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Farmer Portrait #1: Freddy Cordero from Costa Rica

Interview conducted by Robbie Dubbelman.
Translation done by Joselyn Cordero Jirón.

This is our first post in a weekly series called “Farmer Portraits.” We decided to take a look at the different ways in which the Coronavirus has affected farmers in different places around the world. To find this out several people from the ASEED Office have conducted qualitative interviews with several farmers. This series is meant to shed light on the fact that, although the Coronavirus affects people all over the world, it doesn’t affect them all in the same way. On top of that farmer’s are probably a group of people that have the most practical experience in dealing with zoonotic diseases, we therefore believe that their insights are very valuable within the current discourse on this topic. On the 23rd of April I conducted an interview with Freddy Cordero, an organic farmer from a rural area in Northern Costa Rica. He farms completely independent from big companies and ecologically sound, with the aid of family members and close friends. He is very aware of the importance of taking care of nature while working hard to put food on the table of his family and people living near his community. The interview excerpt below is insightful to read for anyone interested in peasant farming practices in a Global South country.

Where and what do you farm?

I farm in a little place in San Juan de Guatuso within the Alajuela of Cost Rica. I produce plantain, cacao, yucca, avocado, coconut trees and pejibayes.

In what ways do you experience the coronavirus and the coronavirus measures affecting your life as a farmer?

The selling percentage has decreased with about 70 percent. I’ve lost a lot a lot of my product as well since I cannot sell it due to the coronavirus measures. In order to help myself economically, I need to go to Guanacaste [this can be a three-hour drive or longer] in order to sell the plantains myself. Because I didn’t want to throw out some of the plantains that were already ready to eat, I decided to put them on the back of my truck and go to Pataste, that’s the nearest place to San Juan. There I gave that plantain to the poorest people, so they have something else to eat.

Wow, that’s really good. What do you personally need the most during these times, with the Coronavirus changes and what do you believe needs to be done for farmers in general?

Me and other farmers need more support from the government. Especially from the minister of agriculture. We do receive help, but I feel it would be good if the government would be more involved in communities where I live. I think it would be good if Costa Rica would invest more in buying the products from national farmers, because if the government is importing plantain from other countries the competition would be higher. This would makes selling the product more difficult. In times of Coronavirus, this is already becoming even more difficult.

So, the the government should make it so that more locally produced products are being sold?

I want them to make it so that there are more opportunities to sell locally.

Is there any government support given to the farmers by the Costa Rican government?

Directly for agriculture there’s a policy in place if they have debts with the bank we can have negotiate with the banks through the government. This would mean we won’t have to pay our debts for three months, but afterwards they will have to. That’s part of it. The government is also giving financial help to the people that have lost their jobs.

Is that financial help also reaching smaller scale farmers or is it mostly going to bigger companies?

It’s going to everybody. Another way that in which the government and the local government have been helping them is through social security. I have to pay social security in order to have the access to public health centers. I used to have to pay 18,000 Colones [approximately 39 euros] but because they know now that people have less income, this amount has been reduced to 8000 Colones [approximately 13 euros. This is a difference of 10,000 Colones [approximately 16,35 euros] that we don’t have to pay for the next three months.

A few photos from Freddy’s daily work, more questions and responses from the interview below:

The coronavirus has also been created because people were eating wildlife. How do you see a future of safer and healthier food practices?

It’s very important not to use chemicals because it’s like venom for the soil, the same goes for glyphosate. I’m now using organic products to help the land to be more fertile and I’ve been talking to other farmers from the surrounding to see what things they’re using to help the soil. I buy this product from several people. I buy different things from different people that have a lot of knowledge of organic things to use the soil. First, I use a kind of liquid that’s made out of a dry leaf from a kind of nettle, one person collects these leaves from the forest. I also use fungus to help the leaf of the plantain and the soil to grow. I also use chicken manure as a fertiliser. I also extract honey from caña plant, which helps plants to grow.I buy things like these in places like Karita of Guatuso, Muelle of San Carlos, Naranjo Alajuela. I use these organic, healthier options to fertilise the soil and to help the plantain and other products to get rid of insects and stuff like that.

How are the people in your community supporting each other during these difficult times?

One way in which we’re supporting each other is that I started going to Guanacaste with my son. But now we’re also helping people like my brothers, brothers in law and nephews who also farm plantain. What we do is they sell the plantain to me at a lower price, then I transport it to Guanacaste to sell it there. This way we help farmers that need financial help and save product from going to waste. This way we can be a financial safety net for one another. It’s better to do that than not having anybody to buy it.

What do you think is the most important lesson from a farming perspective or general from this crisis?

The most important lesson is how important it is for us to find ways to help each other in an economic way, because that’s what affects us first. This crisis takes all the balance of your daily life and how it’s going. In a spiritual way, the best lesson I can think of is that these times are really important to think, reflect and analyse on why these things are happening, and how important it is to find a balance in the practice of how humanity and its relationship should be changing to be kinder and to act more in a common brotherhood. Not only from man to man but also from man to nature. What I’ve learned from this crisis is I can support other people as well and that people can support him back.
For instance, I’ve started buying lettuce and cheese and other products from this woman from the nearest town. I’ve started buying less from the supermarket, and more directly from the people that are making the product to support them. I’m buying more locally. And this woman is doing also growing things in water, so it has less insects. We’re finding out ways to be helpful in these times.
I also want to add something else and that he believes is very important: Farmers like me and other local farmers need more support through things like training and learning from the capabilities of professionals who may know more about our soil than we do. We need more knowledge than what we’ve learned since they were little boys. We were told to do this in a certain way, but new techniques could also help them. We would like more training and knowledge so we could add this to the way we work. And it’s very important as well. It’s really important for people from the outside to help us. It’s also crucial to find a balance of not always cutting trees to expand agriculture. I want people’s help to find ways to save trees because cutting them will worsen the climate crisis. I think that’s important to also have a balance of still being able to grow and sell things while also finding ways to keep the trees to not worsen climate change.

There is also a movement of agroforestry where they farm but they keep the trees.

That’s good too.