Fair Trade cacao, Costa Rica: APPTA

This looked like proper jungle. Steamy, hot, humid, with unfamiliar animals and noises, and a treasure trove of cacao and bananas. The unknown beckoned again on my second fair trade visit in Costa Rica as I came down from the highlands to the coast.

APPTA is an organic, Fair Trade cacao and banana co-op located in the remote northeast of the country, sandwiched between the Caribbean coast and the Panama border. Its main business is cacao for export and bananas for the national market. It also grows other fruit and vegetables for local  markets. On a damp, grey morning I visited the cacao processing facility and office, just outside the small town of Bribri. As I crested a small hill near the site, I saw the distant hills of Panama and in the foreground a green sea of banana plants stretching across the floodplain (the bananas we typically eat grow as a plant, not a tree). This was undeniably banana country.

Walter, the co-op gerente (manager), was too busy to show me around so I got a tour with Jairo, a young personable man who deals with exports. After seeing the fruit and vegetable nursery with Jairo, he handed me over to Leonila, a nursery worker, and we went off to look at the cacao trees. Despite the damp conditions, I was dressed in shorts and short sleeves, so I was unprepared for the stealthy attacks on my arms and legs by the mosquitoes. It was my first day out of the mountains for a while and I’d got used to being sting-free.

However, the upside was the cacao. There were several different ‘pod’ varieties and colours. Some were just ripening, so this was my chance to taste the pod contents right off the tree. Deliciously sweet, creamy white and fragrant, the pulp that contains the beans is good enough to eat in itself. But it takes a little more effort to get the cacao to the point where it can be used in making chocolate.

The cacao processing area is housed under a large, open shed. Due to the damp conditions, the beans were drying in racks under the shelter of the roof or in a large bath humidifier. When it’s sunny, these large racks, the size of a snooker table, are wheeled out to dry in the light and heat.

Cacao requires several days to ferment before drying. Whereas coffee is de-pulped and washed first, cacao is simply dumped into large wooden containers, covered and left for around 5-6 days. The smell coming from the bins told me all I needed to know – but I peered in anyway to check out the fermenting pods. Call it investigative curiosity…

After 5-6 days, the pulp has fermented and just the bean remains. From here, it’s a short, heavy haul by the co-op workers to place them on one of the racks or baths for drying.

The dried beans are bagged and stored in the small warehouse adjoining the office. All organic, a proportion of the APPTA cacao is Fair Trade. Typically their European buyers pay Fair Trade prices. Fair Trade pricing for cacao works in a similar way to coffee: there is a world minimum price, and Fair Trade pays above the market price when the market is higher than the minimum. A proportion of the price also goes back to the co-op itself.

Another important part of the co-op’s work is in producing banana pulp for export. The co-op is trying to establish export markets for export of fresh bananas and is currently working with an importer in Holland. If successful, this would be a major boost for the co-op. Other initiatives include producing various organic fruit and vegetables for local markets. These include passion fruit, cucumber, tomatoes, papaya.

The cultivation of bananas is important as it helps give the growers a consistent source of income. Cacao is harvested annually, so growers can focus on banana cultivation outside of cacao harvest time.

The nursery grows several plants to sell to local growers. The APPTA farm is certified organic, though not all the growers are certified. APPTA makes a great effort to help the local community through various projects, such as improving local biodiversity and sustainability, and product diversification.

Cycling back home, I was amazed that this little organic oasis existed. In the valley I cycled past vast stretches of conventional banana plantations. I saw several signposts warning people not to enter the fields during ‘pesticide delivery time’, which is done by helicopter. There are many stories of workers being treated harshly and the environmental impact of banana production, but that’s for another time…(however I do recommend taking a look at either of these two films, “Bananas!*” or “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*“).

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Co-op Statistics:

Founded: 1987, working in 30 local communities.

Size/No. of producers: 1200 (80% are indigenous Bribri or Cabécar; Women consist 38% of APPTA members).

Fair Trade/organic: All organic cacao, some Fair Trade.