Each week we have a few days of lectures in ecology, resource management, economics and culture and then we go away for a few days into the field where we see and touch the things we’ve been learning about (logical, right?).
On Thursday we went to a small organic farm on the eastern Caribbean side of the country –Manu. It felt so good being there. This family of 6 has been farming this land forever, and 10 years ago converted it into an organic farm. Part of their land is just forest, which the Costa Rican government pays them a small amount to preserve. The program is called PES (payment for environmental services) and they give landowners rewards for any carbon sequestration, watershed, or biodiversity that they protect. Despite its incredible biodiversity and conservation efforts of today, Costa Rica has a history of enormous deforestation. In the 1990’s, they passed a law making it illegal to convert any forest into pasture. This made things really hard on landowners who now had no potential revenue from their land. PES’s were a great solution to that. At the farm, they made us a giant and delicious meal using exclusively things they’d grown (80% of the things they eat every day are from the farm, they sell what’s left over!) It’s hard, it’s their whole life—they spend all of their time laboring. But it’s so beautiful, and they’re so proud of it.
Wormies from the farm
The next day, as a contrast to the little organic finca, we went to the Dole banana plantation. We drove through miles and miles and miles—as far as you can see in every direction of banana plants. In the 1890’s, the Costa Rican government couldn’t afford to finish the railroad that they were building to bridge the western with the eastern side of the country. So a man named Minor Keith said he would complete the railroad if the Costa Rican government would give him 6% of Costa Rica’s land for 99 years. They conceded, and with his new land he grew lots and lots of bananas (creating the United Fruit company). Today, Costa Rica is the largest exporter of bananas in the world (and it’s so small—only about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined!). The tour glorified the banana industry (including a shot of banana liquor at the end), but we had to struggle to hear over the roar of pesticides being sprayed all over the bananas wrapped in bags on the trees. I was really inspired and challenged by this trip. The Dole plantation is feeding into the massive agro-economy that both built up and destroyed Costa Rica for so many years, but it also provides hundreds of jobs to local people. And at the organic farm it was absolutely inspiring meeting people who eat and grow healthy hearty food right from their land, but the effort they put into it—is it practical or even possible on a larger scale? It feels good to be thinking.