Early agriculture in the tropics was the slash and bum type, with small areas of forest cut and planted for a few years before the soil was depleted and the farmer cleared another plot. Most soil nutrients are actually stored in the trees and plants growing on tropical land. Heavy rains and the rapid breakdown of compost at these temperatures limit fertility of cleared land unless fertilizers are added or crops rotated, or a volcano periodically adds miniral rich ash to the upper layer. In prehistoric times, people moved on, allowing the soil and vegetation to restore themselves. Very steep hillsides were hard to work and didn't produce well, so were farmed only if easier ground wasn't available.
Modem farms stay in the same place and most crops leave bare ground exposed to the heavy tropical rains. On slopes, tons of soil are lost every year, even from steep pastures. Pressed by population and a growing international debt, Costa Rica has cut half her forests in the past 40 years. Before the year 2000 she will have used all forests not in parks and reserves. Where the soil is gone, forest cannot regrow. The government and even the Peace Corps are doing reforestation, but usually in quickgrowing species like pine and eucalyptus which make firewood but do not make food for wildlife or restore the hundreds of species that grow in a tropical rainforest. Lately a few of the tropical hardwoods, including pochote, have been planted. The Costa Rican governinent recognizes the problem and is working on it. If you are concerned, you'll find suggestions in our "helping nature in costa rica" page.
Coffee and bananas were the first two major exports of Costa Rica. Coffee still is the country's most valuable crop though it's concentrated on a small part of the land and subject to wild price fluctuations on the world market. Throughout the Meseta Central, you'll see the glossy green bushes, often shaded by scattered trees, sometimes on incredibly steep slopes. In season, the white blossoms or red berries add to the beauty.
Bananas were first grown on the east coast along the railroad during construction, partly to help pay for completion of the project. That was the start of the United Fruit Company. Later, the Panama disease damaged many plantations and new planting was done on the southwest coast. Some western plantations are now being converted to oil palm, for oil used in margarine and soap. You may want to try varieties of bananas you can find in markets here which have much more flavor than the bombproof ones bred for shipping overseas. They make good snacks to take on buses and trains.
Recently beef has become the third largest export, grown mostly in the west. Cattle are Brahma purebred or cross, bred to take heat and insects.
Dairy cattle are raised mostly in the highlands, usually above the Central or at Monteverde. Almost all the beef is grass-fed and relatively lean, exported mainly for fast-food hamburgers and TV dinners. Costa Rica desperately needs foreign exchange, but she is paying a high price for it. Cutting and burning forest from hills so steep a friend noticed "cows falling out of their pastures" on the road to Monteverde, cattle growers are responsible for much deforestation. Fires are started to bum off the coarse grass and brush each year, and many fires bum into adjacent forest. Some cattle fincas in Guanacaste use introduced African grasses and modem methods to increase production on flatter ground.
Sugar has long been a major crop for home use and export. You'll see it along the road in the eastern Meseta Central. There it grows between coffee fields until it becomes the major crop as you drop down past Turrialba and into banana country. Other export crops are pineapples, copra and dried coconuts, cacao, cotton. Rice is a major crop in the west, all of it used in the country as it's a staple in the local diet. Also grown for local consumption are beans, corn, honey, vegetables, mangoes, papayas and many other tropical fruits, pork, chickens, and potatoes, the latter mostly on the slopes of Irazu
House plants and cut flowers, grown under acres of plastic screening for shade and rain protection, are a new export crop in the Meseta Central. The plants in your office or home may have been grown in Costa Rica. It's fun to visit these places and see the plants you keep in little pots at home growing by the acre! Cut flowers, particularly carnations and chrysanthemums, grow under screens even on high ridges along the nteramerican Highway. Such crops are require little land but much labor in a frost-free climate.
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