Notes from the Field: Coto Brus, Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  Back from a day spent in the Coto Brus canton, the county in which our Las Cruces Biological Station is located.  We sit in the dinning hall of our field station discussing the insights and ramifications of what we saw and experienced today.  The small group I am with consists of several board and staff members and most of us are amazed and somewhat surprised by what we learned.  Our focus has been and continues to be on tropical biology, but the “real world” issues presented today are suddenly vividly before us, no longer world away but rather just a few kilometers down the road within the canton.

Earlier that morning…   

We drive past the upscale regional hospital and into the hustling streets of San Vito, the judicial seat of the Coto Brus canton.  On a side street we stop at an open garage/warehouse and get out of the small bus we call a coaster.  We stand on the edge of the street, and I look for a medical facility or even a doctor’s sign, but nothing catches my eye.  Instead, I see my host leading our small group into the garage/warehouse tight against other storefronts and warehouses lining the street.  I realize, then, in following the group down the cracked cement drive and into the open room in front of us that this garage has been converted into a medical clinic.  The room in which we gather together, as the sounds and fumes of cars pass by out on the street, is a waiting room with cheap plastic chairs in a semi-circle off to the side; it is also a loading area for the clinic’s activities with boxes and paraphernalia scattered on the floor.  Posters on the wall are in Spanish and another language I don’t recognize (the language of the Ngobe Bugle Indians, I am told), but I don’t linger to study the words and instead join our group who I can see are feeling very much like outsiders clustered together while our host talks to a receptionist behind a small desk near the plastic chairs.  Heavy set women, Indians in long colorful but well-worn dresses, men in tired t-shirts and faded blue jeans are staring at us as we stand in the room; the men appear to be smaller than most Costa Ricans, but have a look of having lived several lifetimes.  The women with their long black braided hair and dull lifeless stares, sitting in the chairs or standing to the side, provide no sense of hospitality or friendliness, and, when we are led by an assistant further into the warehouse, past several makeshift offices to a conference room in a back corner of the building, the Indian women follow us with their humorless eyes, neither questioning why we were there nor embarrassed to be openly watching us.

The conference room is defined easily by the old cement blocks of the building’s two outer walls and the thin timber framing of the two inner walls, which, within the room, are covered with maps of the Coto Brus canton.  The room itself has one long table surrounded by more plastic chairs.  On the table is a power point projector facing a screen on one of the inner walls.  The overhead lighting is not that bright, but strong enough for us to study the maps after the assistant departs. One map, in particular, depicts the mountainous county, or canton, of Coto Brus with numerous coffee plantations identified with gray squares.  It is clear from the map there are not many roads leading to the plantations and the towns and villages are somewhat isolated from the regional hub of San Vito, the largest town in the canton.  I count sixteen different Red Cross markings mostly in the towns but some near the more-distant coffee farms too.

A rustle outside the door takes my attention, and it opens with two Costa Rican men entering the room. The one who is clearly in charge, steps up and introduces himself as Dr. Pablo Ortiz: he is the head doctor of the region and the man we have come to see.  Dr. Ortiz is likely in his early sixties, he is not a tall man, slightly overweight, but not obese; he is wearing an open, short-sleeved shirt with a red-checkered print that appears both lightweight and comfortable; he has a close, reddish-beard and a friendly face; his eyes are alight with laughter from, I suspect, many well-told stories. Fortunately, he has an excellent command of English, and he is both charming and gracious as he introduces himself to each of us in our party.

The second man, Dr. Ortiz explains is the number two doctor in charge of the clinic, but he tells us his English is limited.  This man appears to be about ten years younger and, though we are told his name as each of us shakes his hand, I quickly forget what he said and focus instead on Dr. Ortiz who is looking at the map we were studying.  The second doctor moves over to the projector and begins connecting it to his laptop.

Dr. Ortiz invites us to sit in the yellow plastic chairs around the table and says his clinic is charged with providing health-care services for the undocumented, migrant Ngobe Bugle Indians crossing out of Panama to pick coffee in the region’s surrounding plantations.  The number of migrants entering Costa Rica for the harvest season starting in late October is substantial, likely, nearly 200,000 people, and during the coffee season, which typically runs through March, the canton swells to a population doubled in size.  In truth, his doctors don’t know exactly how many Indians come into Costa Rica, he tells us, as the border between the two countries is fairly open, and the Ngobe Indians not crossing at the three points-of-entry between the two countries, can walk into Costa Rica without any official papers anytime on trails through the farms abutting the boundary or through the unexplored forest protecting the upper watersheds of the Talamanca Mountains.  This reserve is an international park Costa Rica shares with Panama, known as La Amistad, and is the largest protected area in Central America.

As a result of the relatively open border, Dr. Ortiz says simply, providing health care services for the migrant Indians is a significant challenge.

Dr. Ortiz proceeds to narrate a power-point presentation his colleague has prepared for us. It isn’t long before we realize that the slides are showing us the horrific working and living conditions of the Ngobe Bugle people, with the laws of Costa Rica overseeing their welfare frequently ignored: children in the field by six-years-of-age, adults working seven-days-a-week from sunrise-to-sunset, no social services provided for the children by the farmers or any governmental agencies, pregnant teenage mothers picking coffee until they go into labor, and everyone living in horrid shacks, called “batches.”  Dr. Ortiz says the sanitary issues on these farms is appalling, yet often the Indians cross the border not just to earn their annual income picking coffee but also to take advantage of Costa Rica’s national health care system.  Even so, his doctors are seeing a 50% child mortality rate with average families consisting of 4.6 children.  Between unmarried mothers, alcoholism, child and wife abuse, tuberculosis, HIV, and parasitic-diseases of one sort or another, it is difficult to reach the Indians with the health care services available to them and, when they do, often the Indians don’t trust what his doctors and nurses have told them.  The simple medicines and training that might prolong their lives or allow them to live easier lives, though now available to them in the canton, such as through his clinics, are out of reach both physically and psychologically through distance and distrust.

Soon we are engaged in a vivid two-hour discussion with Dr. Ortiz and his colleague pointing to county maps, highlighting recent statistics, and describing in detail what their doctors, nurses, and aides are doing to combat the very real problems facing the Ngobe Bugle.  The doctors, paid by the government of Costa Rica, are brutally honest with us and end their presentation with a request for our organization help them work with the Indians.  “Even such simple matters,” says Dr. Ortiz, “as teaching the Indians how to use condoms or why they should wash their hands coming out of the fields would make a difference.”

“- Let alone,” he says, “helping the Indians look for the symptoms of malaria, dengue fever, Tuberculosis, and ringworm within their families.”

Dr. Ortiz ends his presentation with a statement about the black rubber boots we have seen Costa Rican farmers wear throughout the country; the same rubber boots our own researchers and their field hands employ in the forest at our research station: “If only we can provide Indians with rubber boots,” he laments, “it would be better than them wearing their thin sandals and having their children go barefoot.”

“Why,” I ask.

“Parasites,” he responds, shaking his head, “from the soil in the fields.”

Afterwards, before leaving the conference room, the small group with whom I am traveling take up an impromptu monetary collection between us for the doctors, and though somewhat embarrassed at how little money we are able to raise between us, we give Dr. Ortiz about $120 dollars to continue the clinic’s work, promising him we will do more when we get back to the States.  He is gracious in accepting our unexpected gift and says he will give it to his colleague who will put it to good use.

Back on the street after walking past the openly staring Indians in the waiting area, we marvel at how little we knew about the canton and the ongoing health care crisis being fought on a daily basis from farm to farm.  Our research station over the years has focused, rather, on biodiversity issues and restoration ecology; after all, we are a conservation organization that has spent more than thirty years in Coto Brus establishing a permanent station for scientists and students to conduct research on the impact of the fragmented forests of the region – fragmented due to the county’s two historic activities: growing coffee and raising cattle.

I have been told that as late as the 1950s, much of Coto Brus was a mountainous highlands covered in forests.  The Costa Ricans who chose to live in this area before then, like the homesteaders in the U.S., carved their niche out of the forest and lived relying on their own resources.  In fact, the stories of the incredible struggle that people in this region would go through to get outside supplies or receive medical care, such as for broken bones, gashes, various illnesses, or problematic births, are oral histories of tremendous hardship, with mules and wagons with large wooden wheels carrying the injured or the infirmed miles down narrow mountain passes to the Pacific lowlands where bush pilots, radioed ahead, could land their small planes and fly their sick passengers to the hospitals in San Jose.

I am told too that many of the family-owned coffee farms established in the Coto Brus canton between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s was on land given to them by the Costa Rica government; land offered to the coffee families of the central valley near San Jose simply to stop Colombia, prior to the creation of Panama, from claiming more and more of Costa Rica’s southern border.  It was during this period when the relationship between the plantation families and the Ngobe Bugle Indians began.  The Indians willingly and in mass moved north each year to pick the red coffee bean.

After World War II, in the mid-1900s, the government of Costa Rica made a concerted effort to open Coto Brus beyond the coffee farms.  The United Fruit Company at that time was exploiting Costa Rica’s southern Pacific lowlands growing banana and palm oil for export, and with a large shipping port in Golfito coming into its own, a labor force was needed to handle the expanding agricultural activities of the south, and, importantly, to extract the valuable hardwood timber of the southern highlands.

I read somewhere that giving the land to displaced Europeans as a way to populate area (and cover up the harsh impact of the logging) proved to be irresistible to thousands of Italians who moved into the Coto Brus canton.  However, by the late 1960s, the logging companies were gone, the Italians had settled into an economically depressed area, and the canton was reduced to a patchwork of coffee fields held by a few families, degraded pastures available to all, and the landless seasonal passing of the Ngobe Indians.

My organization’s focus beginning in the early 1970s was to study the impact of the changing ecosystems of the area.  No one in our organization had ever looked into the plight of the indigenous people of the south.  Rather, we knew about the impact of landscape changes on moths and butterflies and the role of bats as pollinators, but not about the large and historic role the Ngobe Bugle Indians play in the canton.

Our coaster pulls up to the sidewalk and we climb on board.  Our day is not nearly done.  Soon we leave the little town of San Vito and are driving deep into the canton, well off the primary roads.  I can see it is clear we are in coffee country as acres of coffee bushes cover the hillsides on both sides of the road.  It isn’t long before I realize too we are on private land and the coaster is taking into the heart of one long-established coffee plantation.  We drive past the coffee production barns and up to a beautiful Swiss-style manor with flower boxes full of blooming colorful flowers and gorgeous flower gardens beside the vehicle on both sides of the lane.

The plantation owner, a heavy-set man in his late 50s or early 60s has been waiting for us: he drives up to the coaster in his green four-wheeler and jumps out of the vehicle.  He introduces himself as Roberto Montero and is very gracious in welcoming us to his farm.  He has a large belly that is barely contained within his white shirt, tucked tightly into his pants.  He has a short beard and is wearing a baseball hat promoting Peru, which he said he just visited for several weeks.  His eyes too are full of fun and vigor, and from his demeanor, it is clear he is the man in charge.  Unlike Dr. Ortiz back in San Vito, Sr. Montero is less concerned about introductions and, as we surround him, he quickly explains that his great-grandfather established the family’s 700+ acre farm.  The farm abuts both the open border with Panama, which he points to the forested hills southeast of us, and La Amistad, which he turns and points to the forested hills to the north of us, but, from what I can see as I turn 360 degrees, all the hills surrounding us are forested in a thick, dark shade of green – while immediately before us, contrasting against the lighter-green yard, is a potpourri of birdlife and plant-life thriving within a colorful collage of shapes and movement.

Sr. Montero assures us he is the largest organic coffee farmer in the region and is very proud of his exceptional, shade-grown, organic coffee currently being sold throughout the U.S.  However, with the coffee season recently completed, his migrant pickers have moved further up into the central valley to pick the fields there.  They will return to Panama later in the spring.  His permanent workers at the farm, rather, are producing dried fruit: bananas, mangos, pineapple, etc.  In fact, he says, he has a huge contract with the U.S. company Costco which requires everything to go “right” in generating the necessary fruit to meet his new obligations.  He tells us he isn’t worried though, as he loves the pressure.  His workers, he says, are very loyal and will help him meet this challenge.

His farm, he explains, is self-contained: he has his own hydro-electric plant, school for his workers children, church, grocery store, and the mandatory soccer field and no one gets onto his property without his approval.  He is both the “mayor and the “town planner,” and the “judge and the jury.”  In fact, he assured us, government officials rarely come to inspect his operation.  A board member in our group asks him about the working conditions of the Ngobe pickers and their children and his eyes arch upward.  He says authorities have talked to him, but he has told them that the Ngobe children don’t work in the fields; they come across from Panama with their families to play and vacation from school.  There is no need for inspections.  His workers, he stressed, whether local Costa Ricans, permanent Ngobe Indians who have chosen to remain in the area year-round, or the migrants, documented or not, want as much work he can give them, and, as a result, they make more money on his farm than they would doing almost any other job in Coto Brus, the second poorest county, he reminds us, in Costa Rica.

With that, he suggests we take a tour of his dried fruit factory down the hill below the manor.  The coffee season is over, but the dried fruit business never ends.  Sr. Montero opens a door for us along the side of an old red barn, and we enter large semi-sanitized rooms with what appears to be hosed water covering the floor.  “Walk carefully,” he says and tells someone in Spanish to squee-gee the floor in front of us.  Quickly workers appear who push away the standing water.

We walk past rows of Costa Rica women standing on both sides of a long assembly line wearing white rubber boots, white surgical masks, and white hairnets.  They are cleaning tray after tray of baked bananas: removing sticks and peels from the recently cooked fruit, cleaning the trays so that only the dried banana remained.  Men in another room, we see further on are wearing the same white-colored masks, hairnets, and boots; they are taking hundreds of fresh bananas out of boxes, removing their peels, and slicing the fruit into bite-size pieces.  These pieces, subsequently, are spread out onto trays and stacked into large carriers to be rolled into walk-in ovens and baked for the women to clean.

All of the dried bananas, once thoroughly cleaned, explained Sr. Montero, are stored into thousands of large bags in a deep container, eight of which are required to be filled each month to satisfy the Costco contract.  The large containers, Sr. Montero said, will be trucked to Golfito and shipped to San Francisco where they will be inspected again before being bagged into colorful individual-sized bags and sold in Costco stores throughout the U.S.

This had turned into a year-round business for him, he says, and requires thousands of boxes of bananas, pineapples and mangos to be trucked from the lowlands to his plantation in Coto Brus, where hundreds of his workers put in twelve-hour shifts six-days-a-week to meet the contract.

“When coffee season is in full swing, it must be crazy here.” I comment.

Sr. Montero laughs and says I should come back next fall when the coffee plant is operating at capacity and the dried fruit plant will be running full as well.  The number of pickers, workers, trucks, and containers will be mind-blowing.  “You can join us!” he says enthusiastically, adding as the gracious host that he is in opening his farm to us: “But for now, let us go enjoy the lovely lunch I have had prepared for you in the manor.”

We are hungry and agree.  The workers watch us as we walked past on their wet and slippery floor; their black pupils, like large empty saucers, staring lifeless between the white hairnet and the mask.

Whether or not Dr. Ortiz and the government-employed health-care workers can get onto the property to talk to the undocumented Ngobe Indians, let alone the workers, is a question I want to ask, but instead, I choose to keep this to myself.  At the time we are being served a four-course lunch looking out over a beautiful yard of bougainvillea framed against a mountainside of dark-green, primary forest; I can smell the rich fragrance of tropical flowers through the open windows of the manor and feel the light breeze.  Rather, with our pockets empty from our meager collection earlier that morning, an uneasiness tempers our appetite as we listen to Sr. Montero mention how much he likes the new pope who will bring the Catholic faith back to the people, how priests rotating through the area give mass in his church once every two weeks, how much he prizes his four Lipizzaner Stallions he will show us later that afternoon, and how he looks forward to his upcoming month-long trip with his wife and friends to Easter Island.



Categories: Travels

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