By Alvaro Murillo
SANTA MARIA DE DOTA, Costa Rica, June 30, (Reuters) - Coffee connoisseurs across the world prize Costa Rica's gourmet beans, but local farmers warn that if a coronavirus-induced foreign labor shortage is not resolved soon, the raw material used to make countless lattes and espressos could spoil on the bush.
The prospect of a bumper crop this year for the relatively small Central American coffee producer has grown bittersweet as fears grow the harvest may not be picked by the mostly Nicaraguan and Panamanian hands who traditionally do the work.
Farmers blame travel restrictions imposed by the government to bar potentially infected visitors from southern neighbor Panama, where the virus has spread widely, and from northern neighbor Nicaragua, where lax containment measures have likely caused a much bigger-than-reported outbreak.
Laborers from Panama and Nicaragua typically account for about two-thirds of Costa Rica's coffee crop workforce.
"We're extremely worried. We depend on foreign labor to pick our coffee and now we don't know if we can count on it," said Geovanny Rodriguez, a farmer from Santa Maria de Dota, in the mountainous Los Santos region, about 40 miles (64 km) south of the capital, San Jose.
Los Santos' plantations, where coffee trees are tended along the slopes of bright green valleys, provide about half of Costa Rica's arabica crop.
Supplying specialty beans for the gourmet market has a long history in Costa Rica, home to Starbucks' Hacienda Alsacia, a corporate farm where the world's largest coffee chain researches tree varieties and agricultural practices.
While Costa Rica's coffee exports of around 1 million 60-kg (132 lb) bags are just a drop in global sales, its fine Arabica beans are a staple of the gourmet market. Adding to farmers' woes, coronavirus has weakened global demand, driving prices down.
Some regions of the country begin this season's harvest in August. National coffee institute ICAFE estimates that some 74,000 laborers will be needed when the harvest peaks near the end of the year.
"I never would have imagined a harvest without the people who come from outside the country," said worker Edifemo Bravo, pointing to a tree branch dotted with ripening coffee cherries in a section of a farm where he works.
Bravo, originally from Nicaragua, has worked full-time for the same Costa Rican coffee co-op for over a decade.
Since March, national health authorities have confirmed over 3,100 coronavirus cases but just 15 deaths, one of lowest levels of contagion in Central America, where cases are still rising quickly.
Pandemic restrictions have threatened harvesting in other coffee-growing nations, but Costa Rica's dependence on foreign labor has made it particularly vulnerable.
With little chance the government of President Carlos Alvarado will fully open the borders soon, coffee farmers are pinning their hopes on laborers from Panama's indigenous ngöbe-bugle community, who are allowed entry under a recently approved program, as well as Nicaraguan workers already in the country.
However, there is no program to allow the entry of temporary Nicaraguan farm laborers, who make up about half of the seasonal workforce.
Complicating matters, Costa Rican police in recent months have stopped more than 15,000 Nicaraguans who sought to enter the country illegally, likely to work the farms.
The possibility Costa Ricans might take up farm work is seen as remote due to low wages offered by farm owners, as well as a younger generation's changing aspirations.
"It's our weakness," said ICAFE head Xinia Chaves.
Officials hope some Costa Ricans unemployed due to the pandemic can be lured into picking.
"But that won't be enough," said Jorge Mena, owner of a 1.2 hectare (2.97 acres) coffee plantation, as he sat on the porch of his house in Dota. "And on top of that, not everyone knows how to do the job well." (Reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Dan Grebler)