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A Q&A with Expert Jim Karr

By | April 5, 2014

Q: People around the world love Costa Rican coffee. What makes Costa Rica coffee so special? Do Costa Ricans drink a lot of coffee, too? 

A: Environmental conditions, dedicated farmers, and government policy come together in Costa Rica to produce the ideal cup of coffee. The central highlands of Costa Rica have climate (temperature and rainfall) and slightly acidic, volcanic soils that are ideal for production of coffee—the "Golden Grain" as it is called in Costa Rica. Costa Rican farmers have nurtured their coffee plants and protected those soils to ensure sustainable production of high quality coffee for two centuries. Robusta and Arabica dominate world coffee consumption, however, Costa Rica prohibits production of robusta coffee in the country. Robusta is more resistant to disease and weather problems, and easier and cheaper to grow than arabica. But arabica beans have moderate aroma and body and produce a superior grade of coffee because it contains half the caffeine of robusta as well as more aromatic properties and desirable flavorings. Costa Ricans ensure the quality of their coffee for the world and for their own consumption. Costa Rica has the highest per capita consumption of any coffee-growing country. As in other parts of the world, coffee ties together the rich and the poor in Costa Rica. Coffee helped to transform the Costa Rican economy, a reality tied to the importance of coffee in the world economy; globally, coffee is the second most traded commodity, after oil. Coffee also has transformed consumer behavior, working patterns, and even fostered the democracy that flourishes today in Costa Rica.

Q: The Smithsonian group will visit both Poas and Arenal volcanoes. What role did volcanoes play in the creation of Costa Rica and its diverse ecosystems, stunning biodiversity, and productive agriculture. 

A: Until just a few million years ago, no land connected North and South America. Interaction of the Earth's crustal plates caused the land that is now Costa Rica and Panama to rise above sea level and connect those two continents about three million years ago. As a result, Costa Rica, a country a bit smaller than West Virginia, has four major mountain ranges and seven active volcanoes. Visitors can see venting steam and smell volcanic gases, evidence of geological processes that continue today, during visits to Poas and Arenal volcanoes. For many millennia Costa Rican volcanoes have provided nutrient- and mineral-rich building blocks for soils that nurture Costa Rica's natural ecosystems and modern agriculture. Costa Rica's geological diversity and its position as an active mixing zone for the plants and animals of North and South America provide ideal conditions for diverse ecosystems (coral reefs, mangrove forest, wet and dry lowland forest, cloud forest, montane oak forest, elfin forest, and so on). Costa Rica is home to 210 mammal, 35,000 insect, 820 bird, and 9,000 plant species (including 900 trees and 1,500 orchids). From the north came wrens, wood warblers, cats, deer, bears, oaks, and mistletoe. From the south came antbirds, parrots, armadillos, opossums, porcupines, orchids, bromeliads, and heliconias.


Jim Karr

Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s.

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