Farm: Libertad Especial
Varietal: Caturra, Catuaí,Obatã
Processing: Fully washed & dried in mechanical driers
Altitude: 1,200to 2100metres above sea level
Town / City: Heredia,Moravia,Alajuela (Poás) &Corralillo
Libertad Especial - Costa Rica
Founded in 1961, the formation of Coopelibertad is well-known as one of the most significant moments for cooperatives in Costa Rica. Since its inception almost 60 years ago, the cooperative has continued to work to benefit its members; improving both their financial and social conditions through the cultivation of coffee.
In the Province of Heredia at the beginning of the 1960s, the only companies who owned any significant capital in the coffee industry were large private companies and wealthy family enterprises. Small farmers had no access to technical assistance or financing and were severely disadvantaged when it came to marketing their coffee. In the rare cases where a loan was offered, it came accompanied by asphyxiating interest. In this environment, many farmers were regularly confronted with the loss of property and their one source of income, even when experiencing the smallest bout of bad luck. The life of a small coffee farmer was precarious.
There was an urgent need to find a solution. Many in the region began to speak of the need to free themselves from a system that was holding back the economic, social and cultural development of small coffee producers and at the same time concentrating wealth in very few hands, widening a very dangerous social gap.
In response to these economic circumstances, the National Bank of Costa Rica established the Department of Cooperatives, whose objective was to encourage the creation of well-founded organisations, composed of small and mid-sized farmers in solidarity with a philosophy of service over immediate profit.
On April 9, 1961, a group of coffee growers from Heredia, operating with the advice of representatives of the National Bank, formed the Central Committee for the Organization of a Coffee Growers Cooperative. The group began with 267 associates. Of course, this new organisation had to be given a name, and in one of the first sessions of the Board of Directors its Vice President, Mr Luis Omar Chavarria proposed: "This company was born as a protest of the small coffee growers, who in turn saw in the union of their efforts, the opportunity to be free to manage their small businesses as they please and once and for all, not to be ever more subject to the whims of the wealthy, I propose that our Cooperative be named COOPE LIBERTAD RL."
The reasoning implicit in the proposal summarised the feelings of the small coffee growers and their desire to have their own organisation. The name was accepted unanimously.
Today, more than five decades after its formation, Coopelibertad has brought under its umbrella the majority of coffee producers in the Province of Heredia, as well as expanding into neighbouring provinces. Its name, backed by the quality of its product, is recognised by the most important coffee entities in the national and international market. In 2019, Coopelibertad represents approximately 3,500 hectares of cultivated coffee land, mostly farms of small and medium-sized producers, with estates often averaging around 5 hectares or less. The organisation has 540 full-time members and serves a similar number of independent (non-member) producers, all of whom have also selected Coopelibertad as their best option to market their coffee.
For this year’s Libertad Especial lot, one of the main trade brands for Coopelibertad, Coopelibertad is collecting and blending the top quality lots from all over Central Valley and parts of Tarrazu. For this to be feasible, Coopelibertad has created new systems of collection known as ‘recibidores’. Reception points have been set up all over the region, allowing Coopelibertad to be closer to the farmlands, encouraging even more producers to deliver their produce. These collection centres are located in the Central Valley provinces of Heredia, Alajuela and Moravia, as well as Corralillo in Tarrazu. All collection centres are located at more than 1,200 meters above sea level.
Coffee producers associated with Coopelibertad are characterized by a long tradition of cultivation, good knowledge of the agricultural work that the crop needs, and execution of good practices in soil conservation and environmental stewardship. Producers who join Coopelibertad vary greatly, with some holding professional jobs such as doctors and lawyers, whereas for others coffee-growing is their primary source of income. Most farmers grow Caturra and Catuaí, with some plantations’ trees dating back over 30 years; however, new varieties such as Centroamericano, Obatã and Marsellesa are becoming increasingly common. Chosen on recommendations from Icafe (Coffee Institute of Costa Rica), these varieties are slowly becoming more prevalent due to their resistance to coffee leaf rust.
Coopelibertad plays a huge role in agricultural extension services for its members. Soil analysis is conducted every two years, at the very least, and Icafe advises on inputs and composition. The cooperative provides advice for every aspect of coffee cultivation, from improving soil Ph. to organic compost recipes and applications. Chemical inputs are kept to a minimum with Glyphosate (an herbicide) applied just once a year. For non-organic fertilisers, the plan is to phase out applications altogether in exchange for organic methods, such as shade management, pruning, natural barriers and coffee pulp compost.
All coffee processed by Coopelibertad is selectively hand harvested before being transported from the various ‘recibidores’ to Moravia. Here, just outside San Jose, Coopelibertad’s wet mill is located. To be able to purchase such large quantities of cherry from many locations, strict guidelines are maintained to assure quality. These guidelines help to establish the three types of accepted quality cherry from Coopelibertad members and farmers. These are:
Diferenciado A: ripe cherries with less than 2% of unripes.
Diferenciado B: ripe cherries with more than 2% but less than 4% of unripes.
Convencional: coffees from the beginning of the harvest called "graneas" and coffees from the end of the harvest called "repela" with more than 4% but less than 6% of unripes.
These strict segmentations allow Coopelibertad to improve the quality of their overall coffee cherry, as farmers receive a higher price for Diferenciado A; therefore producers are willing to improve their harvesting techniques.
Lots arriving at the facility begin by initially being separated by day, variety and quality. The coffee is then pulped, before being sorted again via the ‘Cribas’. Here, good beans (first quality) are separated from lower quality or incorrectly pulped beans (second quality). Both lots are next delivered to fermentation tanks where they will ferment for 6 to 24 hours, depending on the weather conditions.
After fermentation, the coffee is washed via grading channel and separated for quality again. To ensure the mucilage is fully removed, the cooperative next uses a Centriflux demucilager. After this stage, the wet parchment will be moved to a Berico Pre-drying machine, where for 8 hours, warm air will dry the skins of the coffee beans. After this, the coffee is dried slowly in mechanical dryers known as ‘Guardiolas’ for between 12 to 20 hours.
Once dried, the coffee is then stored in parchment for 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the quality. Once the parchment is removed, the beans are re-classified by size, density (by gravity separator) and by colour (electronic sorters), ready for export.
As a Rainforest Alliance certificated organisation, environmental care is a high priority for Coopelibertad. 15% of all land is under conservation, and Coopelibertad also has a number of programmes across their group to protect water, rivers, soil and to prevent contamination. Coopelibertad are also in conversation with the Costa Rican government regarding developing ecotourism projects and aim to be carbon neutral by 2021. These objectives seem highly relevant, as the region continues to be increasingly impacted by climate change. High temperatures, heavy rains in short periods and long droughts are continuing to affect producer’s ability to produce coffee in the region. Coopelibertad is currently encouraging new initiatives, such as increased shade trees and soil conservation, to attempt to combat these unpredictable conditions.
As well as Environmental programmes, Coopelibertad also focuses heavily on the rights of its members. As well as making sure workers have basic privileges such as social security and safe working conditions, Coopelibertad also provides access to programs for health care and to tackle poverty. These benefits are not only provided for members but also workers families and larger communities.
For those producers offering certified or high-quality coffee, Coopelibertad makes sure to distribute bonuses as a reward for their hard work. This is important, as many producers in Costa Rica continue to face the challenge of working with high production costs and low prices. Coopelibertad notes that continuous improvement to increase productivity and quality, along with fair prices paid by buyers such as Mercanta, are the only solutions to continuing to grow coffee in the region.