soon known by the rest of the world and trade blossomed. During the sixteenth century, The Turks, who occupied Yemen at the time, prohibited the spread of cultivation to the Western World in order to dominate the trade of coffee. No fertile berries were permitted to leave the country and all coffee that left was to be at least partially roasted to prevent fertilization. But in the 1600s, smugglers succeeded in removing seeds and trees, allowing for the cultivation of coffee in Southern India and he Dutch East Indies. The Dutch became world producers of coffee and determined world market prices for years to come (7).

Gradually, throughout the 1600s, Western Europeans came to enjoy the medicinal and social benefits of coffee (Pendergrast 8). In Britain, the invasion of coffee was tremendous, initially creating all-male cultural meeting places. Alcoholism increased as coffee was found to have sobering capabilities. This sparked an anti-coffeehouse womenÕs movement and in 1675 King Charles II issued a proclamation banning coffeehouses. Not without initial uproar, coffee became less and less common in everyday life and tea gained popularity, replacing coffee as the social drink and also appealing to women and children (12).

The British sentiment about coffee had great impacts on the way coffee was perceived by the British North American colonists. At first, colonist regard for coffee emulated that of the mother country. But, as increased tensions between colonists and the KingÕs colonial policies emerged and revolution was on the verge of erupting, coffee became more prominent in American society. When King George enacted the Stamp Act of 1765, increasing taxes on all exports, rebellion broke out. All but the tax on tea was repealed, leading to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when an entire shipÕs cargo of tea leaves was thrown overboard in protest. From then on, it became a threat to American patriotism and duty to drink tea. Coffee emerged as the drink of choice (Pendergrast 15).

With the rising popularity of coffee worldwide, European powers increasingly brought coffee cultivation to their colonies (Pendergrast 17). Throughout the nineteenth century, non-native coffee took over much of Latin America. After declaring independence from the Spanish and the Portuguese in 1821 and 1822, Central America became more and more reliant upon coffee and the plant began to dominate economies (21). Coffee played a significant role in shaping and creating huge plantations owned by the wealthy elite, social inequalities, and discrimination against the indigenous populations throughout much of the region. From all of this emerged terrible turmoil and conflict, characterized by power hungry military dictators and an oppressed mass peasantry. The one country in Central America that avoided these conditions was Costa Rica (40).

The Development of Coffee in Costa Rica: Early Economic and Social Effects

Reliance on coffee in Costa Rica was always as strong as in surrounding Central American countries, but its development followed a democratic, egalitarian path not seen in other nations. The latifundia, or large, elite landowner plantations familiar in neighboring countries, did not develop in Costa Rica. Instead, smaller farms blossomed, largely due to a lack of labor force. Most of the indigenous tribes that worked the coffee plantations in other countries were wiped out in Costa Rica by Spanish settlers or the diseases they brought with them. Where tribes did remain, they were indeed dispossessed of their land as in the rest of Central America, but small family farms became the norm. This system was furthered by the outward, frontier pattern of expansion outward from the capitol city of San Jose. There was little need for competition over land ownership for the frontier had yet to be conquered. Therefore, repressive government intervention so common in surrounding nations was unnecessary in Costa Rica (Pendergrast 40).

Traditional Shade-Coffee Plantations in Costa Rica

Because the coffee bush is a Ņshade-loving understory plantÓ (Shade Coffee), traditionally, coffee is grown underneath the canopy of a mixed-shade forest of hardwood and fruit tree species. This is known as an agro-ecosystem and is often even termed a forest rather than a plantation, for the ecosystem attracts wildlife. It provides rich habitat and houses much biodiversity, and is especially valuable for hundreds of migratory bird species. Shade plantations are especially environmentally friendly as they do not require a clear-cutting of the land for fields, preventing deforestation and the consequences that arise. Shade plantations are also economically beneficial for they provide a great number of non-coffee products, in case of decreased demand, that can be beneficial for the farmers harvesting the land. Products such as fruits, timber, and firewood are available for personal family use or to sell for income (Trouble Brewing).

The Modernization of Coffee: Environmental Consequences and Economic Benefits

Coffee did not escape the 1970s worldwide agricultural modernization. At this time, new high-yield varieties of coffee were developed that no longer thrived underneath the canopy of the rainforest. These sun-grown plantations were monocrop ecosystems and increasingly came to replace the traditional and diverse shade-grown ecosystems within the rainforests. In Costa Rica today, sun-grown coffee accounts for forty percent of all coffee production (Impacts of Coffee, Cafˇ Unidos).

The changes in coffee production over time have drastically changed the natural environment in Costa Rica. As cleared land is necessary for the modern, sun-grown plantations, increased deforestation has resulted, raising questions about atmospheric protection, water quality, wildlife loss and more. With a loss of forest, less and less carbon dioxide can be absorbed, adding to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Runoff and erosion increase as well, especially during rains, causing floods into the river systems and hurting water quality and water ecosystems. Ecosystem suffering is exacerbated by increased chemical and fertilizer use on which sun-grown coffee plantations depend for higher yields. Even such chemicals as DDT, lindane, and paraquat are known to be used despite that they have been banned in industrial nations due to their environmental persistence and carcinogenic potential (Impacts of Coffee, Cafˇ Unidos). Coffee is the third most heavily sprayed crop across the globe, after only cotton and tobacco (Pendergrast 398).

The loss of biodiversity that results from clear-cutting for sun-growth plantations is astounding. Mainly due to habitat loss, wildlife is removed as its natural home is destroyed. In depth studies by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre indicates that over 90% fewer bird species are found in sun-grown plantations as compared to shade-grown (Impacts of Coffee, Cafˇ Unidos). Billions of birds fly south to the tropics of Central America to escape the winters in the forests of North America. These neotropical migrants have steadily declining populations due to the massive changes in the ecological landscape (Pendergrast 400).

Economic Benefits of Sun-Grown Coffee

Sun-grown coffee plantations are an economically driving force in Costa Rica. The country is dependent upon income received from coffee exports. Increased output is demanded by the increasing consumption of those in industrial nations. ŅIndeed, fashionable coffee bars in many developed countries today are not unlike the coffeehouses of 18th-Century Europe, which flourished when the drink was first introducedÓ (Trouble Brewing). Such a global demand puts pressure on coffee-producing countries like Costa Rica to increase yield and boost exports. Sun-grown coffee plantations allow for these increases, increases that strengthen the economy and establish a competitive position for Costa Rica in global market transactions.

Conclusion: The Future of Costa Rican Coffee

From the time non-native coffee was first brought to Costa Rica in colonial days, traditional coffee growing farms under the canopy of the rainforest have prevailed. But today, after agricultural modernization, Costa Rica has a delicate balance of traditional and modern coffee growing systems. Traditional shade-grown ecosystems have been increasingly replaced by modern, sun-grown varieties of coffee that require clear-cutting and rising levels of chemical and fertilizer use. But with a stable political environment and a people dedicated to biodiversity protection, especially through an impressive national park system and greater and greater amounts of ecotourism that fuels the economy, traditional environmentally friendly shade-grown coffee has not been abandoned. However, developmental and global market economic incentives lead increasingly towards upsetting the ecological balance sought and valued by the people and the government of Costa Rica (Sustainable Harvest).


Coffee and the Environment. Trade and Environment Database Case Study: Coffee Exports from Costa Rica. 1/11/97.

Coffee, Conservation, and Commerce in the Western Hemisphere: How Individuals and Institutions Can Promote Ecologically Sound Farming and Forest Management in Northern Latin America. National Resources Defense Council.

Impacts of Coffee. Cafˇ Unidos.

Pendergrast Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Shade Coffee. Trade and Environment Database Case Study: Costa Rica Shade Coffee.

Sustainable Harvest organizes Costa Rica seminar on The Future of Coffee in Central America. Sustainable Harvest: Importers of Sustainable Coffees. November 2001.

Trouble Brewing: The Changing Face of Coffee Production. World Resources Institute. 1998-1999.

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