In Walter Elizondo Naranjo’s office in San Antonio, Costa Rica, hangs a large banner with pictures of pineapple, bananas, and oranges. 100% orgánico, the banner proudly states. Looking at the banner, Walter grins broadly. “This is COOPEASSA.”
Thirty years ago, farmers in the lushly-forested foothills of the Cordillera de Talamanca mountains largely grew staple grains. They had little access to markets. And they were very, very poor. “My grandparents had to ride horses 20 miles to get to a market,” reflects Walter, who manages the COOPEASSA cooperative. “And when they got there, they couldn’t get a good price.”
Determined to earn more money for their hard work, 20 farmers in the region came together in 1984 to form COOPEASSA. Together, they reasoned, they could get better prices for their crops than any of them could alone.
Today, the business looks a lot different than it did back then. It has grown from 20 members to 300, and has raised average incomes per farm from $650 to $4,360 per year. It’s certified organic and Fair Trade, and has achieved the coveted Costa Rican sustainability certification “Bandera Azul” four years running. But throughout this period of expansion, one thing has remained constant: the cooperative’s commitment to the environment.
Walter is no stranger to inorganic agriculture. “My father worked in traditional agriculture, and worked with chemicals all the time,” he says. “I still remember when we couldn’t drink the water from the Rio Guayabo. It was too polluted.”
Facing razor-thin profit margins and persistent crop diseases, many farmers understandably turn to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But while these inputs may have short-term gains, the long-term effects on soil, water, and farmer health are disastrous. Thanks to COOPEASSA, however, farmers don’t have to sacrifice their health or the environment for the short-term success of their farms. “We have an organic pest repellent, for example, that we import from Germany,” says Walter. “This isn’t the kind of thing that farmers could access if they weren’t members of our cooperative.”
Reflecting on how farming is different today than it was for his father, Walter smiles softly and says, “The earth smells different.”
While Root Capital is not this cooperative’s only financier, Walter remarks on how our team’s focus on customer service set us apart from the traditional banks that the cooperative has worked with in the past. “The payments come fast, and the interest rates are fair,” says Walter. “It’s simple. And it works.”
But Walter is looking beyond our current $200,000 line of credit, to the future. Packaging is an inefficiency that he would like to address—while the cooperative has its own processing facility, it rents space and equipment from a packaging facility 20 kilometers away. Someday, Walter says, he would like COOPEASSA to have a packaging facility of its own. “Just one of a thousand projects,” he says, chuckling.
With higher incomes and more sustainable practices, the cooperative’s producer-members are set up for success. But Walter sees the true impact of the cooperative in the attitude of its youth. “It’s really nice to see the children of our members go off to college… and then come right back here to work on their farms.”
When asked about a favorite story or memory from his time working with COOPEASSA, Walter thinks for a moment. Then his eyes light up. “My favorite story is how many producers now have hope,” he says. “Hope that, through agriculture, they can improve the productivity of their farms, their own health, and the futures of their children.”
Root Capital provides advisory workshops that build the capacity of cooperatives like COOPEASSA to promote farmer resilience to climate change. All of these workshops are funded entirely by donations.