By Jason Park, VI Form
A New Condition: Sustainable Agriculture in Costa Rica
During a summer program last year, I developed a deep, heartfelt connection to Costa Rica – more specifically, an organic farm. Located in Chilamate, the farm is owned and operated by Don Daniel, his wife, and his son. Our group designed, prepared, and built a mandala garden based on permaculture principles. As an ardent supporter of organic farming, Don Daniel showed us how he gathers manure and creates organic fertilizers for his farm. We combined all the necessary ingredients – sawdust, mulch, pig/cow manure, calcium, and microorganisms – in order to use the fertilizer as we built the garden bed. As a symbol of warmth and peace, the sun was our design of choice. Not only has our service to Don Daniel established a mutual bond, but listening to his story also evoked a mixed sensation of poignancy and respect. In fact, my interaction with Don Daniel and his history and wisdom advance beyond the physical parameters.
Following the completed work, Don Daniel and his wife treated us with warm Costa Rican coffee and yuca fries from the yucas we harvested earlier that day. We sat around the tables, facing Don Daniel. He smiled during every moment we shared, but this moment seemed difficult for Don Daniel to cope with as he was about to share his life story.
When Don Daniel was younger, he worked at pineapple fields in Costa Rica. As a staple crop of Costa Rica, pineapples were, surprsingly, a largely detrimental monocrop that caused much of lush greenery to disappear. At night, he would destroy forests and trees to pave a way for planting pineapples. Every night, 50 to 60 acres of forest land were destroyed by the tractors. Although hampering the habitat and cutting down trees without permission are both illegal according to the Costa Rican Forestry Law, the company told him that he had to hide the trees amongst the dead animals to cover up the scene. The animals, whether stuck or dead by the fallen trees, would all have to be pushed into a hole with the trees and buried. Don Daniel despised the job, but he had a family to feed. In order to continue clearing land, he was also forced to destroy bodies of water nearby. They opened canals and secretly bought and sold all the fish in the area to get rid of the evidence. Despite the harsh working conditions, pineapples were, and are still today, major crops used for exports.
After plowing through numerous acres of land and trees, he and the company began to help planting the pineapples. Since the destruction ceased, he thought he would find some hope and peace in the job, but he found the subsequent steps even more detrimental to the environment. After the pineapples were grown, Don Daniel had to spray the crops with chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides from giant tanks. This exact process of deforestation and harvesting monocrops was extremely hazardous, especially under a tropical climate like Costa Rica. Since Costa Rica has very hot and humid days along with a heavy rainy season, the soil practically bakes under the scorching sun, depleting all the necessary nutrients in the soil. In addition, monoculture is highly susceptible to pests and invasive species. Thus, spraying them with chemical pesticides is environmentally damaging. Furthermore, in a climate like Costa Rica where powerful rains lead to chemical runoff, bodies of water in the vicinity are flooded with deadly chemicals that kill all marine life in the area.
During lunch one day, Don Daniel and his workers talked about building an organic farm together. After years of work under the company, Don Daniel decided to leave and begin his new organization. After the establishment, he and his workers pushed for zero-chemical use policies and received land from the Costa Rican government eventually in 2005. However, he could not make much progress because, at that time, the government protected farms that used chemicals as they produced more yield. In 2007, Don Daniel was finally able to receive support and additional land from the government, but he still could not earn the certification for becoming fully organic and self-sustaining. Almost no one wanted to purchase organic products from Don Daniel, as conventional produce were cheaper. Yet, the lack of attention did not discourage Don Daniel. After 10 years of dedication, he was presented with the certification for achieving and establishing a sustainable and organic farm. In 2018, the government officially recognized Don Daniel’s organic farm and granted him with the Blue Flag – a banner that appreciates and praises sensible ecological practices and service to the local community. The flag ultimately symbolizes Don Daniel’s achievements and his strenuous yet successful transition to an avid upholder of sustainability. With the highest four-star label, Don Daniel’s contributions are now acknowledged internationally. With peppercorns and vanilla being his main crops, he has recently received a higher offer for his vanilla (the second most expensive ingredient in the world) from a French lady. While his previous customer offered $225 per kilogram of vanilla, the French lady offered him $500.
On one hand, Don Daniel possesses incredible knowledge and success from experience and fieldwork rather than from school. On the other hand, he suffers from chronic health problems and grief. When he first started his organization, eight members were working, including Don Daniel. However, he is the only one that has survived through now. The other seven of his friends have passed away earlier due to the harmful exposures to chemicals and pesticides while they worked in the pineapple farms. Don Daniel is currently very sick from the heart and lungs and is slowly experiencing hearing and eyesight loss. But, prospective scholars and educators like us and his family motivate him to work harder. At the same time, Don Daniel also inspires many more families, whether they are local farmers or other eco-tourists. At the end of his story, he expressed how grateful he was to work with us and, in turn, listened to our stories as well.
As my constant, Don Daniel’s teachings and philosophies remain invaluable, principles that extend through generations and realms of sustainable agriculture. His story inspires me to persist in my craft and to express gratitude by giving back to communities. Don Daniel’s son currently upholds his legacy and I see a resemblance between their father-son relationship and my own. The transaction between my time, energy, and dedication to build and learn about agriculture and Don Daniel’s knowledge, advice, and life story accumulate to a valuable connection. Most importantly, I will never forget Don Daniel’s comforting smile.
Jason Park is a VI form boarding student from Seoul, South Korea. His favorite subjects include Environmental Science and English. Last summer, he traveled to Costa Rica for a summer camp and he feels it was a transformative experience regarding sustainability and agriculture.