Costa Rica – Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

MSU / UCR – December 15-29, 2012

Day 10 & 11: Monte Verde – University of Georgia- Engineering related to coffee

Prepared by: Kelsey Downey

24 de Diciembre

To conclude our last moments at EARTH, a few of us early folk took advantage of the light by going on a morning stroll to take in the surroundings. Once the others had woken up from their slumber, we all got together to enjoy a breakfast that consisted of some delicious pancakes and, of course, other Costa Rican staples. We quickly got our stuff together and packed up the bus where a couple unexpected scorpions decided to make an appearance in our cabins; at least they were kind enough as to wait until we were about to leave! With the bus all packed up like Santa’s sleigh, we hit the road to make our way to Monteverde. A couple hours into the drive, we made a pit stop at an ice cream shop where we ate some refreshing treats with this guy:

Dinosaur statue we saw in front of the ice cream parlor.

Dinosaur statue we saw in front of the ice cream parlor.

An hour or so later, we had reached the area of Monteverde! Not only were we welcomed by some pretty beautiful scenery, but the curvy, graveled roads may have been a bit confusing since it took us an additional 40 minutes to find our accommodations. Luckily, the group had made it to University of Georgia – Athens’ (UGA) extension in Costa Rica. With growling tummies, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and then unloaded the van so our Costa Rican colleagues could make the trip back home to celebrate the holiday with their families.

Some beautiful scenery we saw on our drive to Monteverde.

Some of the beautiful scenery we saw on our drive to Monteverde.

Once saying our “goodbye” and “see you soon,” we all settled into our quaint bungalows. With our next obligation not being until 5 p.m., some of the students took advantage of the down time to go on a hike accompanied by Dr. Reese, Dr. Reinhold, and one of the UGA-CR staff. Matt, a UGA graduate now working as a naturalist at the facility, where we saw all the wonders of the secondary forest within the area.

Spiders we saw on our hike.

A spider species known as opiliones are closely related to the daddy long leg. These blind spiders actually group together and move constantly to scare off predators.

A species of orchids seen on the hike.

A species of orchids seen on the hike.

Within the forest, there are over 3000 species of plants, where more than 500 are orchids. Also, there are over 400 species of birds and 120+ mammals in the area. Reptiles and amphibians are also a large part of the forest having roughly 150 species, and  the insects are innumerable!

A certain kind of insect larva which is born on the leaf. Once it has hatched, it feeds on the internal part of the leaf leaving behind a yellow pigment path until it is big enough to burst out.

The trail made by the larvae of a leaf miner. As the larvae feeds on the internal leaf tissue, the path starts to get larger until the leaf miner is big enough to burst out of the leaf to start the next stage of its life.

Katie, Demitri, and Allison examining the hallow tree which provides shelter for a certain species of ants. The ants then complete this symbiotic relationship by fighting off the trees’ predators using pheromones and physical attacks.

Katie, Demitri, and Allison examining the hallow tree which provides shelter for a certain species of ants. The ants then complete this symbiotic relationship by fighting off the trees’ predators using pheromones and physical attacks.

After getting rained on and walking through some pretty soggy soil, all the students got together in the Union building where we had a brief lecture on the thermodynamics in biological systems. First, we went over a few laws of thermodynamics: the zeroth law states that if two thermodynamic systems are each in thermal equilibrium with a third, then they are in thermal equilibrium with each other. The first law, which will be quite noticeable to most, is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only change forms. We ended with the second law that says the entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium. Once we got the basic understanding, Dr. Reinhold then asked us “The first and second law differ by quantity vs. quality. Which is which?” For those of you who are back at home, what do you think?

We continued our discussion focused on the entropy and exergy of a system: Entropy either being a measure of the amount of energy in a physical system not available to do work or a measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed system. The next term, exergy, is described as the useful energy formed by disequilibrium of a material and its surrounding environment, or in other words, the energy available to do work. Applying these terms to biological systems, however, did not make much sense since entropy will tend to increase in an isolated system not in equilibrium over time, exergy will end up decreasing, but in biological systems it is the opposite. What is actually causing this is that biological systems tend to increase exergy with time by increasing organization, and ecosystems is even worse since stored exergy is being maximized as well. For example, picture a cow. This cow intakes a low entropy input, such as grass (a fairly organized system), into its exergy storage. The cow then emits high entropy output, in the form of manure (a very disorganized system). Wa-la, a biological system.

To conclude our lecture, we learned more about how we can use exergy and emergy in assessing the life cycle analysis and valuation of an ecosystem. Using emergy and exergy cost analysis and efficiency indices, the group determined if a certain winery in Tuscany was more sustainable than one in Piedmont given tables with emergy and exergy data. Most of the information was based on ecological factors such as wind, rain, and solar energy, but other inputs like fertilizers and fossil fuels were also utilized in the assessment. From our calculations, the group decided that the Tuscany farm was more sustainable due to its exergy cost. Solar radiation dominate exergy consumption and cost, when calculating the farms with solar radiation, they were relatively the same. However, when solar radiation was removed from the calculations, the Piedmont winery was actually three times greater than Tuscany making it less sustainable.

Once we were given some reading assignments with discussion questions to have ready by Wednesday to do some academic work, we enjoyed a specially prepared meal by the staff at UGA-CR. Chicken, pork, and vegetarian tamales – which are very typical to have on Christmas Eve in Latin American countries – were enjoyed by everyone at the facility in the wonderfully decorated cafeteria that Anh helped the staff do earlier that evening. With full stomachs, we then headed to an orientation presented by UGA-CR. Katie, a naturalist intern at the facility, gave us the general overview of what was going on in the area. UGA-CR is within the Arenal-Monteverde Protected Zone, where 60000 acres are divided between the various reserves.

Some of the students listening to Katie given an orientation on UGA Costa Rica.

Some of the students listening to Katie give an orientation on UGA Costa Rica.

UGA-CR aims to do the following: First is to promote educational experiences through study abroad, student groups, and educational tourism. Research is also done where long-term data collection and other short term research done by students and faculty are being done. In fact, one of the staff at UGA-CR saw a moth with a wingspan greater than 1 foot during his sampling. Community is one of the most important pillars at UGA-CR, since it provides outreach to the San Luis community for the 100 households to learn English, computer literacy, and agriculture. Finally, sustainability is a long term goal at UGA-CR. This is being achieved within the staff, tour operations, using environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies, recycling, going to local and onsite farms (15% of their food comes from on-site facilities and 25% from local vendors). Also, various programs are being done to help with achieving this goal.

This 62 hectare lot consists of the following: housing, laboratories, classrooms, a botanical garden, private reserves and trails, and an integrated organic farm. The integrated organic farm was actually a pre-existing pasture area, so no trees were harmed in the making! At this farm, they produce various food ranging from fruits, vegetables, milk, and pork. Also at UGA-CR, there is a biodigester where they are currently utilizing pig waste to produce methane for the pig housing; however, current development of using human waste will be able to supply energy to the kitchen which will only aid in the carbon offset program. This program, specifically, is to plant native trees in the area where roughly 4 trees offsets roughly 1 ton of carbon emission. Since the land had previously been used as a coffee farm, which fell under since the operating costs were much larger than the profit being obtained; this program also helps with reforestation and habitat regeneration.

To end the night, students either went back to their rooms to relax and sleep or went to the recreational center next door to play some ping pong, hacky sack, and foosball before getting all snug in their beds for a not-quite-so-winter nap.

25 de Diciembre

Feliz Navidad de Monteverde y un feliz cumpleaños a Alex!

The sunrise on Christmas Day at UGA.

The sunrise on Christmas Day at UGA Costa Rica.

The holiday had begun with a quick breakfast to fuel us for the day’s activities. With one man down (due to some tummy problems), the rest of us headed to the Cloud Forest Preserve for a nice morning hike. Since we had already had so many guided tours, we were given the opportunity to explore the forest on our own.  The students decided to stay together in a large group until we got to the Continental Divide – the country’s division between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean- where we then split up into smaller groups to do as we pleased.

The group standing in front of one of the overhangs in the Cloud Forest Reserve. Alex's head had turned to see a cloud which swirled past the students.

The group standing in front of one of the overhangs in the Cloud Forest Reserve. Alex’s head had turned to see a cloud which swirled past the students.

Following the Divide, one of the groups headed towards the suspended bridge. We were all pretty shocked to see the warning sign of having only ten people on the bridge at a time; to say the least, a few drops of sweat broke out from the nervousness. The next stop was to the waterfall tucked away along one of trails. Along the way, the beautiful and unique sights were taken in before reaching our point of destination. At the waterfall, another family was taking some Christmas photos with Santa hats which they so kindly allowed some of our group to pose with in front of the waterfall.

The group observing one of the trees in the forest.

The group observing one of the trees covered in parasitic vines in the forest.

Sign in front of the suspended bridge.

Sign in front of the suspended bridge.

One of the native birds in Monteverde.

One of the native birds in Monteverde. It was rather far away to identify, but from its large size it is probably closely related to the vulture family.

Ben, Luke, Katie, and Anh posing in front of the waterfall with the lovely Santa hats.

Ben, Luke, Katie, and Anh posing in front of the waterfall with the lovely Santa hats.

It was soon approaching time to leave the reserve, so the groups headed back to the main entrance to peek around the gift shop before we left. By 11:30 a.m., we all piled into the cabs to take us back to UGA-CR for a delicious lunch where our sickly team member was feeling much better. Within the next hour, we were on our way to Alvero’s Farm for a tour. His wife, Elizabeth, was going to give us a tour of their land with Katie from the previous night being our translator. Elizabeth began with sharing the background of the land. The family moved to the area roughly 10 years ago after receiving land from the Finca la Bella project. Anna Crebal, an honored Quacker in the San Luis area, started this mission to help landless families get land to have as their own. The previous 50 hectare lot of land was utilized as a dairy pasture, but is now occupied by 25 families for personal farming use. Another aspect of this program was to help reforest the area where about 18000 native trees were planted, along with only certain fertilizers and pesticides (mostly organic) to be utilized by the families.

View from Elizabeth's house.

View from Elizabeth’s house.

Elizabeth, like many other families in the area, work mostly with coffee and dairy but other crops are also grown on their land. If the families have any crop to salvage after personal consumption, the items are then sold for a fairly high price since they are made from organic practices. Along with farming, Elizabeth also sells her own arts and crafts to the local community for an additional pocket money for her family. Once she finished her introduction, we then started to head towards the coffee beans. On the way, however, we stopped in front of a tree that was growing some sort of flower. We soon found out that the tree was growing Costa Rica’s national flower, the guaria morada (another species of orchid).

Elizabeth standing in front of Costa Rica's national plant.

Elizabeth standing in front of Costa Rica’s national plant.

We then turned to focus on small-scale production of coffee beans. Cherries, the name given for the last stage of the coffee beans, are the sign when the family knows when to harvest. The coffee beans are collected by hand into baskets and then are stored in large bags until they are processed. For one growth period, Elizabeth and her family have to harvest 4 to 5 times since all coffee seeds don’t develop at the same rate. To assist with harvesting, the family hires outside and pays them roughly 1 mil per bucket filled. To put this into perspective, Elizabeth and Alvaro’s coffee trees typically get a yield of 6 large bags and it takes 20 buckets to fill 1 large bag; that is a lot of picking if you ask me!

The coffee trees are planted one meter apart, with 2 plants right next to each other. Between years 4 and 5, the coffee trees produce the highest yield and with time the value will reduce. To address this issue, they will actually cut the tree between years 8 and 9 which will rejuvenate the crop to produce higher yields once again. Another aspect of this area was the utilization of an Inca tree to promote nitrogen fixation for the crops to use. During the plant’s lifespan of 32 to 40 years, the best looking cherries – which have two seeds – are taken to plant new trees for future use.  Due to the coffee beans having a sugar coating and sugarcane being a fairly large crop on Alvaro’s farm, monkeys have become a large issue that they actually have had to install electric fencing around some of their crops.

Elizabeth explaining the coffee process to the group.

Elizabeth explaining the process of harvesting coffee to the group.

On our way to seeing Elizabeth’s sugarcane crop, we passed by a gross, dead snake; however, that image was soon forgotten when we were allowed to taste some of the sweet lemons. Some banana plants were also briefly discussed, where the families around the area use the leaves for personal use (like to wrap the tamales we had had the previous night). Also an interesting find that was pointed out from Dr. Reinhold was the sensitive plant (later identified by Dr. Reese as a species of Mimosa); if the small plant was touched it would react by shutting in its pine-like leaves. We thought this was some sort of defense mechanism to save its leaves from being consumed and also possibly to simulate a mammalian movement to scare off any predators that came close; any other ideas you can think of for this happening?

The senstive plant that everyone was so interested in poking!

The senstive plant (a species of Mimosas) that everyone was so interested in poking!

We finally made it to the sugarcane portion of the tour. Elizabeth explained that they only grow good quality species for sugar production. Once the crop flowers in December, Alvaro then harvests the crop between March and April since this is when the sugar content in the crop is at its highest. Also as a means of sustainability, they will actually take a portion of the sugarcane stalk and bury it into the ground. Apparently, new sugarcane will emerge from the joints of the buried stalk making planting unnecessary for future use. Unlike previous site visits, Alvaro and Elizabeth do not need to apply any soil amendments due to its rich texture and nutrient availability.

We then headed towards the mysterious Trapiche that we had heard so much about earlier in the tour. This more rustic contraption actually was restored by Alvaro to demonstrate the out dated technology; other community members would even bring their own sugarcane to process through. As can be seen in the video, oxen or horse would be hooked up to the wooden stakes and be forced to walk around to process the sugarcane stalks that were fed into the machine. After 3 hours of processing the sugarcane harvest (2 hours for the mechanized update that the family uses now), two main products were created: sugar and then a very delicious beverage known as aqua dulca (sweet water). Thanks to Elizabeth, we were given the opportunity to once again try some sugarcane, but also the final sugar form of sugarcane and the sweet water.

The Trapiche don Simon that the students got to hand operate!

The Trapiche don Simon that the students got to hand operate!

Once we thanked Elizabeth for showing us around her lot, we then went more uphill to Oldemar’s house. Here, we were to see how the coffee beans were processed also on another small-scale operation. Oldemar shared with us that he had spent his entire life in this area and his love for coffee season has only blossomed with the years. For the past 9 years, he has been going from seed to coffee so no longer would he have to sell his seeds to someone far away who would roast them. There are 4 stages that Oldemar works with when roasting his coffee beans: cherries, pergamino, grano de aro, and finally roasted bean. The first step is to remove the red coating from the seeds; an interesting fact that was shared with us was that 75 to 80% of the cherries will produce 2 coffee seeds. The seeds are then introduced to water which destroys the exterior membrane. For the next 30 days, the seeds are dried on drying mats and then an additional 3 months is required before the beans head to the next step. It is important to note that there are 3 layers on the beans that protect them from air contamination and spoilage.

The stages of the coffee beans during processing from left to right. The last column shows the two different kinds of roast, medium (top) and dark (bottom).

The stages of the coffee beans during processing from left to right. The last column shows the two different kinds of roast, medium (top) and dark (bottom).

Traditionally, a mortar and pestle contraption would be used to remove the outer skin from the desired coffee bean and then the ventilation (i.e. wind) would blow away the broken up layers leaving behind the product. Now a mechanized version of this is used to save on time and labor. The coffee beans are then sent to a 5 kg capacity roaster. Gas is fed into the roaster to heat the system, while electricity is used to power the rotator which promotes even roasting.  To obtain a medium roast it takes 23 hours in the roaster, where only 2 more hours are needed to obtain a dark roast. You can see that there is a minimal window Oldemar has to make sure his beans are roasted to perfection. Excluding the drying time, the mechanized portion of this process takes roughly 8 hours to complete roasting. Oldemar can produce about 50 pounds per day which are then sold in his store. He sells his beans both whole and ground, which is done by using a homemade grinder that was assembled using motorcycle parts and other materials.

Oldemar using grinding away the exterior layers of the seeds.

Oldemar grinding away the exterior layers of the seeds.

With our newly purchased roasted coffee beans, the group headed back to UGA-CR to enjoy some Christmas Day dinner. Anh was so thoughtful and made everyone a personalized, homemade Christmas card! It was even sweeter than the sweet water we had earlier in the day. Before we left the dinner table, we then surprised Alex with singing “Happy Birthday” and two delicious pieces of cake that were purchased at the Cloud Forest Preserve café and gift shop. I’m pretty sure we made it one for him to remember. With the night winding down, some of the students opted to go on a night hike through the secondary forest while others stayed behind to work on some homework. When everyone returned to UGA, most of the students decided to head out into town to celebrate Alex’s birthday and then returned to a peaceful night slumber.


All technical information was given during lectures/site visits by the individuals listed below:

  • Matt, University of Georgia – Costa Rica
  • Katie, University of Georgia – Costa Rica
  • Elizabeth, Alvaro’s Farm (Finca la Bella)
  • Oldemar, Oldemar’s Farm (Finca la Bella)

Additional Resources

1. University of Georgia – Costa Rica: The official website of the campus.

2. Finca la Bella: Information about the project and the farms associated with it.

3. Organic vs. Regular Coffee: A good, brief overview of organically grown coffee over conventional coffee in the United States.

4. Case Study done on the carbon footprints of Tanzanian coffee (German study).

5. Scientific article on the water footprint of coffee/tea in the Netherlands.


3 thoughts on “Day 10 & 11: Monte Verde – University of Georgia- Engineering related to coffee

  1. The tree that Kelsey refered to is called the Cecropia tree. You can see that I am clearly intrigued by it because of my presence in the posted picture taking a photograph! Here is a link to more detailed information about the tree if you want to know more:
    The Cecropia tree has a symbiotic relationship with the Azteca ant. Matt, the undergrad from UGA previously mentioned, guided us on a fantastic hike through the forest and pointed out this situation. It was really amazing. Almost all of the other trees in the area were covered with layers of vegetation including vines, orchids, and parasitic species. This tree was completely clear of vegetation to have compete with for nutrients, light, and/or water. When we knocked on the trunk we could hear the hollowness. We saw the ants crawling all over the trunk which prevent vegetation from being able to establish itself. The photo with the opiliones spiders has a Cecropia leaf in the background. These leaves hold a readily available source of food for the ants. Together these 2 species are able to thrive each providing services for the other.

  2. Great post Kelsey! Seeing the sustainable methods used at the UGA facility was very interesting. The coffee farm that we visited in Monteverde also utilized some sustainable methods. One thing I noticed in particular was that each facility devoted a large effort to produce some of their own food. This reduces their reliance on a food system that is most likely not environmentally responsible. They also do not have to spend as much money on buying products, which translates to them not having to have a more productive system to earn more money to feed themselves. The coffee farm is allowed to produce coffee in a more sustainable way, because they do not require their system to be an extremely productive system that might rely heavily on fertilizers and pesticides.

  3. Kelsey, what a wonderful writer you are! Great pictures and captions too! Sooo, you hoped you could bait those of us “back home” with your question about the laws of thermodynamics? Heaven help me, I am circling the worm on the hook…but I know better!

    What I really want to share is that I just saw the movie about Lincoln. Near the end was an extremely pivotal scene where an engineer was explaining (to Lincoln) this “zeroth law,” stating that if two systems are each in equilibrium with a third, then they are equilibrium with each other. Lincoln correlated this law of nature with white men and black men. It majorly deepened his resolve to sway votes (for the abolishment of slavery) when things were looking grim.

    Moral of the story? Engineers save the day!

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