The Paradox of Costa Rican Coffee

Costa Rica’s coffe industry is host to a great irony. The industry has developed an international reputation for producing premium grade coffee, but the coffee most Costa Rican’s consume represents the lowest quality coffee produced in the nation. This is a consequence of how the coffe industry in Costa Rica developed. Being a small country, Costa Rica could not compete with giants like Brazil to produce a greater quantity of coffee, so coffee farmers and roasters in Costa Rica instead decided to focus on producing high quality coffee. When the coffee industry in Costa Rica was growing, there was not a market for high quality coffe within Costa Rica since most ticos could not afford premium coffee. Instead, the coffee beans that did not meet the premium standards were roasted separately and sold to ticos at a price they could afford. Even though the Costa Rican economy has grown and a sizeable middle class has emerged, most ticos still consume this lower quality coffee while the best coffee is shipped abroad. The coffee ticos consume is of such low quality that many roasing companies add sugar during the roasting process to reduce the coffee’s bitterness.

Despite this irony in Costa Rica’s coffee industry, which can also be seen in fruit industries in the country, the coffee industry has been beneficial to Costa Rica. While most large coffe farms today rely on immigrants for the bulk of their labor, for many years certain tico families supported themselves by growing coffee on their land. Work on larger farms provided economic opportunity to other ticos. In that sense, the exportation of premium coffee in Costa Rica was not exploiting ticos by depriving them of access to a valuable recourse but was instead allowing ticos to build up familial wealth, or at least get by for a while. Furthermore, the export of agricultural products from Costa Rica, especially coffee, is what incentivized foriegn investors to construct railroads in Costa Rica. The creation of this infrastructure played an important role in allowing Costa Rica to industrialize and develop a more modernized economy. Taxes on its most profitable exported commodities is part of what gave the Costa Rican government the ability to invest in the education of its people, which gave ticos the skills needed to thrive in an increasingly diversified and modern economy.

These benefits do not resolve the ironies of the Costa Rican coffee industry. With most of Costa Rica’s best coffee being exported, it feels wrong that ticos cannot fully enjoy the fruits of their labor. However, ticos have seen other benefits from the coffee industry that are much more meaningful than access to a premium version of a nonessential commodity. I ultimately think that, historically, these economic benefits outweighed the value of having access to the very best coffee, but as Costa Rica’s economy continues to grow I see little reason to continue this precedent. As more and more ticos are able to afford premium coffee, I expect that more high quality coffee will be sold within Costa Rica instead of being exported. This shift may come slower than expected though because many middle class ticos have already adapted to drinking lower quality coffee and may be content with their coffee. It is possible they would prefer to spend their money on other goods and services instead of premium coffee.

I have found this paradox of Costa Rican coffee to be quite interdicting and I am curious to see how it may change in coming years.

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