Mooing in the Hectares. Costa Rica 2014.

As we come in to the place we stay in Costa Rica, we go by this field.

It’s a pretty scene.


Far away, clouds hover over the Talamanca Mountains. Trees grow along the top of the distant pasture ridge. Treetops rising from the quebrada below echo the billowing clouds above them. Living fenceposts frame the image with their gnarly pollarded tops, and silhouetted grasses provide foreground foliage.

It’s interesting, what history can be behind a few hundred acres of “scenery”.


What history could be behind this line of cows in a field?

A hundred years ago, fifty years ago, the land here was all forest. Few people lived in this valley, or in any other valley in the Pacific southern zone of Costa Rica. Roads were bad, really bad. Here was the frontier, back in the 1950’s.

On August 18, 1953, something happened in the USA that would radically change all of Central America, including this particular part of Costa Rica. On that date, the first franchised McDonald’s fast food restaurant in the United States opened its doors. Other fast food franchise chains followed, and over the next thirty years, their growth was phenomenal.

America’s gluttonous desire for burgers brought with it a questions: “Where’s the beef?”, and, “How to cheaply supply all this meat for the masses?”

One answer to the commercial need for megatons of meat was overseas…America’s burger boom created another boom…cattle raising south of the border. Ganadaria!!! That’s spanish for “cattle raising”. Costa Rica went crazy for raising beef. The cattle boom turned millions of hectares of primary forest into pasture.

In 1950, three-quarters of Costa Rica was forest.

By 1980, two-thirds of Costa Rica was deforested.

You want fries with that?

Today, all around us are fields and cattle.


Here are some of the cows who moo.
There had been rain the night before, so the air is washed clean of dry season dust.

The field in these photos, though picturesque, has been overgrazed for years.

The owner doesn’t seem to care that he runs too many cattle on his field.

Or that the land is washing away down into the quebrada below.

His nickname in the valley is “El Zopilote”.

You can go find the translation.


The deforested land, now steep pasture trampled by hooves, is poorly able to withstand erosion.

Ganadaria now struggles to make a go of it in Costa Rica. The beef that could be sold in 1970 for a dollar and two cents a pound in 2014 now fetches but ninety-eight cents. Ranches are starting to go out of business. Their “developable” land gets built on, or sold, usually to foreigners. Some of it will be reforested. There’s a new boomlet creeping in now…

Oil palms.

The world now has a gluttonous desire for palm oil.

Old pastureland in places is now dotted with newly-planted oil palms.


One of our neighbors has planted his family’s fields to oil palm. In five years or so, the tops of these palms will be touching, and will start shading out the grasses and other low growth. The first palm nut harvest from these trees will be in about three years.

Time will tell whether growing palms on this land has been a good decision. Negatives include the risks of agricultural monoculture, including necessity for pesticide and herbicide use, should weeds or disease become a problem. There is the risk of market oversupply from overplanting. Positives? The spread-out, steadier income stream for local landowners  could keep them from having to sell off their property to foreigners. The earth, shaded by palmleaves instead of being always exposed to sun and to Costa Rica’s intense wet-season rains, may be able to start recovering from ganadarian abuse. Streams and rivers may be able to flow more evenly through the course of the year, and long-lost springs could reappear.

Palmtops will be better habitat than pasture for some species of animals.

This little valley will look very different in ten years’ time, as these new plantations rise into the tropical sky.

So, for now, enjoy these poró trees.


The green pasture hillsides curve like the sides of a guitar.

Enjoy the distant view.


On this day, smoke from a faraway fire rises to mix with Talamancan mists.
The porós’ pale branches “pop” against the blue background.
Their branches will burst into orange bloom in the dry season.

For the time being, the trees are still there.

On Mena’s hectares.

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