Changing Class Structure in the Coffee Sector: 1950–78

  • Anthony Winson


The Junta of 1948, and subsequent regimes, set about the task of reorienting Costa Rican society away from the traditional economic dependencies and longstanding political arrangements that had been established by and in the interests of the dominant coffee growing families. In Chapter 5 we have seen that certain limits on this process were set during the struggle with the oligarchy over legislation affecting both economic and political dimensions of their domain. The large coffee interests were not eliminated as a class by far reaching agrarian reform legislation, for example. Rather, their political prerogatives were circumscribed by the State, their potential profits reduced in size. Given these apparently significant changes, was it now possible to ensure that other sectors of the coffee economy would benefit from efforts to modernise production? Did the continuing existence of a large landowning class in this key economic sector effectively block attempts to modernise the economy? Moreover, did the new economic model being charted by an interventionist State during the 1950s further erode power of this traditionally dominant class, or did the compromises conceded in the struggle with this group in the early years after 1948 lay the groundwork for their future resurgence as a major political force?


Large Farm Wage Labour Coffee Producer Coffee Farm Coffee Grower 
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  1. 1.
    I base my classification essentially on the income gained per hectare of coffee land, in 1960, taking 18 fanegas as the national average yield per hectare at that time, and 216 colons as the prevailing liquidation price for a fanega of green coffee. This yields a gross income of approximately 3900 colons or $650/ha. (at the prevailing exchange rate of 6 colons to the dollar). Given that the average rural labourer and his family had an income of 4818 colons ($727) in 1961 in Costa Rica (see ECLA. Tenencia de la Tierra y Desarrollo Rural en Centroamerica (EDUCA, San José, 1973), Table C-11), it is clear that a coffee grower with 1 ha. of land would not even be able to live at the level of a landless worker. Since coffee farms below 4 ha. had on the average slightly less than 1 ha. of land, I have classified this group as ‘sub-family’. Coffee farms in the 4 to 20ha. category had on average 2.3 ha. of land planted in coffee, which at prevailing yields and prices would provide a gross income of 8942 colons, before costs. This corresponds roughly to the ECLA estimate of average income for ‘family’ size farms in Costa Rica (7101 colons). I refer to these as ‘family’ farms here. A recent economic study by Gamboa Marin of coffee producers in Costa Rica does lend support to a categorisaton by structural features of the unit such as I have presented. (See ‘Analisis Economico de la Production del Café en Costa Rica: Cosecha 1976–77’, San José: Oficina del Café, 1977). In this study of coffee producers, family labour clearly predominates in farms less than 5 ha. while wage labour becomes more important in units up to 10 ha., though generally it does not exceed family labour inputs. Units larger than 10 ha. tend to have proportionately more wage labour than family labour, however, although wage labour appears to be proportionately more important the more technically advanced the farm is. Given the generally lower technical level of small farms in 1960, I would suggest that at that time family labour was still predominant in farms up to 20 ha. In more recent years ‘family’ farms might have to be restricted to farms less than 10 ha. or so.Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    One recent study by the Coffee Office, for example, shows that the regular application of herbicides reduces labour costs in 1 ha. for weeding operations from 502 colons (with little or no herbicides) to 108 colons. Weeding operations consumed more labour than any other activity under the traditional system of cultivation. See Oficina de Planificación Sectorial gropecuario, Programa de Mejoramiento de la Producción de Costa Rica, (San José, 1979), Annex 7 and 8.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Eduardo Andrade E., Recursos de los Raises Para Transferencia de Tecnología en Café (Instituto Interamericano de Ciencias Agricolas, San José, 1979).Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    See Gamboa, ‘Analysis Economico’, in particular the table showing kinds of labour used for each strata of farm. For the relationship between type of labour used and technology, see tables 63, 69 and 75. Referring to the situation in the mid 1970s, another study also confirms that it is possible for a farmer and his family to attend to a coffee finca up to 10 ha., but that a larger farm requires additional permanent and seasonal labour. See Nora Garita B. and Maria del Rosario Leon Q., ‘Diferenciación al Interior del Bloque Cafetalero’, Thesis for the Licienciatura (Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 1977), p.85.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    See Margarita Bolaños A. and Nancy Cartin L., ‘Obstaculos Ideologicas al Desarrollo de Organizaciones Reinvindicativas de Clase en el Proletariado y Semi-Proletariado del Café’, thesis for the Licienciatura (Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 1979), p.206.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    Cited in Edelberto Torres Rivas, Elementos Para la Caracterización de la Estructura Agraria de Costa Rica (Instituto de Investagaciones Sociales, San José, 1978), p.50.Google Scholar
  7. 23.
    Antonio Arce, ‘Rational Introduction of Technology on a Costa Rican Coffee Hacienda: Sociological Implications’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (Michigan State University, 1959).Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    The uneven ripening of Atlantic grown coffee relative to those of the Meseta Central is discussed by R. Cleves in Rendimientos de Beneficiado de Café: 1977–8 (San José, 1978).Google Scholar
  9. 32.
    Oficina del Café, Informe Sobre la Actividad Cafetalera de Costa Rica, (San José, 1979), p.35.Google Scholar
  10. 36.
    Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, (Moscow, 1967), pp.586–7.Google Scholar
  11. 53.
    Gerardo Viquez and Leonidas Lopez, ‘Informe de Costa Rica’, in Café y Cooperativismo en America Latina, no. 40 (CEDAL, San José, 1971), p.4.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anthony Winson 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Winson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyUniversity of GuelphCanada

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