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Butterfly Exports Take Flight

MAGALY Sibaja sits at a table in a bustlingoffice plucking small, squirming objects from ablue plastic box in front of her. She holds one – agreen bulbous thing, looking like a small unripefruit – close to her face and examines it, turning itover, then bending it to see if it moves back intoplace.Satisfied, she places it neatly on a paper napkinon the table in front of her and reaches for another.The table is checkered with napkins, each displayingrows of these things in a variety of colors, sizesand textures – some metallic gold, looking likesmall candies, others that could be wilted leaves.The room is filled with them, laid out on half adozen tables, while workers sort through them,checking lists and packing them into cotton-linedboxes.TODAY is an export day at Costa RicaEntomological Supply (CRES), a butterfly-exportbusiness based in La Guácima, a rural canton ofAlajuela, northwest of San José. The curiositiesthat Sibaja and her colleagues are handling arechrysalises – the pupae from which brilliantly coloredbutterflies will emerge in fewer than 10 days,most likely in butterfly exhibits in North Americaor Europe.On a day like this recent Monday, the company exports 10,000 pupae of 75 species of butterfliesto approximately 20 clients aroundthe world.Joris Brinckerhoff has been in thebusiness of butterflies for a long time. Hefounded CRES with his wife in 1984,shortly after finishing a tour in the U.S.Peace Corps and having learned about thebusiness from somebody who picked himup hitchhiking.When he started, his was the first butterflybreeding and exporting business inLatin America, Brinckerhoff said, in aworld butterfly market worth $6,000 a year.Now, his company earns $750,000 ayear between the export of approximately400,000 pupae to more than 60 clientsaround the world, and its La Guácima butterflyexhibit called The Butterfly Farm.BRINCKERHOFF, however, is quickto shy away from reducing his business toits bottom line.“This isn’t just about business,” heemphasized. “It’s about people. It’s abouttaking an idea, a concept, and providingopportunities for people in rural areas ofthe country where there isn’t employment.”As his company has grown, it has seenbutterfly farming in Costa Rica spread itswings with it.Brinckerhoff said when he started out,CRES raised all its own butterflies. Littleby little, production began to spread.Today, the company gets approximately97% of its pupae from a network of 100small farmers scattered across rural CostaRica.“There’s been a transition. First, wewere the only butterfly producers in LatinAmerica. Then we started to work throughformer employees, friends of formeremployees, and friends of friends, andneighbors and so forth,” Brinckerhoff said.“It’s a terrific example of the transfer oftechnology, and now there are butterflyfarmers all over the country.”He says his company actively feedsand seeks to develop these relationships.“BUTTERFLY farming is a verymanual, labor-intensive business,”Brinckerhoff said. “That unusual degreeof dedication also deserves its rewards.The CRES business model has alwaysbeen that we maximize payments to thebreeders.” This, he explained, serves ahumanitarian purpose by creating ruralemployment and also furthers the environmentalcause.“Butterfly farming is the only industrythat anyone has been able to come upwith, that I’m aware of, that allows peopleto live in and around a forested habitatand earn as much or more than anythingelse they would be able to earn while livingin an environmentally benign manner,”Brinckerhoff said. “Rather than atraditional farmer looking at the forest assomething to cut down… it becomessomething to be protected, because thatforest becomes the habitat, the source oftheir livelihood.”For their efforts, he said, farmers onaverage earn approximately ¢300,000($630) a month selling several hundredpupae, a respectable wage in rural areas,especially when it is on top of a primaryincome. (Minimum wage in Costa Rica isabout $390 per month.)ANA Arroyo, whose husband works afull-time job, spends her days caring forthe butterfly farm that sits next to theirhouse in La Guácima – a paradisiacal gardenhidden beneath a black net.The couple has been raising butterfliesfor nearly 10 years, she said, havinglearned the trade through her husband’sbrother, who works for Brinckerhoff. Themoney it nets allows them to put their twochildren through school.“Without this,” she said, “I don’t knowwhat we would do.”As she walked through her garden,pointing to caterpillars and clusters of tinyeggs on the undersides of leaves, Arroyospoke of both the pleasures and pains ofthe job.“It’s very beautiful, but very tiring,”she said. “It serves to de-stress, but youhave to be here every day. There are noholidays, no weekends. It’s a lot of hours.”SHE estimated she sells about 16,000pupae a month to CRES, having delivered200 just that morning – an average harvest.She collects the eggs from the garden,allows them to hatch under controlledconditions in a laboratory, and then releases the caterpillars back into the garden.Once the caterpillars enter the pupa stage,shedding their skin and disappearing into asmall, suspended chrysalis, she gathersthem again into her lab where she packs andsells them to CRES.The process is one of constant collection.Pupae are sold every couple days toBrinckerhoff’s company, which ships twoto three times a week.“It’s a commodity product with verylow margins based on volume,” Brinckerhoffexplained, putting the actualprofit margin at about 5%. “The prices arevery low.”ON average, the pupae fetch between$1.40 and $1.60 each, he said, down from$2.25 as recently as a year ago. Accordingto Brinckerhoff, prices have dropped dramaticallybecause of overproduction.“People are looking for opportunitiesin which to produce a product in an environmentallybenign way around forests,”he said. “People are trying to developindustries that promote employment inrural areas.”This is leading more and more people tobutterfly farming, which results in more andmore butterfly pupae on the market.“When there are surplus pupae on themarket, and with a highly perishable productsuch as this, people are inclined to sellit for anything,” Brinckerhoff said. “Sothere’s an opportunity for people to buyvery cheap pupae, and market it for 10, 20or 30% less than the true value of production.When you have to compete against,not really businesses, but opportunists,then it’s not a stable business model, andprices have to drop.”THIS overproduction and low pricing,he explained, is coming from inside CostaRica. On one hand, he said, this could beseen as a good thing, because with the lowerprices, the market is growing.“Our breeders are not suffering toobad,” Brinckerhoff explained, “becausenow we are buying so many more pupaefrom them and CRES’ gross marginshaven’t been much affected at all. Terrific.But if you step outside of Costa Rica,where the same overproduction doesn’texist, people in El Salvador, Ecuador orPeru are breeding there own pupae andnow having to compete with Costa Rica’sprices.”Brinckerhoff fears that this could leadto the collapse of butterfly farms abroad,and the low prices could also discouragepotential farmers from entering the market,counteracting the very unique benefits theindustry provides.“Nobody ever said butterfly exhibitshave this mandate. They’re simply run for profitinstitutions and have their board ofdirectors and their budgets to meet likeeverybody else,” Brinckerhoff said. “Butas an industry, we are not fulfilling ourpotential as an excellent example of conservationin the Third World.”


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