Terra: Doka Estate Coffee Plantation, Costa Rica
The roads to Doka Estate are lined with verdant curtains of coffee plants, with red ripe jewels dangling from the branches. Black shears diffuse the sunlight and shelters one of Costa Rica’s most vital exports. The plantation isn’t located too far off the beaten path, which makes it a large draw for tour groups. However, each time i’ve passed through here, I’ve always left with the impression that there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Doka guides give an impressive tour of the facilities, each station laid out in intricate display. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the flow of the operation. A young woman takes us on a tour of the grounds. She stands at the coffee plant and picks a bean, dissects it, and discusses the exquisite properties of the Arabica plant. She explains the organization of the harvest, and the participation of the Nicaraguans. We are shown a coffee harvester token, a yellow chip rivaling the size of a poker chip. This is the local currency, good in exchange for Costa Rican Colones upon return to the estate. The standard exchange is one token for a full basket of harvested coffee beans. A good, healthy, worker can make around $10-12 dollars (equivalent) per hour. This amount compounds when families work together during the day.
Nicaraguans, los nicos as the locals call them, are migrant workers. Best compared to migrant Mexicans in the United States, the social and economic status of these workers are a topic of no small debate. Costa Ricans used to harvest the coffee for centuries, but as education and opportunity increased, people willing to work in manual labor decreased accordingly. Now, families of nicos are paid by the pound to haul baskets of coffee beans to the processing facilities. Coffee can not be effectively harvested by machine, since a discerning eye is needed to select the ripe beans individually. During the demonstration, clusters of shuffling workers take great pains to avoid the tour group. Small children, 9 or 10 years old, carry child-sized baskets over their shoulders. Our driver explains that it’s illegal for them to work during school hours, but during breaks they are free to work alongside their families. The image leaves an impression that a break from school is far from a break from work, and makes me wonder how strictly the rules are truly enforced.
The tours continue from unloading, to milling, using a hydro process to shell and separate the beans. This is a fully operational wet mill, the oldest in Costa Rica, and the engineering involved to maintain operations is impressive, to say the least. Outside, dark-skinned men arrange shovelfuls of beans into neat rows. The sun drying process is vital to the wet mill method of production, but it would appear that the men are far more sun-dried than the beans are. Nevertheless, coolers of water are spotted nearby, the men are wearing hats and appropriate clothing, and a few personal possessions are neatly piled in a shaded seating area. It’s particularly difficult to not find fault with the mill, for if Doka didn’t employ these families, who would? In fact, it’s no secret that Doka may be one of the better plantations to work for around here.
Like with any good tour, the guide ends the lecture in the gift shop. Ravenous tourists gulp free samples of coffee, and purchase bags to take home to family and friends. Now, we have at least a minimal working knowledge of where our coffee comes from, which is better than most. Food does not magically appear on supermarket shelves, and by the magic of industrial food production most of us are left in the dark as to where our food is grown and more importantly, who brings it to our table. Costa Rican coffee, picked by Nicaraguans, enjoyed by Americans. This is your primer for globalization.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0