Coffee Portraits: Rafa

Raphael (Rafa) Orozco // San Ramon

AF-S NIKKOR 24–70mm f/2.8G


Ecosystem Biodiversity

Community Engagement

Education in Agriculture

Rafa strolling through his backyard– his thicket of coffee trees (2019).

No Healthy Soil? No Coffee.

Rafa, one of Bean Voyage’s Care Fellows, is 24 years old and studies engineering and forestry sciences at the National Technical University in Costa Rica. His focus is on agronomy, which is the science of soil management and crop production. Specifically, Rafa is interested in organic fertilizer production. His project goal is to create more sustainable production methods by developing and implementing homemade organic fertilizers for his family and community.

Meaning of Coffee

“Coffee means work, progress, development- it is something in the blood, in the culture. I learned about coffee here on my farm little by little. It is difficult and there is not much coffee we have year, but it is nice. I learned how to work it. Since I was born, I have worked coffee.”

Rafa (2019).

Responsibility on the Farm

Rafa’s family home sits on 2 hectares of land, mainly consisting of coffee, corn, beans, lime, and mango trees. Rafa’s mom inherited the land from his grandparents, who were also coffee producers. Rafa’s mom is a stay-at-home mom, and his dad works full-time at a local chicken factory. Rafa has three younger siblings, but only one, Marta, shares his interest in coffee and studies cultural resource management. Since Rafa’s family doesn’t have a large volume of coffee, they cannot rely on it as their main source of income. As a result, Rafa splits his time between working on the coffee farm and his studies, while his parents hold other jobs.

“Responsibility on the farm is more than anything to take care of it. To cultivate the soil so well that the plants give some coffee, because coffee production is very hard. It is something complicated, and we, fortunately, are working organically. If we use chemicals, we have to spend more money. We are trying to use home made organic fertilizer so that the land is more profitable.”

Rafa walking towards his home densely surrounded by coffee trees, various crop trees, and lush vegetation (2019).

For Rafa, coffee starts with soil. He analyzes the soil and assesses the surrounding species to gauge the health of his coffee. Without good soil, how can you produce good coffee or support an ecosystem? He talks about a defining moment when one part of his land was so depleted that they could not even grow tomatoes.

“The grasses invaded and choked the plants. We could not sow coffee because we would lose them— for 2 years everything would die. It was a process of improving the soil.”

Rafa’s mission is to promote sustainable and organic products. However, his definition of “sustainable” may differ from what others consider as sustainable. Rafa and his sister Marta have noticed that many people talk about sustainability and claim that their actions are sustainable, but in reality, they do not practice it. The word “sustainability” is often used as a mere adjective.

For Rafa, sustainability means that the entire ecosystem is organic and functions healthily as a whole. Marta defines sustainability as:

“‘Sustainable’ means to take into consideration the resources such as soil, water, microorganisms- all that surrounds the micro environment that could be affected. I see it [sustainability] as a future to future generations- that they might have the same resources we do.”

This is why organic fertilizers are so important and of interest to Rafa and to Marta who claim, “What we look for is a form of sustainable production. What we intend for is economic and social support but without setting aside the environment.”

Rafa begins the tour of his coffee farm on his porch, which is lined with plant seedlings. His porch serves as a coffee nursery, with small plastic bags containing little green shoots, each with two coffee seeds attached. These are coffee seedlings that Rafa will later plant to replace some of the infected coffee trees and introduce resistant varieties to his land.

Rafa straps on his machete—the symbol of a coffee farmer—and walks down a dirt path that is lined with rows of corn and the baby coffee seedlings. Half of his land is occupied by coffee plants and a variety of other trees. Rafa’s coffee plants grow in an unruly manner, standing at different heights and extending their branches in every direction. It feels like we are in a dense and lush jungle. Rafa allows his coffee plants to grow naturally, crawling around each other and reaching towards the sun without human intervention. He points to many coffee plants whose branches are loaded with ripening green coffee beans and says, “Look, they’re saludable—healthy.” Some plants bear many cherries, while others do not. There are still issues with coffee rust this year, and the harvest will be low. Rafa emphasizes that chemicals and pesticides will not solve the problem or create a healthy ecosystem.

Rafa trimming overgrown trees with his machete to ensure that his coffee plants receive sunlight (2019).

“The coffee industry is almost all chemical-based. Anywhere you go, you will see that producers use this or that chemical, but what I found is that everyone wants to use organic, or if not all organic at least some organic. However, producers still have faith in the chemical products even though their soil is totally dead. So, chemicals are still used, even when talking about sustainability and the environment—no one does anything. They won’t learn.”

A Healthy Ecosystem

As Rafa and Marta stomp through their coffee fields, they describe their processes of developing organic pesticides and fertilizers. They come across three large containers, which they explain are full of fermenting fruits and grasses that will eventually become organic fertilizer. Rafa recounts how their dad initially started the idea of organic fertilizers using their guava trees. Their dad primarily sold their guava at markets, but then realized that it could become composted and turned into fertilizer.

Rafa and Marta displaying one of their fermenting compost bins used to make organic fertilizer (2019).

Rafa and Marta currently utilize their university education and information from the internet to experiment with new ingredients and methods for creating compost into fertilizer. Some examples of their methods include using ashes from burnt bones, crushed eggshells, lime juice, mango peels, and chili peppers. They note that organic fertilizers require more patience as they have greater inputs and need to be applied more frequently, but they are just as effective as chemical fertilizers. They know by observing their flourishing ecosystem.

“Birds are a very important biological indicator because birds can easily move from a poor environmental location to a good one. Same with insects—both birds and insects are the best way of evaluating an ecosystem. We have seen a change in common bird species, and we can identify more species than when we began. I did an inventory of some 20 species and now 60 species have arrived here at our house. Now you can see the change—now there are many more species than before, which means that things are going well.”

Marta (2019).

“Here’s the point: you have to understand that chemicals are a solution of the moment, but in the long term, they bring many many consequences. If producers could see it this way– if they could make their livelihoods without chemicals, then they can initiate an organic culture little by little, implementing much more over time.”

Marta (2019).

The Organic Process

Beneath the car port, there are plastic jugs and buckets filled with liquid. Rafa transfers the liquid from the jug into the bucket. The primary fruit fermented in this particular batch is lime. Rafa warns about the smell as he empties the contents, which look like muddy water with floating soil particles. The smell is a bit rancid, but there is a faint aroma of acidic lime. Next, Rafa brings the bucket over to a large barrel that’s filled with manure, fermenting mango, and grass. The barrel is covered with a plastic tarp. Their entire setup consists of tin barrels, wooden crates, plastic containers, and organic matter. Marta peels back the tarp cover as Rafa pours the organic lime fertilizer into the barrel. They repeat this process of adding organic fertilizer into the fermenting fruit daily. Their whole front yard is covered with wooden crates holding fermenting barrels of organic matter. Marta dreams of building a structure to house all of their containers and barrels.

“Giving advice about our project and re-educating people in our community is necessary. It does not change the entire world, but such advice is like a grain of sand: if a few people can change, it will help the environment a little.”

Rafa (2019).

Education with Responsibility

Rafa and Marta are both passionate when it comes to learning about the environment, the soil, and how this knowledge can be applied to their coffee farm. However, they know that they must learn to reach a certain degree of expertise and that they must experiment to reach a certain level of success with their organic fertilizers before influencing their community.

“Going to the university is important to me because I wanted to study something that you know will serve both you and the planet. Rafa and I know that it is a responsibility to study something for the environment. One has a role. People see you [educated youth] as a solution to many problems, and as a person who has the tools for processes that better the environment and sustainable production People see you as someone they can lean on.”

“Going to the university is important to me because I want to study something that you know will serve both you and the planet. Rafa and I know that it is a responsibility to study something for the environment. One has a role. People see you [educated youth] as a solution to climate and problems, and as a person who has the tools for processes that better the environment and generate sustainable production, people see you as someone they can lean on.”

Mara (2019).
Marta looking out towards her coffee trees (2019).

Marta, with her university background, feels pressure to make something of herself through her knowledge and career. She wants to give back to her family and community economically and sustainably.

Rafa, on the other hand, also wants to have an impact, but he aspires to look beyond himself and his family’s coffee farm. He wants to learn more about agronomy processes and share that knowledge. For Rafa, profitability is everyone’s profitability.

Care for the environment is of utmost importance for Rafa and Marta.

“One cannot be an expert without knowing the fundamentals. I have in mind a beginning: to become a learner and to visit the farms. I am familiar with the farms in my community, but I want to see other farms. I want to see what the quality is, to see if what they do is what I do, and to maybe give advice from the little that I know so that perhaps they will use it. I have thought about publishing a book about coffee and partnering with organic farms to publish what I learn.”

Rafa (2019).

Rafa and Marta mapping out their coffee farm for Rainforest Alliance Certification (2019).

In Rafa’s words:

“Coffee production is complicated. It is more than seeing just images of the countryside and producers gathering baskets of coffee, because to have this basket full requires effort. It requires getting wet, trimming daily, and also illnesses because often one gets sick from the rain or from going to bed late because of work and getting up early to work. It is not just a cup of coffee or a healthy-looking countryside.”

However, despite the hardships confronted in coffee production, Rafa and Marta remain motivated. Whether or not their project is successful does not deter the siblings from passionately working to improve coffee production. For them, “to improve little by little is an achievement.”

Coffee evokes visceral meanings and memories that have been formative in the central stages of smallholder coffee producers’ lives. The empirical value of coffee unites Costa Rican smallholders. Even young smallholders, like Rafa and Marta, regard coffee as an important cultural and family symbol.

“Work, progress, development—it’s something in the blood and in the culture.”

Rafa (2019).

The small holders in Costa Rica undoubtedly view coffee as an investment that will yield economic returns; however, the qualitative value of coffee and its required labor yield a stronger emotional return in the sense that small holders cannot imagine, nor even desire, to labor elsewhere.

Rafa and Marta (2019).

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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