By Rishi Khalsa
It was the best of crops, it was the worst of crops, it was a system of equality, and it was a system of inequality. There was a crop heavily exported from the mountains of Costa Rica, there was a crop heavily exported from the valleys of Costa Rica. In both places this was and continues to be the expected order of things. It is accepted that for agriculturalists, coffee would be a crop of opportunity and pineapple a crop of last resort.
The production of pineapples and coffee alone makes up nearly 10% of Costa Rica’s total exports in an industry that employs almost 15% of the labor force. There are towns in Costa Rica that survive solely on the production of these crops and are surrounded by a vast sea of either coffee or pineapple plantations. Yet, the production systems in place around these two crops vary greatly to the benefit and detriment of their respective laborers.
Del Monte with its Gold Extra Sweet pineapple is one of the largest pineapple producers in Costa Rica. The pineapples are grown on third party farms that limit workers’ ability to unionize. Despite earning above the minimum wage in an average week, in part due to being pressured into long hours both on the fields and in the packaging plants, workers report needing a substantially higher wage to provide a decent standard of living for their families. The majority of profits in pineapple production go directly to the retailers and Del Monte. For example, Buenos Aires in the province of Puntarenas, one of the largest production centers for Del Monte, is in the third poorest county in all of Costa Rica.
On the other hand, coffee production tends to create greater benefits for a larger number of local producers thanks, in part, to the existence of coffee cooperatives. The labor is still grueling, but the profits reach more Costa Ricans.
So, why does coffee production benefit more Costa Ricans and allow for cooperatives to dominate the sector in comparison to pineapple production? The reasons are both historical and market-driven.
Costa Rica, diverging from many other Latin American countries, developed into a relatively egalitarian agricultural society because of its lack of mineral resources and mountainous terrain. Spanish settlers were left on their own with the remnants of displaced indigenous communities. This created an atmosphere ripe for the development of small Spanish family farms that were able to embrace the sudden growth in demand for coffee worldwide beginning in the late 1700s in Costa Rica and leading eventually to the formation of cooperatives. Many of these families chose to produce coffee in order to take advantage of a government policy that gave land being cultivated by coffee growers to those same people creating a market of small producers.
Coffee plays an important role in Costa Rica’s cultural identity and was traditionally harvested by the families themselves or neighbors, especially around Christmas. Now coffee is more commonly harvested by migrant laborers but the benefits of production still stay with local producers.
In contrast, pineapple was introduced into the country much later and on land that was not cultivated by these small coffee producers, leaving control of pineapples mainly in the hands of large multinational traders. This has contributed to pineapple not holding the same status as coffee in the national psyche and potentially obscures issues around the crop.
Similarly, market conditions favor small coffee producers in comparison to small pineapple producers. It is possible to find coffee of many varieties (fair-trade, elephant digested, shade grown, organic, etc.) sold by supermarkets and coffee shops catering to consumer preferences, whereas pineapples for the most part suffer from the distinction of being known simply as pineapples. This contrast stems from coffee’s movement into a segment of the market in which producers more effectively capture the value added, whereas pineapples are treated like regular agricultural commodities and the value added in the supply chain is captured outside of Costa Rica.
From an outside perspective coffee and pineapple production may seem similarly labor intensive, but on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the distribution of economic benefits varies greatly. In one industry profits are largely extracted from country and earth, in the other they remain closer to home. While coffee production may be a bitter struggle in the face of fluctuating market demands and crop diseases, it is often a far, far better sacrifice for Costa Rican producers.
Rishi Khalsa is a student in the Master of Development Practice program at UC Berkeley. He served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica from 2013-15.