BERNARDO ROJAS MONTOYA

Costa Rica,

A leading advocate of agricultural development, Bernardo Rojas is developing a market-based strategy to help small Latin American farmers earn a better economic livelihood and promote consumption of organic produce.

This profile below was prepared when Bernardo Rojas Montoya was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

A leading advocate of agricultural development, Bernardo Rojas is developing a market-based strategy to help small Latin American farmers earn a better economic livelihood and promote consumption of organic produce.




THE NEW IDEA

An agronomist by training, Bernardo has spent over 15 years helping small-scale Costa Rican farmers reap the benefits of an increased global demand for organic goods. Realizing that producers of scale can reach small domestic markets as well as the foreign marketplace, Bernardo is working with successful, global-scale organic farmers to transfer knowledge and skills to the more marginal producers. He sees the creation of a network of organic business entrepreneurs as the next critical stage in sustainable and agricultural development.

In addition to implementing an infrastructure investment and training strategy that targets marginal producers, Bernardo is leading efforts to help organic producers identify opportunities in local markets. He conducted a comprehensive industry-wide assessment that supports his notion that Latin Americans are eager to embrace organically grown foods. He has developed an education campaign to reverse the Costa Rican trend of consuming chemical-laced produce imported from the United States. By providing marketing support to small-scale producers and informing local consumers about the benefits and affordability of organic goods, Bernardo aims to pave the way toward sustainable, market-based development opportunities.




THE PROBLEM

Throughout Costa Rica and Latin America, many small- and medium-scale producers are already concerned with environmental preservation and employ organic practices. The international environmental movement has effectively warned producers about the damage wrought by massive chemical usage and has trained them in a wide range of sustainable agriculture techniques, but it has provided no intermediary-free channels to access markets. Despite the fact that commercial success is equated with international reach, most Latin American small producers have no direct contact with consumers.

In Europe and the United States, consumers are well aware of the environmental and health benefits of buying organic, and an increasing number of mainstream supermarkets and specialty health food stores carry the so-called "whole" foods. Although this trend is slowly beginning to grow in Latin America, there are still too few outlets to measure success. In general, a Costa Rican is more likely to find chemically treated apples imported from the United States in a local market than organically produced, chemical-free fruit from a nearby farm. In order to meet the growing international demand for organic produce and to generate more local interest, marginal producers must acquire new technical skills and have access to the most up-to-date tools available.




THE STRATEGY

Bernardo built on his experience working with organic blackberry producers in Costa Rica to address the broader challenges faced by small- and medium-sized organic producers and formed the Latin American Institute for the Promotion of Ecological Agriculture in 1997. The institute brings together organic producers, conservationists, lawyers, and other professionals from around the region to oversee the implementation of environmental and organic crop production policies. In coordination with local community-based organizations, the institute and its team of experts provide producers with the training needed to work their land in an environmentally sustainable and economically viable way. Courses include Organic Production, Quality Control, Organic Inspection and Certification Processes, Organic Industrialization, Packing and Shipping, and Organic Marketing.

Bernardo uses the institute as a base from which to reach out to successful, small-scale organic producers around Central America and help them identify local market opportunities. For example, he is helping Guatemalan berry producers sell their berries in Costa Rica where the vast majority of indigenous organic berries are exported to the United States and Europe. Bernardo is working with retailers and consumers both to educate the general public further about the merits of organic goods and to serve as a bridge to producers. His goal is to appeal to all involved parties and ultimately make organic produce a household commodity. For example, hoping to generate interest from the top down and present organic products in an attractive setting, he has proposed the construction of a special whole foods section to several Central American supermarkets.

For Bernardo, this effort, like his many other groundbreaking innovations, has great potential for both local and international implementation. As he continues to build his regional network, he envisions a market in which organic producers and consumers from throughout Central and South America are able to buy and sell close to home and thereby work together toward achieving sustainability.




THE PERSON

After finishing his studies in agronomy at the University of Costa Rica, Bernardo eagerly began working with his uncles on their farm. Shortly thereafter, he bought his own small plot of land in an area of Costa Rica where blackberries are the primary cash crop. Through his interaction with neighboring farmers, he saw how intermediary suppliers took advantage of small producers, and he started to search for ways to improve farmers' profits.

In 1988 he won a scholarship to attend a USAID agricultural planning course in Washington, D.C., where he presented a proposal to create an association of blackberry producers. With a letter of recommendation from USAID in hand, Bernardo returned home and presented the project to CINDE, the Costa Rican Investment Board, which said told that they could not help because they were already importing blackberry crops from the United States. Discouraged but refusing to back down, Bernardo was able to secure a small investment from a local businessman and with the help of 16 local producers launched the National Association of Blackberry and High-altitude Fruit Producers. The association has proved itself a successful advocate for local producers and continues to provide a full range of technical and organizational assistance to its 350 members.

As he learned more about organic production and realized that the blackberry producers were already, and perhaps inadvertently, adhering to international organic production standards, Bernardo started to explore different ways to exploit this competitive advantage. He created within APROCAM (Asociaciόn de Productores/Exportadores de Mora y Frutas de Altura) a department for assistance in organic production, and after attending a course in Minnesota with dozens of other organic producers, he helped establish the Latin American Commission of Independent Organic Inspectors and the Mesoamerican Association for the Certification of Organic and Processed Products.




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