Harsh economic conditions in Nicaragua fuel a migration of workers who can make a living on coffee plantations.
ALAJUELA PROVINCE, Costa Rica — Mauro Zelaga has been coming to Costa Rica from neighboring Nicaragua for 20 years to pick coffee beans. Last December was his sixth time coming to Rodrigo Vargas’ farms.
Harsh economic conditions in his country have fueled a massive migration to the more stable and prosperous Costa Rica. A guerrilla fighter in Nicaragua’s civil war as a teenager, Zelaga spent seven years in jail after being captured by government forces.
“It’s nice making a living in an honest manner,” Zelaga, 46, says as another coffee picking day came to a close.
He waited silently as his fellow workers — sometimes pushing and shoving — unloaded coffee unto trucks heading to mills. He stood surrounded by sacks full of coffee beans he had picked, his shirt and hands dirtied by the dark, volcanic soil.
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The workers unload plastic baskets called “cajuelas” unto trucks. Each basket, which holds about 10 pounds of coffee cherries, is worth up to $2. The minimum wage set by the Costa Rican government is about $1 per basket while in Nicaragua the same cajuela is worth as low as 50 cents per basket, workers said. A cajuela of gourmet-quality cherries can yield more than 50 cups of coffee.
Bucketful after bucketful fill truck beds to the brim, and shovels are used to spread the tens of thousands of cherries.
The field supervisor, sitting on top of the truck, throws a plastic token into an emptied cajuela and chucks it back down.
Workers throw their hands in the air to catch the flying basket. At the end of the week, the workers cash the plastic tokens for cash.
A typical worker can pick six or seven baskets per day. In the Central Valley of Costa Rica, harvest months are from November to February.
During the peak December days, workers start around 6 a.m. They unload a day’s picking around 7 or 8 p.m.
Tired, they slowly file back to their farm-provided housing to eat, rest and shower. Some walk. Others pack the back of trucks and head to their dorms farther away from the fields.
Many say even with better pay in Costa Rica, the cost of basic needs are expensive and they see little savings.
And in Costa Rica, Nicaraguans face discrimination. Social strife between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans has been increasing as more Nicaraguans immigrate.
But Costa Rica needs the cheap labor to continue its growth. Coffee farmers, especially, need their hands to pick coffee berries.