Sunday, May 06, 2012

Costa Rica

Punta Mona environmental education centre, southern Carribbean coast of Costa Rica, December 2011

Punta Mona is an 85-acre off grid environmental education centre nestled in the forest on the Carribbean coast of Costa Rica, near the border with Panama. We stayed there for a week in December last year (2011).

Punta Mona buildings and surrounding food forest, December 2011

A beautiful productive, long-established tropical food forest surrounds the complex, including many species of fruit tree I've never heard of let alone seen. We saw and tasted so much straight off the tree: breadfruit, jackfruit, mangosteen, rambutan, mandarin lemons (a delicious shade-growing citrus!) and much more.

 Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) in the food forest at Punta Mona

Meals were made up of food grown on site and sourced locally. Locally made cooking staples included cooking oil (coconut oil made by ladies from the nearby town of Manzanillo) and a sweetener in the form compressed cane juice, called 'tapa de duce'. Sitting on the open-air balcony of the main building, it was possible to reach over the balcony and pick fruit off the trees.
 Tapa de duce in the kitchen at Punta Mona

Recently, food is being grown in small clearings in the forest at Punta Mona, on a rotation system to maintain soil fertility with long fallow periods (7 years)  during which time the jungle grows back over the clearing, and fertility is partially restored. This is a traditional form of tropical agriculture known as swidden. The biodiverse agriculture practices at Punta Mona stands in stark contrast to the banana monoculture that dominates most of the agricultural land on the Pacific coast, much of it owned by the American company Chiquita Brands International (formerly United Fruit).

Swidden agriculture at Punta Mona

The food forest understorey is part of the agroecological design: nitrogen fixing groundcovers such as pintos peanut co-exist with shade-loving herbs and edible tubers and greens such as amaranth and malabar spinach (reminding me of Uganda).

Amaranth understorey in the food forest at Punta Mona

In the trees are howler monkeys, toucans, macaws and native squirrels. And all about are the pizotes or white nosed coatis, a member of the racoon family.

Squirrel, Playa San Miguel, Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

There is apparently a chocolate supply crisis on the horizon. Not at Punta Mona where I made chocolate from scratch from cacao grown on site. Hear that folks . . . . from scratch.

The pod of the cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree

Unopened pod alongside roasted seeds. We started by shelling the roasted seeds.
Then we put the roasted, shelled seeds through a grinder. The smell was amazing.
Extra ingredients included coconut. Toby, who was caretaking at Punta Mona, went out, harvested one, split it and then ground it on this special machine. Neat.

Tapa de duce, compressed sugar cane juice, a traditional Costa Rican sweetner, and chilli

Final ingredients - chilli and ginger - both from the garden of course. Then combine all ingredients and roll into a ball. Consumption may cause loud sighs of appreciation. The flavour is very intense.
Dominoes may follow chocolate at Punta Mona. Paddy and the boys slap em down.

 The beach at Punta Mona

Shade grown coffee
Costa Rica's is bisected north south by a mountainous spine, the volcanic Cordillera. In the highlands, on the south slope of IrazĂș Volcano is a small shade-grown coffee plantation, Finca Cristina. Two Americans run it, one of them a soil scientist and they run tours of the estate.

Coffee air drying at Finca Cristina

Until modern, sun-grown coffee growing became common practice (around 60 years ago), most coffee-growing in Central America was shade-grown. Shade-grown coffee yields tend to be lower, the coffee takes longer to ripen, and labour costs are higher, but these systems are more stable and resilient than sun-grown coffee. Depending on overstorey and understorey diversity, they also offer more potential for biodiversity conservation. The shaded environment of coffee plantations contributes to insect pest control in a range of ways and and the shade helps with weed control. No insecticides or herbicides are used at Finca Cristina.

Overstorey trees at Finca Cristina are mostly fast-growing native nitrogen fixers (tropical legumes) such as Erythrina poepiggiana (Coralbean) but also include bananas and other edible and useful plants. The branches of the overstorey tres are cut regularly to increase sunlight to the coffee understorey, release the nitrogen being fixed by the bacteria on the roots of the trees, and for mulch (prunings are left on the ground).

A biodigester makes gas from some of the coffee processing waste, while other parts of the waste stream are used in a large worm farm, and to make biochar.

Roasting coffee at Finca Cristina 
 Coffee growing in the highlands of Costa Rica under the partial shade of Rainbow eucalypts (Eucalyptus deglupta), a eucalypt species native to Central America. Its common name comes from its multihued bark (this is not Finca Cristina).

Just down the road from Finca Cristina at Turrialba is the marvellous CATIE, Costa Rica's  world renowned Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center. We went on a tour of the CATIE botanical garden, led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic PhD agricultural science student.The garden is a wonder -  nearly 4400 genetic samples that represent more than 280 species from all over the tropical world. Most plants in the gardens are mature and have edible, medicinal, construction or other uses.

Under the bamboo at CATIE botanical garden - I think the species is Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo).

Growing in partial shade in a house near the Pacific Coast village of Playa San Miguel, where my partner and I volunteered on a turtle conservation project, was this edible perennial coriander (Eryngium foetidum). On my return I bought some seeds from Eden Seeds.
 Perennial coriander (Eryngium foetidum), Playa San Miguel, central Pacific coast of Costa Rica

As in Uganda, machetes are expertly wielded in agriculture throughout Costa Rica. Inspired, I've invested in a one, a Parang machete made in El Salvador. It makes short work of chopping comfrey for mulch and pruning the suckers of chestnuts. Its heavy compared to the ones I used in Uganda but the weight is helpful - its all about the action - letting the weight of the blade do the work.
 My new Parang machete

Well, enough reminiscing about Costa Rica for now. Its back to work on my integrated pest management essay - the topic is integrated weed control in native-grass based pastures of SE Australia.

Marie Antoinette


  1. lovely! very inspiring, would love to visit one day.

  2. Anonymous1:11 AM

    i dont like to comment, but your post made my day and so i shall!

  3. Anonymous9:41 AM

    very good!

  4. Anonymous8:07 AM

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  5. With reference to the photo "The pod of the cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree" pictured is actually paxate (Theobroma bicolor). It is a relative of Theobroma cacao.

    I'm curious to know if you harvested the seeds from it and used them for anything?

    Pods a similar shape without the "webbing" will be Theobroma cacao.

    Regards Ian Whitaker

    World Chocolate Awards®

  6. Thanks for the correction Ian. Myself and the other guests at Punta Mona made the chocolate described in my blog post from the harvested, then roasted, seeds of that pod that you have identified as Theobroma bicolor. However, what we made was a rough and ready (but still delicious) homemade chocolate as described in the post, rather than the smooth chocolate you find in the shops. Steven Brooks, director of Punta Mona is a botanist and expert on edible natives. I'm sure he would be able to answer any other questions you might have about how he's used the Theobroma bicolor in the past. You can contact him through the Punta Mona website: