The Great Feat

So we bought 29ha of rainforest in Talamanca, Costa Rica. Well, technically and legally, I did.

First goal reached: The logger is gone. The spray-painted red numbers on the trees only a remnant of the past.

Sit back: What happened? Why?

I didn´t need any land. And I didn´t really want any land. So why did I buy it? Or better: Why did Doña Mercedes sell it – or HAVE to sell it?
Answer: She needed money.
Next question: How can it be that you own 19 hectares of one of the world´s most diverse bio-systems and not have a better option than to destroy that biosystem by logging or selling the land altogether?

The problem, I deduced, was that we don´t know how to integrate the rainforest, as important as it may be for life on our planet, into the economic world we have created and live by.

Model for sustainable rainforest

Hence, the plan was born. Or call it vision, dream, goal, objective or ignorance, naivety… call it what you want, but I proposed to biuld a model for economically and ecologically sustainable rainforest projects that would be transferable to other rainforest regions of the world.

It seemed quite obvious to me that it should be possible to do something economically viable in the rainforest using the vast resources available rather than destroying them. The obvious first ideas are research, tourism and marketing campaigns for saving the rainforest.

Attempt Nr.1: ecological bananas

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Don Mario watering seedlings                         Seedlings waiting to be planted

On a second round of brainstorming and traveling around Talamanca, we – Gio now officially joined in the effort – decided to join a local agricultural cooperative in farming and marketing ecological banana and cocoa called APPTA. APPTA consisted of approximately 1500 small farmers all over Talamanca selling mainly the families´ surplus of 50 or 60kg of bananas each.
We set out to plant 4 hectares of banana in the middle of the forest giving the plants the shadow they naturally require and leaving the flora and fauna in place. Young MBA students that we were, we calculated a sustainable area for one farmer to work and live off of to be 8 hectares. Taking into account an 8-hour, 5-days-per-week workload, the country´s minimum wage and social security, we were sure to be on the right path. (The missing 4 hectares of plantation were substituted by other projects we had in mind).

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Caramelo hauling first harvests                       Gio inspecting newly planted bananas

A time of hard work and experiencing the difference between theory and real life followed. We did manage to plant 4 hectares of banana, did certify our plantation in the joint effort of APPTA, helped to market our products in Europe among others at the Biofach trade fair back then still dominated by small and medium sized ventures. I even managed to pay with two herniated disks from harvesting and carrying the 40kg fruits through the forest…

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Gio with… log bridge                      Levi Sucre´s first snow experience

However, after a few years of real numbers, we realized that at market prices for fresh fruit and the conditions set by industrial clients converting our produce into baby-foods and the like, banana farming only paid for about 50% of the real costs (minimum wage, minimum social security).
Just as a rough idea: 1kg of ecologically certified banana cost around €2,50-€3,50 in the supermarket in Europe; APPTA got paid around €0,10 per kg.

Needless to say, we did not give up – we are still here 15 years later.


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4 replies
  1. Herta Fischer
    Herta Fischer says:

    Don’t’ know how to save the rainforest, but the beginning of the story has the power to end in a book.. Exciting, relevant and really good to read! wow!!

  2. Katha Down
    Katha Down says:

    Markus, interesting to read about the beginnings of AIKO. Of course things have moved on massively over the past 19 years, but out of curiosity, why did you decide to pay the farmer the minimum wage? I have no idea, but my gut feeling would be that the minimum wage levels in Costa Rica are not necessarily high enough, or on par with what is nowadays called a ‘living wage’ (ie a salary that allows the worker to be a full member of his given society).
    Maybe this will all be covered in subsequent blogs, but if not, I’d be interested to learn more.

    • says:

      The minimum wage decision was more to take an official framework and test a hypothesis.
      In general, the minimum wage issue depends largely on where (city versus country-side) you live and what your lifestyle is like.
      For people living in Talamanca, especially in the forest, the minimum wage surely is a huge improvement for their living standards.

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