Americans love coffee.
We love it so much that we consume 146 billion cups of it a year (yes, you read that right).
But do we know where it comes from? Or who grows it? And how it makes its way into our Styrofoam, logo-ed cups each morning?
Well, I got some of the answers to these questions, during my month long study abroad trip to Costa Rica.
A country synonymous with sustainability, Costa Rica’s coffee farms are no exception. Our group visited one such farm, Café de Monteverde where we met Guillermo Vargas, who gave us a tour of his coffee farm.
Expecting to see, well, coffee plants, we were surprised that we were given free time to just explore the place. We found a vegetable and herb farm, a bio digester, goats, and pigs. Then we trudged back to discuss our experience with Señor Vargas.
We learnt that everything we had seen was an exercise in sustainability. Pig manure is used to power the bio digester, which produces methane gas, which powers a water-pump system throughout the farm. Goat manure is used as fertilizer for the vegetable and herb farm, where each plant is thoughtfully located along a
slope, where a leafier plant may give shade to another and where one requiring more water is located at the bottom of the slope, able to collect the most.
We learn later that there are, in fact, different types of coffee plants, but not as many as you would expect. The families of Monteverde only operate what they believe to be within their means. Insecticide is only used in areas where tests show it is necessary. We also learn that half of Café de Monteverde’s land is primary and secondary forest. The forest contains natural predators of pests that could harm their crops. It provides shade for the coffee plants. It also acts as a water regulator to provide more or less water to crops as needed, as well as myriad other reasons.
During this tour, we learned that despite all the odds, it is possible to effectively manage a sustainable business. But we were also challenged to think about the business aspect of sustainability.
Guillermo asked us at one point: “If a company doesn’t pay their workers a livable wage, is it still sustainable?” This brought up an interesting point that is rarely discussed in sustainability: Human sustainability. Caring for the environment is important, but caring for humans is equally as important.
The majority of Café de Monteverde’s coffee pickers are Nicaraguans searching for better earnings and more opportunity, and the company is dedicated to ensuring fair wages and working conditions for their employees. And because Café de Monteverde is actually a co-op owned by twelve families, there is a system
of accountability to ensure sustainable business practices so long as they keep producing coffee.
Señor Vargas assured us that we were a special group because he had a surprise planned for us. None of us knew what to expect until we walked down a field and spotted a wooden sign that read “Welcome.” Guillermo informed us that this sign and the other signs we were about to see were made by teenagers from the U.S. who were sent to Café de Monteverde as part of a juvenile rehabilitation program. The kids had time to pick a project to complete during their week-long stay in Costa Rica, and they decided to create a trail lined with inspirational boards leading to a platform in the middle of the forest. After reading each board along the trail, our group got quieter and quieter until we reached the platform.
Señor Vargas asked us each to sit and to spend a few minute with our eyes closed in silence with each other. We all listened to sounds of the forest for what would never seem like enough time. Guillermo asked us all to share what we felt after the experience, and we all had a shared experience of peace. Guillermo told us that like those kids had to learn how to better themselves, we also have to think about how to better ourselves. His parting words with us were “be kind to yourselves.”
Guillermo spent the day talking about mindfulness towards the Earth and mindfulness towards others, but the message that he felt was most important to
impart was mindfulness towards yourself. I think this is what makes Café de Monteverde so special- it’s not just the environment; it’s not just people; it’s souls.
So now, when I, like nearly every other American, wake up in the morning and engage in my morning ritual of making myself a cup of coffee, I think back to Guillermo.
I think “Be kind to yourself,” and then I start my day