Bittersweet: How a Cacao Plantation is Saving the Lives of Costa Rican Women

22 January, 2021

Image @Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / Biodiversity Heritage Library

At the end of each shift, Louisa catches a bus to a small house she rents with two other women from the farm; she is careful to go straight home as socialising poses the risk of being found. She literally carries the burden of knowing that any interaction with her husband could be her last. The hefty straw bag she carries as a purse conceals a large rock she plans to use if she ever encounters her husband. 

Her life is one lived on the edge of uncertainty.

A safe environment

Let's call the plantation La Hermosa. Its reputation as a refuge is largely a secret; its existence is whispered about in the lavendarías among women in between loads of laundry and in the sacred confines of the beauty salons where gossip and secrets circulate in equal measure.

When Fernando López, who hails from a long lineage of farmers, purchased the multi-hectare property in 2010, he didn’t originally intend for his new venture to become a safe haven; but throughout the years he has employed several women seeking to escape violent living situations and abusive partners. He has garnered an image as a sort of Moses, leading the lost to a promised land if not an entirely new life. The day Louisa showed up at the plantation, drenched and scared, is one that he will always remember.

He recalls how he returned to the farm to retrieve a box of chocolate bars he had promised to a small group of nuns at a local convent. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here [at that moment], but I was and I’m glad.” One look at her battered face and he offered her a job on the spot.

Clearly moved, he wipes at his wet eyes and talks of how he feels a responsibility for the women who come to La Hermosa. For Fernando, it is more than his duty as an employer to ensure the safety of the women who have come to him for refuge — he sees it as a mandate from a higher authority. “God gave me a mission and I’m trying to do the right thing. I pray these women find happiness one day. I think [La Hermosa] gives them an opportunity to start over.”

Only once has he been confronted by an enraged boyfriend who discovered his girlfriend had sought the safety of the cacao farm. Fernando strikes a pugilist’s pose as he pantomimes how the boyfriend approached him and demanded to know the whereabouts of his girlfriend, a slight woman named Maria whose face he had sliced with a switchblade. After threatening to call the police, Fernando was able to scare him off. Today, Maria works alongside Louisa in the processing facility—her boyfriend never came back. She flashes a lopsided grin when she talks about her work on the cacao farm.

“I like it here because it saved my life. The girls are my friends.” A bit softer, she says, “We’re [like] sisters.”

Louisa interjects, “Candy sisters.”

The ladies, having bonded over unfortunate circumstances, dissolve into fits of laughter. In the not-so-distant past, they would have never dreamed of this kind of levity. As serendipitous as their initial meeting was, Louisa and Fernando share an uneasy relationship at times. Louisa often exhibits signs of post-traumatic stress disorder — crippling shyness and fear of her male colleagues, including Fernando. Authority frightens her and sometimes she must toss out a few of the chocolate bars she spends all day diligently packing. The tears that often seem to come out of nowhere ruin the paper wrappers. 

Hope on the horizon

Yesterday’s rain has given way to a spectacularly cloudless azure sky and the arc of Louisa’s smile matches that of the rainbow that stretches across one of the plantation’s far quadrants.

She has found out that a small studio apartment near La Hermosa has become available and the owner has offered to rent it to her. Having left her parents’ home at 19 to get married, the 30 year-old has never lived alone — much less had the means to do so.

As she uses a crude rolling pin to pound cacao beans into cocoa powder, she chatters about the little accoutrements she will purchase for her new dwelling. A pair of pink frilly curtains and new bedding are high on her priority list. She sounds like a little girl making a list for Santa, and to listen is both heartening and heartbreaking. She daydreams out loud a bit more and Fernando, within earshot of the excitement, walks over to the table to congratulate her though he’s not a fan of her pink curtain idea. Louisa laughs and says she won’t reconsider, and the farm owner who has become more of a friend than a boss tells her that he’s proud of her.

“Gracias,” she says, and that simple word of thanks conveys a heart full of gratitude for a life and future that now seems possible.

And that may be the sweetest thing of all.

 

*All names of people and places have been changed to protect identities.

Domestic violence in Latin and Central America is on the rise. In Costa Rica, if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please contact the National Women Institute (INAMU) at www.inamu.go.cr for assistance.

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