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Story Publication logo July 30, 2018

Costa Rica: Investing in Change for Indigenous Children

A young boy peeks from the window of a bache located in a coffee plantation near the Rio Sereno border crossing. Image by Samira Tella. Costa Rica, 2018.

As demand for high-quality coffee increases, but crop prices decrease, desire for low-wage labor...


As coffee drips through the "chorreador," an enticing smell fills the room. This traditional Costa Rican method to prepare coffee involves a wooden stand that holds a small cloth bag. Ground coffee is seeped through the bag into a mug, which then quickly draws the company of others.  

Throughout the Coto Brus region, the fields of ripening fruit allow farmers to make a living—they also affect the livelihoods of the Ngäbe-Buglé, an indigenous group migrating between Panama and Costa Rica. Each year an estimated 2,500 Ngäbe-Buglé children cross the border with their families to work in the coffee plantations of Costa Rica.

The national government, private farm owners, and international organizations are working together to improve the lives of these children.

Life on the Finca

Without other options, parents often take their children into the fields; children spend all day outdoors, susceptible to the same harsh conditions as their parents: morning heat, followed by heavy rains without shelter, proximity to chemicals, and labor intensive work.

Mothers can often be seen carrying babies in traditional woven carriers called "chácaras" on their backs as they pick coffee, or older children may care for younger ones. To maximize the amount of coffee collected, families often leave at sunrise, 4 or 5 a.m., and go until sundown without eating, showering, or using a toilet. Parents are hesitant to take their children, but leaving them in the "baches" presents a different set of issues.

Yessica Rivera Chacón, former coordinator of FincaSana, a project to address health needs of workers in the farms, remembers “ the houses [baches] you would hear noises, when supposedly everyone is gone working, those [noises] are the kids. The parents in a manner to protect them leave them shut in the house. If you pass by and hear noises or hear people rustling it’s the kids inside.”

Children are left in the confines of a bachea small room inhabited by seven or eight people. Inside they have little access to light. There is no bathroom, and often no potable water. Some baches also contain a fogón, a wood burning stove, and children left all day with little stimulation can suffer from severe burns from touching and playing with the fogón.

Former director of the health area, Dr. Ortiz Rosés, pointing out the leftover ash near a fogón in a bache near the Rio Sereno border, explains “the first three years of life for children are very important. It is a time of neural development. When we gave these children the choice of colors, they would just choose one color. They didn’t know they could draw with more than one color—they lacked the mental stimulation.” Ortiz explains that the children would use this same ash from the fogón with their fingers to draw, a unique method to engage the world around them.

After three or four days of walking from Panama to the border, children often arrive malnourished from harsh living conditions in the Comarca. Rivera Chacón says, we would see parasitic diseases, respiratory illnesses, and nutritional deficiencies” diseases that are preventable.” Families, moving from farm to farm do not have access to stable resources and children may pass months without any access to education and years without medical care. 

Working Together

Alarmed by the difficulties these children face, a global community of NGOs, multilateral organizations, and private businesses together decided to act.

"Casas de Alegria," translated as Houses of Joy, began as an independent project by farm owners in 2002 in order to improve the lives of the Ngäbe-Buglé children who come to work on coffee plantations. In 2014, the project was sponsored by UNICEF and promoted for expansion. The government of Costa Rica, now supports the project alongside farm owners, and Coopesabalito, a coffee cooperative. Currently 16 houses are open in the Brunca region.

During the harvest season, Casas de Alegria provide a space where children under 12 can spend the day while their families are at work. This space provides culturally appropriate meals, caretakers, spaces for children to rest, and access to health and social services. When possible, the Casas are staffed by Ngäbe-Buglé community members. Emmanuel Gómez Rojas, coordinator of Casas de Alegria, says that “these children, a product of labor mobility and poverty suffer huge consequences as a product of this migration; so as a right that we have as human beings to migrate, and migrate in a healthy way, this presents the possibility that throughout the time of this mobilization [the children] can have fair conditions.”

Each Casa de Alegria is sponsored by a private farm owner, who funds the construction of the house, while services are provided by a joint coalition of social services agencies, creating public-private partnership for the prevention of child labor and promotion of children’s rights.

“[The situation] is a win-win for all three” says farm owner Roberto Rojas. “For the kids because they spend the day in better situations, they have food, they are taken care of, they are bathed, they are played with, it is entirely different than before. For the parents, they have a better economic situation because they don’t need to pay for children to eat during the day. They gain more because they are not worried about taking their children [to the fields] …In my case, I get more coffee collected… and what is more for me is that there is a group of children that aren’t abandoned. This is satisfying to me—I feel happy and content when I come here.”

It is not a perfect system, however. As of today, only a small portion, approximately 20-25 percent of children entering for the coffee harvest attend Casas de Alegria. Children of different ages are kept together in the same limited space, making it difficult for caretakers to address the needs of the variety of children. Emmanuel Gómez Rojas, coordinator of Casas de Alegria, mentions that children follow their parents as families move to different parts of the country to find work during the harvest. This makes the provision of services, follow ups, and education difficult.

Older children are also in a complicated situation. Adolescence is not a stage of life in Ngäbe-Buglé culture. Boys become men at the age of 13 and girls become women; those who are older generally join their families in the fields, considered in Costa Rican society a form of child labor. However, Casas de Alegria does work within what Gómez Rojas calls “a window to postpone this labor”—providing children who are young but capable of working with a space where they can avoid the harsh labor conditions.

At What Cost?

Roberto Rojas requires that all parents working on his farm send their children to the Casa de Alegria on his property. His "Casa," mimicking that of the native toucan, is bright, full of posters and imagery of Ngäbe-Buglé children promoting healthy eating and good hygiene. Rojas’s involvement is sadly uncommon, but growing interest has provided hope for the project. Farm owners who take part in the project often emphasize the economic benefit of Casas de Alegria. While they must financially back the building of the Casa, the benefit for the coffee farm owner stems from the coffee consumer. Increasing global awareness of the labor conditions of agricultural workers has led to a change in purchasing preferences of international consumers. Promoting Casas de Alegria as a source of change and support for the community increases the economic gain for coffee farm owners. Another win for the farm owner. But, a shift in focus away from the children whose lives depend on these Casas de Alegria.

While the consumer may feel more at ease from drinking a cup of coffee knowing that farm owners are supporting social endeavors, at what point is the Casa de Alegria a source of economic gain for the farm owner, rather than of social responsibility?

The potential of purchasing power mixed with social responsibility is not unnoticed throughout Costa Rica. Other coffee cooperatives intend to expand Casas de Alegria to the coffee growing region of Tarrazu.

“The added value to the coffee of the Casa de Alegria provides money for the farmer; they want to promote a picture of a healthy indigenous child, happy, clean,” says Ortiz. “We touched their pockets.”

“When farms are smaller, there is a more horizontal relationship between the farm owner and the workers. If the wife of a farm owner hears children crying in the baches, she will go to them, with the thought that they are also human beings,” Ortiz continues. Where this gets lost is in the large farms with huge degrees of separation between indigenous families and the farmer: “With owners that live in other countries, they don’t know and aren’t bothered by what is going on.” Unfortunately, these large farms are also the farms that sell to the corporations that are well known globally.

However, as of now, Gómez Rojas says “the farmers are not gaining anything. The goal is that people will pay more for this coffee.” Gómez Rojas believes that benefits for the farmers will lead to benefits for the children. Nearly everyone involved with Casas de Alegria reports that the farmer is a key component of the project regardless of their motivation. “Farmers are improving the lives of their workers” says Rivera Chacón. “Without them, we cannot make changes in the lives [of the Ngäbe-Buglé.]” Beyond the mixed motivation and incentives backing Casas de Alegria, the project is creating overall an immense change in the acceptance, awareness, and possibility for the population.

Editor's note: Quotes have been translated from Spanish into English.



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