Costa Rica, more than any other Central American country, has embraced technified sun coffee. The National Costa Rican Institute of Coffee (ICAFE) notes that 30% of coffee grown in the country is sun coffee. Not only is a 30% rate high, but it is misleading. Coffee grown under only a single tree species, widely distributed across a farm, qualifies as “shade coffee” in Costa Rica. In fact, all 70% of coffee not classified sun coffee can be marketed as shade coffee, but this is clearly not the kind of shade that preserves biodiversity.
Throughout the country, and especially in the Central Valley, coffee is grown in full sun, or under a single tree species. Most often this is Poró (Erythrina poeppigiana which is not native to Costa Rica) pruned to under 4 meters with only one or two branches. Bird surveys found that these Poró and coffee farms are poor avian habitat, with low species richness and few Neotropical migrants. Other farms use bananas or other fruit trees, non-native Eucalyptus, or timber trees such as Amarillon (Terminalia amazonia). Bird surveys in the Central Valley found that the highest number of species found at any farm (all were considered “shade”) was similar to the paltry number found in full sun farms in Mexico and Guatemala.
According to ICAFE, 90% of Costa Rica’s crop has gone over to the short, high-yielding, sun tolerant varieties caturra and cataui, as well as some catimor, all considered by experts to be lower quality than typica and bourbon varieties.
It can be difficult to identify farms that use sustainable methods, because coffees in Costa Rica are most often identified by broad region, or by a brand used by a mill (beneficio), and not the name of a farm. Over 90% of Costa Rican coffee farms are under 5 hectares, and small producers are required to sell to a beneficio. For example, the intensively marketed Café Britt company roasts 2-3 million pounds of coffee a year, and buys from farms in Tarrazu, Tres Rios, and the Central Valley. Their main facility near Heredia, where they hold their famous tours, is on a former coffee farm, but this is primarily for show (the “campesinos” who guide the tourists around Café Britt’s operations are played by professional actors). Here’s a photo of Cafe Britt’s “shade” coffee.
Research from Costa Rica also found that pesticides used on coffee (and banana) farms are being transported in the atmosphere into cloud forests, including montane areas far away from plantations. They accumulate there, and may be contributing to the drastic declines of amphibians in these areas. One of the most common pesticides found was endosulfan, commonly used on coffee. This is relevant because the high-yield varieties of coffee that are grown in low shade systems, which are common in Costa Rica, nearly always use high levels of chemical inputs, and the paper  notes that “The use of plant protection products per hectare is higher in Costa Rican agriculture than in most industrialized countries.”
Because of their pooled coffee system and dedication to high-yield technified production, it is very difficult to be assured your Costa Rican coffee is truly sustainable. There are no Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified farms or co-ops in Costa Rica, that should tell you something. I know a number of University of Michigan graduate students who have done thesis work on coffee farms in Costa Rica, and they have all told me there is very little true shade in the farms. You are better off buying coffee from other Central American countries, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua.
If you buy Costa Rican coffee, look for a high percentage of older varieties such as bourbon and typica, and certified organic beans — these will all be less likely to be highly technified, as they are more difficult to grow in the sun. Some co-ops/beneficios or companies might indicate that they preserve native forest near production areas. This is a positive sign. This year, Costa Rica will also be joining the Cup of Excellence competition. This means individual farms will be competing, and consumers will be able to read detailed farm profiles and learn about growing methods. That will be helpful as well.
Here is the scoop on a few popular brands of Costa Rican coffee …
- La Minita (Tarrazu). Family-owned farm (and mill) with nearly 700 acres in production, mostly caturra. Uses Poro in “varying density” for shade. The best thing that can be said is that it is a family owned estate that has 200 acres in natural forest that will never be converted. Does not use herbicides or pesticides. (More on La Minita in my post on coffee at Panera Bread.)
- Thanksgiving Coffee’s Costa Rican Songbird is obtained through Sustainable Harvest coffee importers. Probably a decent bet that this is technically “shade grown” (as the Costa Ricans describe it), or perhaps even more substantial, given the commitment of the importer and roaster.
- Hacienda La Amistad, adjacent to the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve and Park. The family has kept much of it (10,000 hectares) as natural forest. Certified organic, caturra and catuai varieties, grown under Poro.
- Café Britt. See above. See also this post by a U.S. roaster who visited Costa Rica and was not impressed with the coffee.
- Doka Estate. I’ve occasionally seen this advertised as shade coffee, and perhaps the organic section of the property has a little more shade, but in general another sunny location. You can see the near total lack of shade trees in this travel account,
- Cafe Cristina is a (truly) small shade coffee farm with direct ordering. The owners, whom I met at a conference, have worked with bird researchers and birders.
An excellent resource on Central Valley coffee growing and biodiversity is Sandra Znajda’s York University Master’s thesis, “Habitat conservation, avian diversity, and coffee agrosystems in southern Costa Rica,” available as a PDF here.
 Daly, G. et al. 2007. Accumulation of current-use pesticides in Neotropical montane forests. Environ. Sci. Technol.41:1118–1123.