Blue Bugs Signal Approval

We are having an early change of seasons in Costa Rica, where in the Central Valley the rains do not normally begin until May. In the last week we have had rain several times, which is unusual for April, but would be quite normal in the first half of May.

During the dry season I let patches of green grow without cutting, as a way to see where there may be subterranean water that will be useful in the future for irrigation.

In one such location some grasses grew that resembled bamboo, and once I started moving them recently dozens–maybe hundreds–of these blue bugs started fluttering about.

At the intersection of my sweatshirt and glove one settled long enough for me to get a good look, but I have no recollection of ever having seen this type before. Part of our purpose of the replanting we are doing has been increasing biodiversity on this little bit of mountain terrain, and today I got a buggy blue signal of approval.

Organikos, 2021 New Growth

In the center of this picture is a poro tree, the tallest on the land where Organikos is replanting coffee. For nearly a century the coffee growing on this hillside was shaded by this type of tree. In the year 2000 we started planting fruit trees around  the poro trees, to provide additional shade to the coffee that was still growing here. In 2020, we planted saplings from this tree. Continue reading

Tasting Costa Rica In Chocolate

Four samples of Nahua chocolate: 100%; 90%; 70%; and one with an additional ingredient to be identified during the tasting session

Our first taste of place experience was a small gathering, but a lively one, and fulfilled our objective. Today we continue with our second event, focused on the ingredient-sourcing, production, and sustainability aspects of bean-to-bar chocolate. We will also taste four different chocolates, each with a different level of chocolate and one with an added mystery ingredient. Our supplier, Nahua, is a pioneer in Costa Rica’s sustainable cacao farming, as well as in gourmet chocolate production. Guests at this event will learn about the history of cacao in Costa Rica, much less well known that the history of coffee here but rapidly gaining a global following.

Taste Of Place Experiences In Costa Rica

While bee populations have waned throughout rural America, urban hives are thriving in cities such as Detroit, producing honey that’s reminiscent of mint, clover or goldenrod. Photo by Patricia Heal. Prop styling by Martin Bourne

Terroir is a word that has appeared often in these pages. Taste of place, a phrase with related meaning, likewise has appeared plenty of times. This phrase is a tag line used frequently in our work, based on an experience I had in Paraguay in 2005. We will begin weekly “taste of place experiences” for guests in both Authentica shops tomorrow; starting with mead, followed by chocolate, then honey, coffee and so on. Every week an artisan will present how they source ingredients, how they make their product, and how the taste of it reflects the particular location in Costa Rica where sourcing is done. So, great to see this about urban taste of place movement in our neighbor to the north:

The Growers, Bakers and Beekeepers Embracing the Terroir of American Cities

THE GRAPEVINES RISE at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue in Cleveland, 14 trim green rows claiming over half a city block — a little less than an acre — beside an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, whose rolling lawn on a summer morning is as lush as Versailles’s. The sky is brilliant and wide above stoplights and swoops of telephone wire. Across the tar-patched street stand storefronts behind scissor gates and a former grocery whose facade half collapsed last May, raining brick on the sidewalk. Down the avenue, the walls of another boarded-up building have been commandeered as an outdoor art gallery, papered over in posters with messages: “I survived the Hough riots”; “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

Long celebrated in France, the concept of place-specific tastes is spurring the revitalization of neighborhoods and communities.

THE GRAPEVINES RISE at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue in Cleveland, 14 trim green rows claiming over half a city block — a little less than an acre — beside an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, whose rolling lawn on a summer morning is as lush as Versailles’s. The sky is brilliant and wide above stoplights and swoops of telephone wire. Across the tar-patched street stand storefronts behind scissor gates and a former grocery whose facade half collapsed last May, raining brick on the sidewalk. Down the avenue, the walls of another boarded-up building have been commandeered as an outdoor art gallery, papered over in posters with messages: “I survived the Hough riots”; “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

For centuries, the French have used the word “terroir” to describe the environment in which a wine is produced. Going back to the Latin “terra,” “earth,” it’s rooted in a traditional vision of the countryside and has become more fervently embraced as our agrarian past recedes. Continue reading

A Surprise At The Intersection Of Coffee-Growing And Bird-Watching

Mourning Warbler. Guillermo Santos/Provided

Villa Triunfo, final day of 2021 harvest

We recently visited Villa Triunfo, on the last day of the harvest. I have not yet had time to post the photos and video from that visit, but to the left is an image from that day. As interesting as the coffee varietals growing on this estate are the trees that shade the coffee, fix nitrogen in the soil, and provide compostable material to further enrich the soil. We chose to offer this coffee primarily for the taste, but the shade trees were part of our decision, given our commitment to support bird-habitat regeneration.

To my surprise, this recent finding by a team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech tells me that we need to do much more to promote the benefits of shade-grown coffee, not only for its impact on taste:

Shade-grown coffee could save birds, if people drank it

Shade-grown coffee beans. Guillermo Santos/Provided

Shade-grown coffee has big benefits for bird conservation, but the message may not be getting through to the people most likely to respond – birdwatchers.

A team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech surveyed birdwatchers to learn if they drank shade-grown coffee and, if not, why not. Continue reading

Osa Peninsula Has A History Of Surviving Challenges, But It Takes Work

MAP BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY STAFF

After two visits in 2019 I wrote a quick note about the Osa Peninsula, and afterwards I found the map above on National Geographic’s website. A couple years have passed since those visits and National Geographic published this article that I somehow missed until now. Jamie Shreeve shares a history I was well aware of due to our four years managing Lapa Rios, and back then I heard versions of it many times in the first person; but here it is told better than by anyone else in my experience, plus accompanied by the kind of photography you expect from National Geographic (not included here out of respect for the copyrights of those images). The title notes the challenge facing the peninsula, and my bet is on the peninsula’s having the support it needs to survive:

A loss of tourism threatens Costa Rica’s lush paradise

The Osa Peninsula is a biodiverse wonder and a model for conservation. But its preservation programs have been devastated by COVID-19.

Celedonia Tellez doesn’t recall the year she moved to the Osa Peninsula, or exactly how old she was, but she remembers well why she came: free land. At the time, the peninsula, a 700-square-mile crook on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was a forest frontier, separated from the mainland by a neck of near-impenetrable mangroves and accessible mainly by boat. Celedonia was pregnant when she arrived with her five children, six chickens, a dog, and 700 colones, about one dollar. She also brought her boyfriend, but he “hated nature, and would run away from insects,” she remembers. So she took an ax and cleared the land herself.

“When I was cutting down the trees, I would think how they must have taken so long to grow, and I cut them down in an instant,” she says. “That’s what we did. We cut down the forest to live.” Continue reading

Birds & Birders At Marriott Hacienda Belen

Yesterday my hand reflexively reached for my phone to snap a photo. That happens most frequently when I see a bird, but in this instance it happened when I saw a man pointing binoculars at a group of squawking green parakeets who were eating fruit from a palm tree.The common conception of where birdwatchers stay while visiting Costa Rica at first seems at odds with this scene.

This hotel, Marriott Hacienda Belen, developed a guide for birding on property in 2018. About a year ago bird models adorned the tops of “no parking” signs, sending a birder-friendly signal. Since these were placed in front of the Authentica shop, I have regularly seen parents, many of them local guests during a year when there have been fewer international guest, bring their children to look at the birds, read the species name, then walk to each of dozen or so others within short walking distance. I count that as progress.

Post-Harvest Coffee Processing

Processing coffee after harvest refers to getting the beans out of the cherry, with fruity pulp removed. How that happens, and what follows, is partly a function of tradition, which is itself a function of geography.

In Costa Rica, due to the abundance of water, the tradition historically was to wash the beans. Since I am in Costa Rica I will give a simple illustration of this process using a small quantity of beans. These are from a handful of trees as mentioned in yesterday’s post.

In the photo above, where the coffee is in a round sink basin, you can see some beans in the middle that have been removed from the cherries. You can also see a couple green beans, which get sorted out. The goal of the “washed” method of processing coffee post-harvest is to get all the beans out of all the cherries, with as much residual pulp removed as possible. Water makes this process easier. The skins and other residual material does not historically have much, if any, value. In recent years farms are taking greater care to compost this material and use the result to fertilize the soil where the coffee grows.

The wet weight of the washed coffee is irrelevant, but for comparison purposes I will note it here and then weigh the coffee again once dried. Although many coffee processing mills dry coffee on large patios with direct exposure to the sun, there is some belief that drying without direct exposure to the sun conveys some advantages to the final taste of the coffee. So, that is what we will do with this coffee. When it is fully dried, I will post again to explain the differences in the coffees process this way, and those processed the other most common way.

From Farm To Yard And Back Again

 

It is time to harvest these cherries from the several coffee trees that held their ground for more than two decades since this land was converted from farm to yard. In our conversion of yard to farm, these ripe cherries will provide the seeds for replanting the land after processing them in the simplest manner. Tomorrow I will show that process.

Regeneration, Cecropia & Sugarcane

Yesterday, while working on the land we are preparing to plant coffee a few months from now, I noticed that the cecropia trees suddenly have abundant fruit.  I knew that sloths love these trees, but while looking for more information to understand this fruit I learned that bats and birds and other animals also appreciate them for food and nesting material; plus, the leaves and roots of the trees have many uses among indigenous communities in the American tropics.

Most of my work recently, now that the poro saplings are planted, is removing unwanted grasses to make way for wanted grasses that help retain soil. One of the grasses planted this year, sugarcane, also surprised me. This plant above, now about one year old, suddenly shot up an extra five feet without my noticing, until yesterday. And the furry, flowery top of the stalks, now visible nearly 20 feet above ground, presumably mean something I will need to read up on. This first stand of sugarcane, which is at the highest point of the land on this property, provided us offspring that we planted along the lowest portion of land, neighboring bananas and plantains that will shade one section of coffee saplings.

Sheltering in Nature

The Turrubares Hills in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region. Photo courtesy of Hugo Santa Cruz.

This is an exciting example of the old adage about life’s lemons and making lemonade. The Macaw Sanctuary is an inspirational space and we’re proud to have explored it with Hugo during the Global Big Day.

Thank you to Milan Sime Martinic and the inspiration of Mongabay for nature and conservation stories.

A new conservation project is created in Costa Rica thanks to COVID-19

  • Hugo Santa Cruz is a photographer contributing to a new Netflix documentary about nature and coping with COVID-19.
  • A Bolivian currently stuck in Costa Rica due to the pandemic, he has turned his camera lens on the local landscape, which has helped him deal with his separation from family and friends.
  • Many hours spent in the rainforest have given him solace and also an idea to aid the rich natural heritage that he is currently documenting.
  • Santa Cruz is now a co-founder of the new Center for Biodiversity Restoration Foundation, which will work to restore and connect natural areas in the region.

Call him inspired.

If Biblical Ishmael were banished to the desert, naturalist Hugo Santa Cruz is quarantined to wander in paradise, a paradise in the Costa Rican jungle, that is.

He is in the Central American rainforest along the Paso de Las Lapas Biological Corridor, an area near the Pacific coast that converges with the mountainous foothills of the western dry tropical forest.

Roaming some 370 hectares of ample primary and secondary forests, regenerated forests restored from human damage, plus plantings, ponds, and biodiverse jungle, Santa Cruz is deep in the wilderness, far from home due to the COVID-19 shutdown of travel and normal activities. He is exploring the jungle, studying the animals, photographing, filming, and registering the species he encounters. Continue reading

Authentica & Sense Of Place

After completing our work in India and transitioning home to Costa Rica in late 2018, two properties came back to the forefront of my attention. The property above is set on a coffee estate in the Central Valley and the one below is set on a Pacific beachfront property that is 90 minutes from the Central Valley property. I knew both properties during their original construction and opening phases and ever since then believed that these were among the most special Marriott properties in the world.

They were going through renovations that started in 2018 and were to be completed in late 2019. My attention was drawn by a creative new focus on sustainability, the tiniest of examples being this one. Another example was that they invited proposals for how the gift shops in both hotels might be managed differently going forward. We submitted a proposal–with a focus on locally produced and design-forward products–and it was chosen for implementation. The rest is history that I have written about plenty in the last year.

Authentica has started its second year of operation, and Costa Rica has just re-opened its borders to receive international visitors again. These two Marriott properties have transformed operations to ensure maximum safety in response to the global health concerns. Our shops have transformed accordingly, and yet our original intent is as strong as ever: come in and sense the place.

Organikos coffee, our best-selling “taste of place” product, was joined in both shops last week by another way to sense the terrain of Costa Rica’s various regions. Pollen Keepers is a small family business whose bee colonies are placed to capture unique characteristics of a location. One of those is a coffee farm, and the honey produced there is unlike any I have had before. I am still learning the vocabulary for tasting notes for honey, which we have been sampling in recent weeks at home, so will keep it simple: Cafetal is my favorite, so far.

Biochar & Regeneration During The Dry Season

This is not the first time I am hearing of it, but this concept is counterintuitive to me because it involves combustion, which I associate with carbon emissions. On our hillside we are working to regenerate quality soil on what once was a fertile, productive coffee farm. When the sun rises over what we planted this year to help prepare the soil for next year’s coffee planting, I have been considering what we need to do differently during the dry season. October is the last month of rainy season, so we are almost there. It is clear that we need all the good ideas we can find in this effort. This seems worthy of consideration:

Loading soil with biochar allows farmers to cut way back on irrigation

At high applications levels, researchers found that biochar can not only soak up a lot of carbon, but also reduce the need for irrigation by almost 40%.

Biochar – the charcoal product used to enrich agricultural soil and trap carbon—may have a hidden commercial benefit for farmers: it could lock moisture in the soil and save on gallons of costly irrigation.

The coarse, black material, made by combusting wood, grass, and other organic materials under low-oxygen conditions, helps to sequester carbon in the soil. Continue reading

Know GEF Through Its New Leader

Mongabay‘s Rhett A. Butler offers an engaging conversation with the new leader of GEF, who we have confidence will lead this institution to the planet’s benefit. His realization at a young age about seasonal differences in bird abundance is a good example of why programs like Celebrate Urban Birds in places where migratory birds come and go are so important. It has been too long since we last sourced from Mongabay, but today we correct that with this recorded interview (click above) and the printed version (click below):

The post-COVID opportunity for the environment: An interview with the GEF’s Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Tropical forests in places like Costa Rica (pictured) can be an important source of livelihoods by attracting nature-oriented tourists. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay: Congratulations on the new role at the Global Environment Facility.

Rodriguez: Well, I’m very pleased and honored. I’ve been working half my professional life in government and half within the civil society in Costa Rica. I have worked very close to the GEF, including in the early days of the GEF. I was a negotiator for CBD for the Rio convention and also had the fortune to work with the government of Costa Rica in the first implementation of GEF funding in Costa Rica. Those were very interesting times, the mid-1990s.

I’m really delighted that 25 plus years after that, I’m leading this very prestigious organization. I never thought I would have that opportunity, particularly for coming from a developing country, a recipient country. Continue reading

Postcards From Costa Rica

In early May I posted a “this I believe” kind of note, linking to an essay about the importance of the US Postal Service. Several months later Organikos launched its roasting and delivery service in the USA, putting that belief to the test, with dozens of coffee parcels going to all corners of the country’s continental borders as well as remote interior places. Flying colors. Thank you, postal carriers. Thank you, Benjamin Franklin and all those after you who have kept the institution moving forward. Other great institutions, having thrived for more than a century, demonstrate that even great ideas sometimes need help. So, in our own little ways, we support the mission. Costa Rica is one of the many places in the world inspired by both the National Park Service of the USA as well as its Postal Service. In recent months Correos de Costa Rica took the precaution of halting mail service to and from the USA. When it is back providing that service, our first little supportive action will be sending postcards to all those in the USA who ordered coffee.

CSA + NGO = 100% Forward

Organikos had a life before Authentica, but when Authentica opened one year ago the context was different. The Adriatic island and the outpost in India were temporary homes where we were launching projects for clients. Costa Rica is where the entrepreneurial conservation work began, so now we were coming home to stay and build a platform of our own. The logic for Authentica? Several million visitors per year had become the norm for the country over the last couple decades. And for Organikos? On average one million bags of coffee went home in the luggage of those visitors each year, mostly to the USA. Authentica’s location in two of Costa Rica’s most successful hotels would allow Organikos coffee to increase that flow. Good logic, no question.

Until now. This year international tourism is a fraction of that norm, and next year is likely to be similar. It would be easy to see the glass as less than half full, but instead we are looking for ways to refill the glass. We want those million bags of coffee to reach all the people who have either already fallen in love with Costa Rica, or are yet to.

Particularly for those people who have come, or want to come to Costa Rica to support its conservation commitments, our goal now is to provide an alternative way to lend that support. With our coffee as a taste of place alternative while travel is on hold, we have set up a platform for roasting and delivering 4 of our 12 coffee selections in the USA. And we continue to commit that 100% of the profits from the sale of these coffees goes to bird habitat regeneration initiatives in Costa Rica. Our first such initiative is in progress, but we want to expand our conservation outreach. One way to do this might be by partnering with conservation NGOs in Costa Rica. We are starting to explore this option.

Regenerating, Banana & Plantain

Banana1

Following yesterday’s theme, but switching to another example, today I will say a few words more about the pitch. The last time I spent time thinking about bananas as much as I am now, it was in the context of creating an edible landscape. Amie and other team members wrote plenty on this topic when we were based in Kerala.

Banana2

Now that I am prepping for regeneration I am watching these banana and plantain plantings grow day to day, week to week as I remove the grasses surrounding them. Continue reading

Regenerating, Early Steps

Ornamentals

In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

Ornamentals1

In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Tending The Pitch

Quad

In previous posts I have pointed my lens to this area, but from another angle and with limited scope. In the photo above, in the distant upper right you san see a small light object which is the top of the bee colony. With this view you can make out where the curvy berms lead and if you squint you can see the long quadrangle. A few months prior to our departure to live in Croatia in August, 2006 I decided that this stretch of relatively flat land would make a good football pitch for our boys and their friends. It was a mess of bramble and brush at the time so I cleared it and removed the big rocks and let it be. We would be gone for one year, and when we came back I would finish the pitch.

Plans change. We did not return to live in Costa Rica for another dozen years. This week, as we move to Plan B I took a snapshot of how that pitch looks right now. I am one quarter of the way through removing all the grasses that invaded the land while we were away. Under their blanket is all the rich soil that earthworms produce when left alone for awhile. That pitch, which now has 30 banana and plantain trees, and hundreds of bean plants as well as beets, will next get watermelon where the land is already cleared. These all will help the soil, and prepare the shade needed, in advance of coffee planting next year.