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Birmingham fair trade campaigner MaggieJo St John is in Nicaragua teaching English to coffee farmers and seeing at first hand the impact of policies aimed at ensuring that those who cultivate our morning brew get a decent return for their work. She's just gone back after a spot of r n' r in Costa Rica.

I had a great trip to Costa Rica. Very interesting to see the different developments there. Over 50 years ago they disbanded their armed forces and just have a police force to maintain law and order within the country.

The peace, stability and lack of costs from this move are clearly to be seen: there isn't the level of poverty that there is in Nicaragua, nor apparently are there such huge gaps between rich and poor.

I read an interesting article suggesting that among the reasons for Costa Rica's more evenly spread prosperity was the lack of gold and other minerals so that, very unusually, the early colonialists didn't come to exploit riches; rather they were poor farming folk who came to improve their standard of living.

Tourism is highly developed and the standards of accommodation were high although for me coming from Nicaragua, so too were the prices.

Anywhere you want to visit there is a fee varying from £4.50 to over £10.00; in Nicaragua there are 2 National Parks where you pay an entrance fee of just £3.50). (These are the prices for foreigners; locals pay less.) And in Monteverde / Santa Elena there were a number of private collections of reptiles, frogs, butterflies, snakes, orchids so if you wanted to visit all of them you'd have to pay separately.

Wherever I travel, I'm used to hopping on a local bus and doing things myself. I found the “what tours are you going to do?” approach, uncomfortable.

Aside from that, it was lovely: wonderful vegetation, delightful people, great beaches. We went to the Caribbean / Atlantic coast and had stretches of beach virtually to ourselves; the Pacific coast is a lot more crowded.

We spent Christmas there, having an excellent Christmas Eve meal of spicy prawns and fish and then spending a rather rainy, but beautifully warm day at our own little beach house eating local goodies and those I'd asked Tony to bring out, including mince pies and chocolates!

This is a major banana growing region: Dole everywhere. I was delighted to read that all Sainsbury's bananas will be Fairtrade; That should mean they will come from small producers whose farms are diversified.

What I saw wasn't agriculture; it was agro-industry. When writers state that agriculture is bad for the planet, they are mis-using language: agro-industry is bad for the planet.

Vast areas with no vegetation other than banana plants, the area under them kept clean, spraying every fortnight with chemicals all mean a dearth of wildlife: an absence of the myriads of insects that are so vital for soil fertility; also bananas consume a huge amount of water.

By spraying fortnightly, agro-industry can harvest a crop every 4 months. In contrast, naturally grown bananas yield a bunch of bananas every 8 months. I ate a Dole banana and lots of natural/organic ones: the difference in flavour, in texture is incomparable. I hardly ever eat bananas in the UK because the flavour when fruit has ripened on a tree is so much better.

When we were in the coffee growing areas I was also very surprised (and horrified) to see how much of it is grown in serried rows out in full sun. So a lot of coffee in Costa Rica is another part of the agro-industry with very little diversification of vegetation, massive spraying with chemicals and a lack of wildlife.

I understand more why the Rainforest Alliance organisation came into being: they support the production of shade grown coffee, to provide cover for birds and all the wildlife. When I lived in Colombia and again here in Nicaragua, I've always been in areas of shade grown coffee.

The atmosphere is so different and the flavour; the quality of shade grown coffee is better. I was happy to get back to Miraflor and drink delicious fresh coffee, made from beans that had just been picked, roasted over the wood fuelled mud stove and ground while still warm.

They made a fabulous cup of coffee, and I've some in my room and am off right now to breathe in the scent and savour the flavour of freshly brewed fairly traded organic coffee. Lucky me.

Happy New Year. MaggieJo


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