In the mountains surrounding the Panamanian town of Boquete, there is a rather phenomenal coffee farm called Hacienda La Esperanza. It is run by Jose Pretto, a Panamanian citizen of Italian descent seen in this photograph.
We met one day in 2008, two hours into my walk down a curvy two-lane highway, where I was on the hunt for good pictures of the region’s coffee harvest, then in full swing. Jose called out to me from a dirt road leading off of the highway, inviting me to wander through his fields and photograph his pickers at work. I thought I would stay for ten minutes; I stayed instead for four hours.
To summarize: Jose, who once flew commercial jets, has thrown his life into an organic coffee farm, and his love for the land is contagious. He showed me his chicken coups, scattered about at key points. The chickens, which provide eggs, also spend their days pooping and scratching the soil under the coffee bushes, providing nourishment and aeration. Orange trees also dot the farm, providing shade for the bushes and dropping delicious fruit to the ground (which workers and the occasional visitor can then pick up and eat). A beautiful stream rushes through one side of the property, and Jose is in the process of relocating his workers, who live on the property, a few hundred yards away so that the water remains unpolluted. The farm even has a couple mules, imported from the U.S., so that the workers don’t have to carry full sacks of coffee on their shoulders as they do on most other farms. And this is but a very small glimpse of the place!
During my visit, Jose also received several unwanted visitors: officials and lawyers who are hoping to take much of the water from his stream. The water is needed, they say, as more American retirees flood into Boquete and build homes and condos that demand the area’s natural resources. Jose, who has invested thousands of dollars to fight this, minced no words as he spoke about the short-sightedness of developers (who are passionate about money, not about a right relationship with the environment) and of society in general (which poisons its food with chemicals). It seemed fitting that when we said goodbye, we were standing beside the billboard seen above, which Jose put up along the highway to share his message that, when we don’t consciously care for the land, we may very well destroy it.
I suspect Jose would find a kindred spirit in Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about the land and our relationship to it. In an essay entitled “In Distrust of Movements,” Berry says:
Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes of the United States know that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or driving along and looking around. They do not, in Mary Austin’s phrase, “summer and winter with the land”. They are unacquainted with the land’s human and natural economies…In fact, the comparative few who still practice that necessary husbandry and wifery often are inclined to apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people’s talents. Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?