In the summer after my sophomore year of college, I conducted research on sustainable development in Costa Rica and Panama. This was one of the most enriching academic and personal experiences in my life to-date, especially the week that I spent living on a small-scale cacao farm in Mastatal, Costa Rica. That magical week involved working and eating alongside the absolutely lovely family that has owned the land its cacao trees for generations.
Mastatal is a unique agricultural community that lies in the south west region of the San Jose Province. It is a town that has always relied on agriculture, usually on a small scale. It has never industrialized and found a comfortable place in the larger Costa Rica economy, but since the turn of the century it has revived its economy through agricultural tourism, or agritourism.
Wait… what is agritourism?
Agricultural tourism is a subset of the larger trend toward ecotourism, a style of travel that involves leaving a small footprint on the environment, while connecting on a deeper level with it. Agritourism involves staying and working on a farm with the goal of getting closer to the source of the food you eat. This trend is generally being driven by global changes in food and dining, climate and energy conservation, health and wellness, and heritage conservation (Ciglovska, 278). Four farms in Mastatal, all focusing on different products, use agritourism as a source of additional income, hosting visitors, giving tours, making local dishes, and putting the travelers to work. Where I was staying, La Iguana Chocolate, was the main attraction, because everybody loves chocolate.
The group of students that I was a part of worked alongside the family that owned the cacao operation, while conducting field research on the budding agritourism industry in the small town as a whole. The work was hard but rewarding and gave me closer insight into the process of harvesting cacao and making chocolate, as well as the struggles of a small scale producer. Chocolate is made from the beans inside a fruit that grows from a tree, something that I was unaware of before my time on the farm. Upon arriving we were given a full tasting, one of the services that is offered to travelers each day. The couple that operates the farm greeted us with an interesting looking fruit that reminded me of a squash, and when they broke it open it was filled with small white fuzzy pods. They encouraged us to take one of the pods and eat the white fuzzy material off of it, and that was the moment that I found my favorite fruit. Yes, cacao is my favorite fruit. It sounds crazy… most people have no idea where the cocoa powder and butter that makes their favorite treat comes from, or that the raw fruity product could be so delicious. For those of you struggling to believe me, I have attached a video of a tasting. That first sight of the cacao pods was only the beginning of my time spent with them over the course of my time at La Iguana.
The most rewarding part of the whole week was the time spent in the fields harvesting the cacao pods. The work is eye-opening in its difficulty. We started our day with a quick breakfast at around seven o’clock in the morning before packing lunch and all the necessary tools onto the back of a single horse. We then set off through the back of the immediate property, down a dirt, and then mud, road for about a mile until we came to a river. Shoes were removed and the river was crossed, the small dog accompanying us was carried, of course. After we scaled a large hill we finally reached the edge of a forest, situated in higher altitude than we were previously. The walk alone was enough to exhaust the group, but it is highly necessary that the cacao trees are in the perfect environment to grow effectively. Cacao trees need to be in an area with high moisture but good draining, usually shaded by other trees and surrounded by a heavy underbrush of leaves. This is knowledge that has been passed down for generations, since the first cacao tree was brought to Mastatal. These very particular conditions were perfect in this hillside forest, and the journey to reach the trees is absolutely worth it when the trees are highly productive. This is especially true when your livelihood depends on it.
Once we got to the vast area of cacao trees there was important training that needed to take place. There were several strains of cacao growing in the field. This meant that the ideal color and shape of the pods that were ready for harvest could differ from tree to tree. Green pods turn a deep yellow, but yellow pods turn a bright red. Clearly there is room for confusion. Beyond that, any pod that has black spots on it must be taken down despite its level of ripeness. The black spots are a disease that can ruin an entire harvest, Moniliophthora roreri, but more on that later. We also had to learn how to properly use the sharp tools to cut the pods from the trunks of the cacao trees. It seemed like at every step in the process of growing and harvesting cacao there was only one very specific way of doing things. While we may have been a bit unprepared, we were set off into the forest, machete and large hemp bag in hand.
Aside from the cliff of mud and rushing river that had to be passed to reach the crop, the work itself was awfully dangerous as well. Costa Rica is home to the Fer-de-Lance, an incredibly venomous viper who likes to live in underbrush… underbrush much like that required to grow cacao. Some of the pods are also out of reach, making climbing a tree with a machete in hand necessary. Once our bags were full with pods, we hauled them to the center of the forest and all dumped them out to extract the beans. While working on the pods, we chatted with the family about how they got started in cacao, and what the biggest challenges have been in making a living from the crop.
While roughly two thirds of the worlds cacao production happens in West Africa, the plant is indigenous to Central and South America, an area that produces only five percent of the worlds cacao today (Leissle, 16). This is due to the colonial exportation of the production means to an area that was understood as having cheap and abundant labor that could support the booming chocolate industry. La Iguana is one of the few farms still producing cacao in the Mastatal area. We were told that cacao trees were brought to the area in the middle of the twentieth century because the Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture saw it as an opportunity to breathe life into the economy of the area. In essence, small scale subsistence and fruit farmers were forced to change their production techniques and land use to cater to cacao. Encouraging shaded agro-ecosystems like cacao also “provide a promising means of addressing the challenges of creating a forest‐like habitat for tropical biodiversity in a rapidly deforested landscape, while simultaneously providing a lucrative crop for local agricultural communities” (Phillips‐Mora et al.).
However, many of the farmers that were planting cacao in Mastatal had to stop in the mid-90s when Monilio, the fungal disease discussed above, was spread through the area. We were told that there was no concrete understanding of how the disease came to the area, perhaps on the clothes of a traveler studying cacao. It was clear that this disease could cause hardship that seemed unsurmountable. It was well known that Monilio could be destroy long-term economic viability if even one yield was infected (Evans et al.). After the disease initially hit the La Iguana farm, they could not get enough pure cacao pods and had to revert to selling only fruit from their smaller fruit farm for a living. A highlight is that even in pods with black spots covering most of the fruit, it is possible that the fungus has not yet reached the beans on the inside, and the cacao is still useable.
While La Iguana has implemented a few techniques to diminish the impact of the Monilia on their crop that has allowed them to maintain good harvests, there have been other struggles for the small farm in establishing a sustainable business model. The largest struggle for them, as well as the other farms shifting towards an agritourism model, was attracting the right crowds of people. The research that I ultimately produced from my time there looked at the marketing techniques of each of these farms, and how they are perceived by the surrounding community. I found that the initial launch of these farms as tourist destinations brought the wrong kind of people to the town, creating a tension between the farms and other locals. Jarkko Saarinen is a scholar who has done extensive research in the field, and he made a similar generalization that “high development goals of rural tourism may separate rural communities and tourism actors, which can cause economic and social conflicts, insecurity and locally unwanted changes in rural landscapes.” However, once La Iguana was able to control the crowds they were attracting, and their ability to bring new people to the area started having a positive impact on the greater community, they reached a new level of stability and social sustainability.
However, both the control of tourists coming to eat chocolate from the source, and the control of Monilio are ongoing battles for La Iguana Chocolate as well as other small scale cacao farmers in the region. I am infinitely grateful for the time I was able to spend there, and the friends I made in Mastatal. The knowledge that I gained from living and working in a small agricultural town going through a beautiful economic transformation will allow me to better navigate these communities in the future and work with them on their long term development and sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.
Evans, Harry C., et al. “What’s in a Name: Crinipellis, the Final Resting Place for the Frosty Pod Rot Pathogen of Cocoa?” Mycologist, vol. 16, no. 4, Nov. 2002, pp. 148–52. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/S0269915X02004093.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity, 2018.
Phillips‐Mora, W., et al. “Biodiversity and Biogeography of the Cacao (Theobroma Cacao) Pathogen Moniliophthora Roreri in Tropical America.” Plant Pathology, vol. 56, no. 6, 2007, pp. 911–22. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1365-3059.2007.01646.x.
Saarinen, Jarkko. “Traditions of Sustainability in Tourism Studies.” Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 33, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 1121–40. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.annals.2006.06.007.
All photos were taken by Taylor Gates.