Coffee Portraits: Kendy

Kendy Vega // Guanacaste Region

AF-S NIKKOR 24–70mm f/2.8G


Family Generational Farming

Women and Youth in Coffee

Mitigating Coffee Disease

Coffee Struggles in a Family’s Paradise

The meaning of coffee for Kendy Vega:

Coffee has been very important to me. Since I was a little girl, my family has taught me the value of hard work and the joy of being together. For me, happiness is being in the coffee fields and sharing a cup of processed coffee with my family.

Kendy Vega is one of the Care Fellows. She is 19 years old and has just graduated from high school. She aspires to go to college and study agronomy to learn more about soil and crop care methods. Her goal is to implement this knowledge in her community called “La Sierra”, which is home to just under 300 coffee producer families. La Sierra is nestled high and deep in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.

Women to work:

The morning begins in the dark, long before the sun rises… the sound of pots clinking, the faucet of water running, Kendy’s grandmother—Doña Ophelia— softly bustling around the kitchen making coffee the traditional Costa Rican way: the chorreador. Kendy and her mother prepare breakfast: the fuel that will carry them through the hard and physical work that being a coffee producer demands.

One by one, daughter, mother, and grandmother nimbly jump into bed of their family’s manual pick- up truck to go to their coffee fields. Sitting in the rickety, ply-wood truck bed, they drink in the scenery as the truck rumbles and climbs up into the hills (higher altitudes yield higher quality coffee)—all totally at ease in the bumpiness of the truck and all constantly showing affection for each other. Subtle gestures—a smile, a lingering stare, a hand squeeze. Three generations of women coffee producers are ready to get to work.

Family Coffee:

Kendy’s grandma—Doña Ophelia— shows her family grown supply of coffee. It is a small, simple, and transparent bag, filled with dark brown and finely ground coffee. This coffee is for their personal use. Sometimes families will individually sell such bags to the cooperative during the non-harvest season when the coffee supply dwindles. The community’s coffee cooperative supplies its members with these transparent bags. The coffee producers write their family’s last name as the package’ only branding. Doña Ophelia leads us to her back porch to a giant bundle of linen sheets full of brown seeds… these seeds are actually coffee cherries. Originally bright red in color, these cherries shrivel up and turn brown as they dry. The coffee cherries, hardly recognizable as coffee beans at this stage, are ready for their shell casings to be removed. Once removed, the coffee will then become green coffee or “café oro,” ready to be roasted and packaged.

Coffee producer families usually do not partake in step requiring the removal of the dried cherry skin; rather, they have the coffee cooperative do these processes which requires large equipment. Without the cooperative’s industrial machinery, it would take weeks for families to dry coffee cherries naturally, and even afterwards, roasting the coffee would take hours. Typically, in a large-scale industrial roaster, the temperature and pressure are tightly trapped inside, which yields a roasted batch in less than 15 minutes. When Kendy’s family roasts at home, it takes about 15 inefficient hours for a single batch since they use a metal pot over a wood burning fire. This is the coffee that Doña Ophelia shows—the coffee that she prepares before the sun comes up and the coffee that grandmother, mother, and daughter all drink—black of course.

Family & Fungus:

It was only mid-July when ripe coffee cherries were spotted. It was perhaps too early in the season, due to erratic rainfall and climate change, but a twinge of the anticipation of the harvest season had arrived. This day’s work for Kendy and her family consists of planting thousands of coffee seedlings amongst the other mature coffee trees. Before they begin planting, they meander through the coffee fields, which are full of other crops including mango, plantains, tuber roots, and various citrus fruits—all helpful for nutrient- rich soil. Kendy and her family work together to harvest—all they need is a machete, a giant leaf repurposed into a basket, and each other to keep good company. Harvesting is laborious, but while together, the work turns joyous. Soon everyone is sucking on mangos, the leaf basket is plump with tubers, and the pick-up truck is piled high with plantains. This is Kendy’s paradise.

Then the problem arrives.

Kendy’s mom holds up coffee leaves that have faint red spots. This is a particular species of coffee leaf rust, a fungus called Roya. Kendy’s step- father squeezes a green coffee cherry between his fingers and peers into the face of a black microscopic bug—an insect called Brocca. Both fungus and pest create devastating effects for coffee trees, and this year 80% of their coffee has been infected.

This is the pressing issue that Kendy, her family, and her community face today, and the issue that Kendy plants to develop into a project. Kendy aspires to learn more about coffee varietals, optimal elevations for coffee growth, and the certain types of coffee that are resistant to disease.

Kendy aspires to work with her community’s coffee cooperative to develop, plant, and sell coffee varieties that are resistant to the Roya and Brocca. She and her community are not hoping for a better harvest season this year, they are striving daily to improve their coffee varieties.

About the Author:

I spent the summer of 2019 in Costa Rica exploring the sources of ethics, injustice, and success situated in the coffee value chain involved at the producer sphere. I learned that behind the resilient, family- oriented, inspirational and environmentally conscious coffee producers exists an asymmetry in the resources and knowledge for women producers, struggles in gender empowerment, effects of climate change, and cycles of capitalist injustice. Through Bean Voyage, a non-profit dedicated to empowering coffee producers in Costa Rica by eradicating the gender gap in coffee production, I visited the communities and farms of small-holder women and youth coffee producers, listening and capturing their realities through interviews, photography, and story-writing. The result is a series of 4 documentaries—the human stories behind the coffee inside our mugs.

These stories are a call to action to inspire a more sustainable and equitable way of consuming coffee. To see where, to understand how, and to know from whom this coffee was produced— look to its origins.

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