Editor’s Note: This is part of a series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project.
After oil, coffee is the second most valuable legal commodity in the world. It is estimated that over 120 million people live off the cultivation of coffee, more than 25 million of whom are small producers. In addition, about 2.25 billion cups of the beverage are consumed daily. Latin America remains the largest coffee growing region in the world (led by Brazil) although Asian and African countries have increased their cultivation acreage, becoming major producers. In Latin America, coffee production experienced significant growth after WWII due to increased consumption of the beverage, especially in the United States. As an important coffee-producing nation in Central America, Costa Ricans responded to this demand by expanding the amount of land devoted to plantation agriculture and embracing the technological promise of the Green Revolution. These changes had a number of social, economic, and ecological consequences.
In Costa Rica, coffee ushered in the agrarian capitalism model of private property and (semi)proletariat labour. Since the 1820s, however, unlike other Latin American countries (Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador) coffee production was the focus of small and medium-size farms, although there was also large-size farms (haciendas). In Costa Rica, farmers concentrated mainly on the most lucrative stages of the coffee chain (processing, export, and trade). If you are a fan of coffee as much as we do, you might want to step on top of the newest products like the coffee tea bags
The predominance of small and medium-sized property created three coffee-production systems: the initial agroforestry coffee system, the polyculture system, and the regulated shadow system (Figure 1). In most of these farms, coffee was the dominant crop and coexisted with other crops (fruits, legumes, musaceae) needed in the peasant diet.
During the nineteenth century, shade was an important part of the coffee plantation agroecosystem. By the end of the century, however, different manuals circulated legitimizing and delegitimizing the presence of shade on coffee plantations. During the first half of the twentieth century, the subject was discussed profusely by agronomists and coffee growers, but no agreement was reached regarding the relevance of shade on coffee farms. The decision by the Instituto de Defensa del Café (1933) to defend coffee shade trees, and its policy of selling and distributing shade tree seedlings, favoured the predominance of the regulated shade coffee system in the country. The situation began to shift in the second half of the twentieth century, in the context of coffee modernization,which promoted the enforcement of the technical package of the Green Revolution.
The launch of the coffee modernization project coincided with a strong market situation, due to high coffee prices during the late 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the country had an open agricultural frontier, with some agro-ecologically suitable regions for coffee, an increasing population, and developmentalist governments. Within this enabling context, the technological package of the Green Revolution launched major change in Costa Rican coffee production, including: 1) genetic change, with the introduction of new high yield coffee varieties, 2) technical change, with the application of chemical inputs, and 3) cultural change, with the implementation of new agricultural practices (new planting and pruning system and coffee plantations without shade) (Figure 1).
In Costa Rica, an increase in coffee growing area and technical changes led to a rise in coffee production (Figure 2). Several times during the 1970s, the country recorded the highest yield per hectare in the world. However, this was not permanent. Good coffee prices in the postwar period soon provoked overproduction as early as the 1950s. Coffee prices dropped on the international market, and producing and exporting countries sought alternatives to improve the coffee situation in the context of the Cold War. In 1963, several coffee-producing countries signed the International Coffee Agreement (ICA). With some periods of rupture, the agreement regulated the coffee market through the establishment of export quotas until 1989.
The coffee modernization success was frustrated partly by an unstable coffee market. Coffee price improvement depended mainly on natural events (droughts and frost) in Brazil, the world’s leading producer. The Costa Rican coffee sector went through by the modernization project, which promoted an increase of coffee production, although there were important differences by coffee region and coffee estate. Despite the interinstitutional support, many coffee-growers could not implement the whole technological package of the Green Revolution. Many could not, or chose not to, move to the new high yield varieties, but adopted chemical inputs or improved cultural practices. When prices were low, growers cut their production costs by discontinuing or reducing the use of chemical inputs. In the context of coffee modernization and a regulated market, coffee regions tended to diversify and the use of shade trees in small and medium-size coffee farms was not completely banished, but instead began to acquire a more commercial value (fruit trees and woods trees).
My research is based on a hybrid methodology that involves:
1) A coffee-growing specialization model: In a similar line to Badia and Tello that includes a set of variables: a) soils & climates, b) land uses, c) demographic, and d) market access, with the aim to explain the coffee-growing specialization determinants in four different moments (1955, 1963, 1973, and 1984) and six coffee regions of Costa Rica (Central Region, Western Region, Turrialba Region, Tarrazú Region, Brunca Region and Pacific Region).
2) A gravity model of coffee trade: Following Ayuda, et al (forthcoming) to better understand the trajectory of mild coffee exports into a set of countries with differences in coffee production and in trade strategies (Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica), with the aim of providing convincing explanations about the impact of the ICA in terms of changes in qualities and the evolution of global prices in coffee trade.
3) Energy–Landscape Integrated Analysis model: Using methods developed by Marull, et al. to study the role of agro-ecosystems (specifically shaded coffee plantations) in maintaining socio-ecological processes and biodiversity. It will be implemented in three specific moments (before the Green Revolution, during the Green Revolution, and after breakdown of ICA) in two coffee regions (Tarrazú Region and Brunca Region). It intends to explain the changes in the landscape mosaics and the socioecological transitions.
My research will explain the historical path of Costa Rican coffee cultivation in the second half of the twentieth century, taking into account ecological, agro-ecological, technical, and market variables. This multi-variable approach will allow us to measure the socio-metabolic transitions of coffee plantation agriculture in the context of technological change and regulated market. The findings will contribute to future public policies to support a sustainable coffee sector that allows a competitive coffee sector while protecting the natural resources and the socio-environmental dimension of a diversified coffee system.
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 Badia-Miró, M., & Tello, E. (2014). “Vine-growing in Catalonia: the main agricultural change underlying the earliest industrialization in Mediterranean Europe (1720–1939)”. European Review of Economic History, 18(2): 203-226.
 Marull, J., Font, C., Padró, R., Tello, E., & Panazzolo, A. (2016). “Energy–Landscape Integrated Analysis: A proposal for measuring complexity in internal agroecosystem processes (Barcelona Metropolitan Region, 1860–2000)”. Ecological Indicators, 66: 30-46.