San Marcos de Tarrazú, Costa Rica – Coffee is one of the most widely grown crops and is a major source of export revenue for many countries in tropical regions. It is the world’s fifth most widely traded commodity, with annual sales exceeding US$70 billion, of which only US$5 billion remains in producing countries. Over 25 million farmers in 56 countries export coffee and an estimated 100 million people are dependent on coffee for income.
Strategies for producing coffee crops vary from the more traditional practices where coffee is grown under the natural shade canopy of the original forest cover to much more intensive farming practices with coffee bushes growing in full sun. Many coffee-growing countries are being driven toward the more technological and intensive forms of production.
Costa Rica has seen some of the most dramatic shifts toward intensive coffee production, where many farmers produce coffee under full sun using synthetic fertilizers and highly toxic herbicides and pesticides. Large-scale technological and intensive coffee farms also often use lower quality but (temporarily) higher yielding coffee varieties, and farm on excessively steep slopes, thus promoting erosion.
But there’s increasing recognition that such practices are unsustainable for the farming community, for maintaining coffee yield, and for the environment. There’s a greater interest in market-based approaches that provide a premium to producers adopting more sustainable practices. For these programs to be successful, we must determine which farming practices are sustainable and economically viable, and help local producers incorporate them into their farming and land management plans.
Earthwatch volunteers will help increase sustainable coffee farming practices in the Tarrazú region of Costa Rica, and will help identify which practices can be replicated in other farms and coffee regions. This research is fully cooperative and participatory, including farmers, buyers, and the general public in its design, research, and education elements.
Meet the Scientists
Dr. John E. Banks
University of Washington, Tacoma
Dr. Banks is an associate professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He earned his Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Washington, Seattle, his M.S. in Applied Mathematics at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and his B.A. in Mathematics from Pomona College in California. Dr Banks has been using a mixture of field experiments and mathematical models to explore issues at the interface among insects and managed and natural vegetation for the past several years. He is particularly interested in the effects of integrating natural vegetation into agro-ecosystems in order to bolster crop production, insect pest control, and biodiversity. His recent work involves conducting field experiments in both temperate and tropical agro-ecosystems, as well as using mathematical models to explore insect population dynamics in eco-toxicology.
Sebastián Castro Tanzi
University of Costa Rica
Sebastián Castro Tanzi is from Costa Rica and will serve as the field scientist for the project. After finishing studies in Agronomical Engineering with an emphasis on Plant Production Sciences, Sebastián worked in the commercial landscaping industry where he became aware of the negative impact of development on land resources. He later went on to obtain a Professional Master’s Degree in Geo-information Sciences and Earth Observations with an emphasis on Planning and Coordination in Natural Resource Management at the International Institute for Geo-information Science and Earth Observation in The Netherlands. He is a graduate of a degree program in Agronomy at the University of Costa Rica, and is currently a Plant and Soil Science doctoral student at University of Vermont in the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group. Sebastián’s current interests include the integration of information technologies in natural resource management to improve monitoring and further planning towards sustainability. He believes Tarrazú offers an ideal setting for this due to the farmers’ capability and their interest in improving the way they manage their coffee farms. He hopes participants in these Earthwatch Expeditions will have the chance to experience how state–of–the–art information technologies can be combined with traditional cropping practices to procure more sustainable coffee production.
Natalia Ureña Retana
Natalia Ureña Retana is also from Costa Rica and will serve as the field coordinator for the project. She is a tropical biologist and specialist in integrated watershed management from the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) located in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Natalia received her B.S. from the National University of Costa Rica in 2002 and her M.Sc. from CATIE in 2004. She was born in the Los Santos region in the small mountain valley of Santa María de Dota, which neighbors San Marcos de Tarrazú. Her father and many other members of her family are coffee farmers in this region. Natalia loves coffee and also wants to promote sustainable coffee production in Los Santos. She has been working with local schools, leading educational programs for children about conservation, the environment and natural resources. She enjoys working and coordinating activities with stakeholders, especially farmers, and is excited to show the expedition participants the many beautiful things about the area’s culture, natural resources and more.