Friday, July 28, 2006

Problems Finding a Market

Yesterday was the first day of our first orange harvest, cosecha de naranjas. We have probably, I have never counted them, but probably over 100 orange trees. Most of them are on top of the hill that is our farm and have been taken over by 7 years of neglect, returning it to some sort of jungle - an orange jungle with bananas and plantains and coffee that pop out at you as you liberate them with your machete from intrusive vines and trees that turn into vines (or vines that turn into trees). I don’t really know what to do with our oranges. We have so many. I pick them while they are still a little green. There are tons of bugs, fungi, squirrels, birds, and poachers that will get them if I wait too long. I made orange juice yesterday. It was awesome. We have this metal pump-looking citrus juicer, that isn’t very efficient for high quantity juicing, but I made enough to give the Mendez family a big bottle of it.

They asked me if I am going to sell oranges. Tal vez, I said. Maybe I will sell it to Victor, William and Flor´s son-in-law. He is a verdurero who sells vegetables down in the low lands and on the Panamanian border in Ciudad Neilly, Paso Canoas, Laurel, La Cuesta, etc (all formerly United Fruit Company towns). He buys most of his vegetables and fruit from Cartago and Alajuela, the major large-scale agricultural centers of Costa Rica just outside of San Jose. These vegetables travel 8 hours on a truck to get here up in the mountains, where then Victor pays a high price, loads them up in his truck, and he drives 1-3 hours down the mountain to sell thm. Oddly, most of the vegetables he buys from San Jose are grown here as well, and he could buy them from the farmers here for much cheaper. So why doesn’t he just buy them from the local farmers? or why don’t the local farmers just sell locally anyways? why would I have to sell my oranges some where at least 1 hour away?

The people here are accustomed to this reliance on the large-scale producers because there is consistency. Ok, that makes sense. So the small scale farmers who live in this region can sell to some verdureros, but at prices half as much as the verdureros will pay the Cartageros. The farmers here just sell there products as a minimal supplement to the corporate-run agriculture of San Jose. So everytime I have this conversation with local farmers, I get sorta upset in my gringo-seeking-freer-fair-trade and I say so then why don’t we just start our own market here in Aguabuena…. We can sell our oranges. We can show off our seedlings and motivate people about reforestation. It would be beautiful. But then Julie tells me that the people here wouldn’t like it. They are too accustomed to going to house to house for what they want. Calos Porras for milk, William Mendez for chayote or cilantro, etc. But then Humberto Zu├▒iga and his association ASOCOPRODE (Association de Productores) are very excited about the idea of a feria, kinda like a local farmers market. Anyways I am pushing for the feria, we will see what happens. And most likely things are going to change when TLC (tratado de libre commercio), the Costa Rican side of CAFTA is ratified, although most people here think that this future looks grim.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Day in the Life...

.....of a reforestero

Because I frequently am asked, "So Eliot, what exactly do you do down there?" or "What is a typical day like on the farm?", I decided to give a schedule of what I did yesterday....all days being more or less similar. (Although yesterday seemed like a long day)

Wednesday, July 19th

7:00 Woke up. Made coffee. Ate breakfast - granola, yogurt, and papaya. Read for one hour.

8:00 Washed my clothes by hand and hung them up to dry. It was deceivingly sunny.

8:30 Tended the worm farm. Watered the worms. Checked the compost. Checked on the trees. Realized that I had run out of bags to transplant trees into. Became worried that the trees needed to be transplanted soon. Relaxed because I realized once again that they are trees, and they want to live. Found some hardwoods had sprouted that I was worried never would. Became happy. Checked on the vegetable garden. Wondered why some kale leaves look like they were cut in half. Was it a bug or a falling guava? I had to fill up our biodigestor with more water. It smelled surprisingly bad.

10:00 Started to cloud up. Was worried it would rain as hard as it did the day before when I was stuck in Aguabuena because the road to Coopabuena had flooded over. A UCSC student came by, sortof lost (as usual), and asked if I could help with with his research project. We brainstormed. He decided he would research different fertilizing methods used on our seedlings.

10:20 Told the student that I had to take a shower and he should just sit there and think about his project. Showered. Dressed. Took my clothes that were not dry and hung them up in the garage.

10:30 Walked with UCSC student to my neighbors, Harold, to ask him to explain to Daniel (the student) what kind of fertilizer is usually used on coffee seedlings. Just dirt, rice husks, and calcium.

10:45 Walked with UCSC student to Coope Pueblos office for an HTML lesson given in gringo spanish by a student from Evergreen. Walked instead of rode my bike because I had left my bike in the office the day before because of the flood.

11:15 HTML lesson. Learned about tables "Mesas".

12:30 Checked email. Ate fried chicken for lunch at the fried chicken place next to the office. (I hardly ever eat out but I was starving).

1:00 Rode bike back to Mendez house to meet with Becky, Ian, and Julie to talk about restructuring the CAN internship program. Talked forever. Drank coffee. Came up with idea that I will lead a seminar every week for students. Started raining very hard.

4:00 Went to Ferreteria (hard ware store) to ask about bags for the trees. They didnt have both the sizes I needed.

4:30 Went home. Ate dinner early - beans, rice, salad, spinach quiche.

5:30 Headed back to Aguabuena to start English class.

6:00 Helped Peace Corps teach "curso de ingles" to 50 students aged 8-50. The 12 year old boys were better behaved and made paper hats instead of airplanes this time.

8:30 Went to Robertos Bar with the Peace Corps volunteers. Had two Imperials. I dont drink very often but English class is rough.

9:30 Rode bike home in the rain.

10:00 Fell asleep.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ashes and Trees

A couple of weeks ago I got a very strange request. I was asked if a tree could be planted on our farm with the ashes of a dead man named Deane Adams.

The woman who asked me was Arlene. She had come to Aguabuena as a prize "vacation" from a Starbucks raffle. The group of winners, sponsored by Starbucks and Earthwatch, came to aid Dr Karen Holl´s reforestation study in our region of Coto Brus. Arlene along with two other women, Jessie and Samantha, were staying at the Mendez house just up the hill from our farm. I spent alot of evenings with them. And one day, Arlene asked if she could find a resting place for Deane´s ashes on the finca.

Arlene had traveled all the way from Arkansas carrying Deane´s ashes. Arlene never knew Deane. She was asked by his wife, a new co-worker, if she would carry some ashes down to Costa Rica and plant a tree with them. Deane´s dying wish was for part of his ashes to be planted every year with a tree. Since Arlene was going to aid a reforestation project, it seemed to make sense. At first I was worried that Deane might not be a good guy. I dont want the ashes of a bad guy haunting the farm, but then I realized anyone who asks to be planted with a tree when they die cant be too bad. When I die I want to be burried in the ground without a coffin, just a pillow, and a tree planted on top of me. Probably an avocado.

We procrastinated until the last day they were in Aguabuena. Right before the bus came the 4 of us - Arlene, Samantha, Jessie, and I hurried to the finca to plant the tree. Arlene asked Karen Holl if she would donate a tree to Deane and the Finca Project. The tree we planted is a Mayo.



Mayo, Vochysia guatemalensis is a light hardwood canopy tree found throughtout Central America especially here, in the Coto Brus area. This tree produces very beautiful yellow flowers between April and June.

So far the ashes seemed to have made good fertilizer and the tree is growing strong.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A poem for my mom

Today at 9:30 Costa Rican time
When you were in the doctor’s office
Waiting to receive you chemo
I planted a tree for you.
I don’t know what kind of tree it is.
It is from the Guanacaste.
It is funny looking.
Its trunk is thinner at the bottom
Than it is at the top.
But despite this counterintuitiveness
It is a strong tree.

I told you I would be in an orange tree
Meditating for you
At 9:30
But I know that doctors are always late
So I waited until 9:41.
And the orange tree wasn’t as comfortable
As I thought it would be.
So I walked past the orange orchard
To the cattle pasture above my farm
And sat under a poro tree
And meditated with the cows
Overlooking the emerald valley
That pours over the mountains
Falling to the sea below

This is where I was
When you received your chemo.
I figured you would be closing your eyes.
I wanted to take you out of the doctors office
And up to a mountain top
Like the time I dragged you up
To Lake of the Angels.
I tried to summon up all of my strength
And the strength of the land around me
To send you my love
I remembered how hard it was for you
To make it to Lake of the Angels


When I was walking back down to the house
I had to machete my way through
Invasive vines and weeds
That were choking the orange trees
And obscuring the trail.
I passed the tree I planted for you
And imagined it in 50 years
A giant

Thursday, July 13, 2006

William Mendez

The first time William Mendez saw snow was when he stepped out of the airport in Montreal, Canada into a blizzard. This was his first and only time to sneak into the US, mojado (wet, aka illegal...think "wetback"). Although this was more like sneaking in helado (icy).

The coyote had arranged everything for this group of men from Aguabuena, Costa Rica. They were all friends, brothers, fathers, sons. They were to fly to Montreal, claim refugee status, get their bags from baggage claim, walk outside, and the coyote would be there waiting for them with a van.

This group of Costa Rican refugees had a plan to obtain refugee status. They were all going to claim that they were homosexuals being persecuted in the homophobic atmosphere of Costa Rica. (If the thought of "Costa Rican refugees" hasnt already struck a strange note in your mind, it should be known that Costa Rica is probably the most socially liberal countries of all of Latin America.) No one remembers whose idea this was exactly. Now most of them are back here, the coyote owns a bar and sometimes the refugees all meet to reminisce. William was the only one who didnt want to claim his false sexuality. He claimed that he had many enemies in Costa Rica who were out to get him. They were all granted refugee status in Canada.

They all came out of the airport with papers in their hands and waited for the pickup. They were dropped off an hour walk from the border. They crossed in the middle of the night, through a blizzard, not knowing how to walk on snow (or that it was even possible). They walked for 2-3 hours across the border and into New York. Magically, there was a bus the coyote had arranged waiting for them in the middle of nowhere. They drove all day to New Jersey.

William´s son is still in New Jersey. He works as a landscaper. He has a wife and two kids. He loves the US. He has been there for over 5 years now, so he is awaiting the new law that he hopes will give him amnesty. William worked for 9 months mostly at a car wash during the summer. William is back here in Aguabuena. He still wears his tee-shirt from the New Jersey (pronounced New Yersee)car wash. I asked him if he was scared when he crossed the border in the blizzard. He said he had never been so scared in his life, but he was with friends and his son. He complains that New Yersee is too cold in the winter and then too hot in the summer. He had never felt a climate that hot, not even in the low lands of Costa Rica.

I want to tell his story because I think it is appropriate right now. When I was home last month, I got in an argument with one of my best friends about immigration and the new laws, walls, and prisons. My friend told me that foreigners need to respect the laws we have. I know all the arguments about the immigrants who have tons of babies, eat up wellfare, dont pay taxes, and steal our jobs. But living in Costa Rica, I see that there are no jobs here. The people here watch Hollywood movies and North American TV shows. They are innundated with "American" culture. There is not one person in this town that does not think about going to the US to work, for many it is their only dream.

I think that considering the history of the US involvement in Latin American politics and economics, we are responsible for the dreams we invoke in these people. Everyday I talk with teenagers here, and try to convince them not to go to the US. But how can I convince them that their dream is not what it seems? I have the privilege to travel and see the world, why shouldnt they? Yesterday I was talking to my neighbor and good friend Harold, he looked at me strait in the eye and asked "if you were me, would you go??". I though about it for a while. I had to say yes.

Monday, July 03, 2006

¿The World is Flat?

I have decided to start a Book Review section of my blog. This is my fisrt entry.

I just finished reading Thomas Friedman´s book. At first I was resistant to his school-boyish eagerness, bragging about the wonders of Free Trade and Technology. But by the end, I found his argument convincing. I do not share all of his ideas, but, like I said, I found it convincing.

Friedman´s thesis is that, since 1492, the world has become "flatter" through globalization, technology, and the liberation of markets. His idea of "flatness" is a "leveling of the playing field" where individuals can compete and gain power in a more open market. He traces this thread through the technology boom of the late 90´s, outsourcing of jobs, and the rise of India, China, Al-Queda, and Osama bin Laden.

Friedman likes to categorize and number things. There are the "Ten Flatteners", "Globaliation 1.0, 2.0, 3.0", the "5 anti-globalist forces", etc. What caught me off guard was that he placed me along with other "serious, well-meaning environmentalists" in the fifth anti-globalist force group he calls the "how-we-globalize" group. While he has "a lot of respect and sympathy for this group", he believes that we have drowned out or have been pushed to the periphery by anarchist WTO protestors and the other four anti-globalist forces. Well, Mr Friedman, as a spokesman for the "how-we-globalize" group, let´s talk about how we do it. Let´s start with coffee.

While the world ushered in "Globalization 3.0" at the turn of the millenium, and the world was becoming flatter, our community of Aguabuena was completely crushed by the global coffee market. Around the time that oil prices starting going up, skyscrapers going down, the price of coffee bottomed out to the lowest in history. What Friedman does not write about, is the how the flattening of the world affects the environment. Now the price of coffee has gone back up, but the farmers here are fed up with the volatility of the market. They are flattening their farms, cutting down their coffee and shade trees to raise cattle. In the past 4 years, over 50% of coffee farms in our area of Costa Rica have turned to cattle ranching. Cattle ranching is one of the most degrading land-use practices in moist tropical ecosystems. It destroys biodiversity, washes away nutrient-rich top soil, and contaminates water supplies.

Where I think we can take Friedman´s ideas further is to see how the small-scale farmer responds to this "flattening" of the market. I do not consider my self an "anti-globalist", but I am very concerned in "how we globalize". Coope Pueblos, the coffee cooperative here, uses the the "flattening" tools of the internet to create a direct market with consumers in the US. I think this is an awesome accomplishment, but I also think that we must be weary at the speed that technology advances us when it is at the expense of our ecosystems.