Interviewee: Juan Luis Salas Villalobos: Producer of organic vegetables and spices and the Executive Secretary of the Costa Rican Organic Agriculture Movement (MAOCO)
Interviewer: Genna West and Martin Mowforth
Location: San José, Costa Rica
Date: 28th September 2010
Theme: Organic food production in Costa Rica
Martin Mowforth (MM): Can you tell us about Maoco?
Juan Luis Salas Villalobos (JV): The organic movement in Costa Rica is turning ten years old. It was born through regional strategies, which came about due to the need for producers to come together and seek solutions to concerns. From there a strategy was formed in each region and later a national strategy, to find solutions to problems, each with three, five and ten year goals. There is still much to be done. We were very occupied making the organic agriculture law, working for four years doing advocacy and lobbying at the Legislative Assembly to ensure that a law was passed for organic agriculture. The law was passed and right now the regulations are being put into effect. This law has many benefits for producers and for the environment, because as well as strengthening the producers, it recognises environmental benefits, you know that the producers contribute to benefits for the environment from their activities. There are other aspects within the law which are still under way, such as bank loans, concessional credits according to the activity concerned, tax exemptions, exemptions for purchasing equipment, agricultural machinery and support for promoting and spreading organic farming.
In Costa Rica growth of organic farming has stagnated a lot, in recent years it has grown very little. It started to grow for export, but there came a time when exports did not grow much, so farming stayed there. It has not been exploited much in the domestic market. We have tried to encourage the local markets to promote organic production within the country, because we have seen that we only look for exports and our people are not entitled to what we produce, so we have to fight so that our neighbours can eat what we produce. We have worked on it; there are different places for selling in agricultural markets and markets exclusively for organic products. There has also been work on certification, so that the producers are trained and realise what certification is, what the standards are, what types of certification exist, and right now we are trying to implement participatory certification for the domestic market.
This is what we have been working with most. Right now I have the job of fighting for credit, because right now this is what we need most to produce, access to credit, along with production to be able to arrive at marketing the produce.
MM: what percentage of the total country’s agriculture is organic?
JV: 2.38% of national production is organic.
MM: It is relatively little in our country too, in all countries as well I imagine, but at least there are movements that are trying to promote it. The majority of people with whom you work are small producers.
JV: Small and medium producers.
MM: But are there big producers with whom you work too?
JV: Yes, what we are doing is not discriminating against anyone. The movement is not exclusive, rather it is inclusive, but the law was made for the micro, small and medium producers, therefore it is for those we fight. Anyone can join the movement, it is organic farming and there is not discrimination.
MM: How many organic markets are there in San José?
JV: In San José there are two markets exclusively for organic produce: one here, the Carmén de Paso Ancho neighbourhood, ‘la Feria del Trueque’, and another in the Aranjuez neighbourhood, ‘la Feria Verde’. They are both held once a week on Saturdays. Outside San José there is one in Turrialba and another in Upala. The rest are points of sale within conventional agricultural markets, like in San Ramón, Pérez Zeledón, Guápiles, Pavas, Coronado.
Genna West (GW): Do many people go to these markets?
JV: Not many people go to those which are exclusive to organic produce, but they do have their clientele and the product gets sold. In those for conventional produce, there is a great influx of people, but they come for other types of non-organic produce, because organic produce still needs to make a real impact and there needs to be a lots more awareness to get people to understand what organic farming is.