BRIBRÍ, Limón – Near the town of Bribrí, an indigenous community in the southeast corner of Costa Rica, the Talamanca Small Producers Association is buzzing with activity. From this remote location near the border with Panama, organic cacao is dried and packed in burlap sacks, and organic fruits are processed into puree before they are exported worldwide.
“[The association] was founded in 1987 out of necessity,” said the association’s president, Juanita Baltodano.
When the invasive cacao pathogen Moniliophthora roreri, often referred to as monilia, appeared in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, Talamanca farmers were already struggling to earn a living because of low cacao prices from global overproduction. The monilia outbreak was a catastrophe for the cacao industry in Talamanca, according to Diego Lynch, president of Asociación ANAI, a Costa Rican nongovernmental organization that works with Talamanca farmers.
“After the outbreak, farmers in the area came together and asked, ‘Now what?’” he said.
The cacao loss demonstrated the danger of single-crop farming. Agricultural experts say the practice, referred to as “monocropping,” increases the susceptibility of plants to diseases that could destroy an entire crop, stresses the fertile topsoil, reduces genetic diversity and is dependent on global market prices, which constantly fluctuate.
ANAI began a crop diversification program in the Talamanca area in 1984. “Farmers attended nursery workshops, experimented with the development of different crops and cultivation methods and met to exchange experiences,” said Baltodano. “Through this process [farmers] realized the need to diversify.”
Previously, individual farmers would haul their cacao to a local market. They explored partnering with several organizations, but couldn’t reach an agreement, so they started their own association. In June 1987, the Talamanca Small Producers Association was launched with 73 farmers in 15 different communities; their goal was diversifying and changing the way farmers grow.
Talamanca is one of the poorest regions in the country, according to the United Nations Development Program’s regional office in Costa Rica. UNDP data from 2009, the latest figures available, ranked Talamanca canton second to last in terms of development. Until recently, infrastructure was practically nonexistent in the area. Although communication and transportation have improved, the district continues to show deterioration of economic and social conditions.
Faced with many obstacles, members of the Talamanca association had the foresight to go organic. Baltodano said that farmers still wanted to grow cacao, but they were losing money because they didn’t produce enough, partially due to the crop’s short growing season from October to February. In 1992, the association sold its first organic cacao.
Figures from the Talamanca association show that the price of organic cacao increased cacao revenues fivefold, and the development of organic bananas – used to make banana puree sold for smoothies, cakes and other products – added a steady source of income for the farmers, who no longer depended on short-term revenue during the short cacao season. Baltodano said farmers no longer had to leave their families to look for work at the end of the cacao season since they could work locally.
In addition to economic factors, organic production is better for the environment, as no pesticides or toxins are used. And demand for organic food in places like Europe and the United States continues to grow. According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey, the sale of organic food in the U.S. grew 7.7 percent from 2009 to 2010. Organic fruits and vegetables experienced the highest growth in sales during 2010 with an 11.8 percent increase from 2009.
But for many small farmers in Costa Rica, organic certification is too expensive. According to Costa Rican certifying agency Eco-LOGICA, the cost of certification is based on farm size, crops and the certification required. Different countries have their own requirements.
Before a farm can be certified, it must use organic production methods for two to three years. Other requirements include selection of seeds and plant materials, maintenance of soil fertility, recycling of used organic materials, method of tillage, water conservation and control of pests, diseases and weeds.
The Talamanca association meets costs by collectively certifying its members and doing a lot of the work normally done by the certifying agency.
The Association of Organic Producers of Turrialba and the Association of Organic Lovers recently requested support from the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry to implement participatory certification, a form of certification for organic products aimed at the domestic market, which would reduce certification costs.
Agriculture Vice Minister Tania López said that this certification proposal is being analyzed, and although it would cost less, it would not mean fewer controls. López said the agricultural sector is actively working to promote organic farming.
Still, only 2.3 percent of food grown in Costa Rica is organic, according to the annual State of the Nation report (see story on Page 1). And Costa Rica’s importing of pesticides has continued to increase since 1978. In 2000, Costa Rica imported 8,000 metric tons of pesticides. That number increased to 14,000 metric tons in 2010.
For Talamanca farmers, life has improved. Baltodano said the association now produces and markets about 45 organic products, including cacao, bananas, guava, guayaba, cas and zapote. Most cacao is exported to Switzerland and the U.S., while guayaba is sent to Italy and Canada, and the bulk of bananas go to France and Germany.
Talamanca farmers have found clients at global fairs and through word of mouth.
Future plans for the Talamanca association include expanding the fruit processing room to enable in-house fruit processing instead of renting other companies’ facilities. And they are introducing different fruit-bearing trees to further diversify.
Today the Talamanca association consists of approximately 1,067 producers in more than 30 communities in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica. About 80 percent of members are indigenous Bribrí or Cabécar, and 38 percent are women.
“That [the Talamanca association] still exists means it is wildly successful compared with other organizations,” said Lynch. “The fact is that it is working, expanding, diversifying and understanding its role not only in solving the problem of where to sell products, but [also] in helping to create a future when people can be successful having agro-ecological farming systems.”
Positive results are evident by the number of Talamanca area farmers who hope to join the association. Baltodano said to become a member, farmers must be certified organic, have two recommendations from business partners, pay a membership and annual fee and comply with association guidelines.
For many in the Talamanca region, the association is more than a business – it saved the economy and the lives of a community.
Correction: The name of the woman written in the caption was incorrect due to an editing error. The correct women’s name has been added to the caption.