There is much talk about buying land in Costa Rica and other tropical areas as a positive eco-investment strategy. And because of this, what is happening in places like Costa Rica is that thousands of acres are being bought by foreigners for conservation purposes and taken completely out of production.
Or, foreigners are developing the land sustainably, but
unfortunately denying local people the opportunity to participate
equally in the greening of their own countries. In Costa Rica, farmers
on the periphery of the rainforest are being bought out and displaced
faster than ever, causing social and economic impact elsewhere. The
long term sustainability of this trend must be examined, or else
conservation and sustainable development efforts will fall short and
places like Costa Rica will risk following the fate of other Latin
American countries, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the
few and/or in the hands of foreign “investors.”
Kimberly Newton, CRCT. Photo by Amy Seidman
Make no mistake - environmentally and socially responsible land-buyers, conservationists, investors, and tourists are an asset to tropical countries like Costa Rica. They can help a country develop in an ecologically sustainable way, while strengthening the overall economy, enriching society, and enhancing social and political stability. However, irresponsible, uninformed, and shortsighted actions by these groups can lead to larger social and ecological problems.
For example, it is the relatively even distribution of land and wealth among the Costa Rican people, coupled with a strong cooperative farming sector, which makes this country an oasis of stability among its Central American neighbors. It is this sense of peace and safety that attracts foreigners and makes Costa Rica such a great place to visit and live. But tourists and foreign investors must try to leave a positive ecological and social footprint in their host country in a way that respects the rights of the local people and allows them to participate in their country’s sustainable development.
I speak from experience. In 2003, I helped found Costa Rica Conservation Trust (CRCT), a non-profit organization dedicated to socially responsible conservation in Costa Rica, my father’s country. CRCT’s original approach was to buy up all the farms that were for sale bordering an ecologically sensitive Costa Rican reserve on the northern portion of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor, home to the highly endangered Baird’s tapir. As we wanted to prevent destructive entities from buying these lands, we were poised to buy these farms when they came on the market. We envisioned expanding conservation areas, developing education programs, establishing eco-campgrounds, a retreat/art center, and botanical trails where visiting guests could learn about the rainforest. However, as I did more research and began meeting with my neighbors and community groups from areas where CRCT intended to buy land, important questions emerged that I simply could not ignore.
Costa Rican montane rainforest. Photo by Jon Orlando
Why are so many farmers selling their lands, even though they express regrets that they have to do so? What will happen to the farming families that are displaced by these land purchases? Will they ever be able to buy land again? How will this transfer of land ownership to foreigners affect the social and political stability of Costa Rica in the long run, especially if Costa Ricans can no longer afford to buy land in their own country? Will displaced farmers create more environmental problems elsewhere as they migrate to overcrowded, overtaxed urban centers? How many of them will migrate to the United States, adopt a consumer-based, disposable lifestyle and become part of the 20% of the world’s population that consumes 80% of the world’s resources? What happens when large amounts of arable land are allowed to convert back to forests? Will the local populations have to start importing corn, wood, beans, and other products that they traditionally grew on their small farms? How is that ecologically sustainable? Is sustainable development economically viable enough to help small farmers keep their farms? Is it enough to move small farmers out of poverty and improve their quality of life so that they no longer need to hunt, log or raise cattle? Are local farmers able to manage their own lands sustainably and do they even want to? What will enable them to do so? How can foreigners live in Costa Rica, own land and operate businesses in an environmentally and socially responsible way? How is socially responsible conservation possible?
In the process of seeking these answers, CRCT evolved from an organization focused on land acquisition to one that works closely with local farmers to help them keep ownership of their lands by recommending alternative income strategies that replace non-sustainable agricultural and rainforest extraction practices. We provide technical assistance and education programs on sustainable living practices, such as organic cultivation and recycling. We also teach emerging community leaders how to develop and carry out ecological programs on their own. In addition, we provide marketing support for fair trade, organic agricultural and eco-tourism cooperatives. We have accomplished many of these initiatives as a result of the dedicated pro-bono work of locals and through a volunteer vacation program tailored for tourists who want to explore Costa Rica at the grassroots level and leave a positive footprint. In 2007, CRCT will launch its Adopt a Rainforest Farm Program to continue helping struggling eco-minded farming and indigenous families convert to sustainable land use practices on their farms. With the help of progressive donors interested in supporting socially responsible conservation in Costa Rica, we aim to provide one-on-one support to at least 20 farming families in our first year.
In my experience, Costa Rican farmers are willing and able to become conscious caretakers of their own lands. When provided with the necessary education, resources, and inroads to the burgeoning market of environmentally conscious, fair trade consumers, Costa Ricans are more than willing to engage in the greening of their economy. I have seen them help each other build methane-digesters on their pig farms to stop pollution of their waterways. I have seen them establish and manage recycling centers. I have seen them build ecotourism coooperatives and create a multitude of related sustainable income strategies to replace destructive practices. I have seen them denounce the illegal hunting and logging activities of their neighbors and relatives. I have seen them travel for miles on foot through the rainy jungle to attend meetings where they collaboratively develop these solutions. Every time CRCT has provided the resources, strategies and space for collaborative problem-solving, the locals have proven themselves, especially the youth.
Sketching a mural on conservation. Photo by Jon Orlando
On the flip side, I have witnessed many rural farming families, who, upon selling their farms in economic desperation, ended up as nomadic migrants living in the ghettos of Latin American and U.S. cities, where drugs, violence, gangs, and prostitution consume many of their youth. Farmers quickly discover that, after they’ve sold their land, paid off their debts, divided the remaining money among their numerous children (sometimes up to 18!) and moved to the city, the amount they received for their farm was, in fact, not that much money at all (low educational levels also contribute to the mismanagement of their money). With no land to go back to, a disintegrated family, and few marketable skills, many end up living an impoverished nomadic life as undocumented laborers, landscapers, and domestic maids.
Many rural families struggle to keep their farms, and make difficult choices in order save their land. Sometimes the men go up to “el norte” in search of a living wage, and leave their families behind. Once established in “el norte” some never return, while other migrants die or are killed during the difficult journey north, leaving many single mother households strewn across the landscape. Often these women end up having to abandon the farm, and venture into the city to find work, all too often in the illegal and prostitution sectors.
Whatever the case may be, rural to urban migration contributes to larger environmental problems. For example, urban households create, on average, two to four times the amount of garbage that rural farming households produce. After leaving the countryside, families that once lived on the same farm are now dispersed throughout numerous urban households. As each household rapidly adopts the consumption-based, disposable lifestyle typical of urban areas, they begin to create much more garbage than they did as one unit living on a farm complex. Also, the amount of resources consumed by urban dwellers is exponentially higher than rural people.
Painting a the mural. Photo by Jon Orlando
Ironically, it is common for those farmers and ranchers who were considered an environmental threat while living in the countryside, to become migrant laborers for large agro-businesses or sweat shops owned by multinational corporations that cause much bigger environmental problems worldwide. So as a cheap laborer for a timber company or plastic toy factory, the individual has a greater negative impact on the environment than as a “destructive” farmer back on his rainforest farm.
It should also be mentioned that a significant number of landless families end up going deeper into the jungle, where they squat new land, and clear whole new areas of virgin rainforest, bringing a host of problems into sensitive ecological areas. Poor migrant families also contribute to the hunting of wild rainforest animals for survival. For example, in Costa Rica the green iguana is increasingly at risk because the poor displaced Nicaraguan farmers, who are coming into the country in search of work, are killing it to feed themselves.
Thus, a more complicated ‘bigger picture’ surfaces and it soon becomes obvious that sustainable development and conservation initiatives must consider the social sustainability of a project, especially when considering long-term environmental conservation at a global scale. And the green private sector is an increasingly important ally in all of this. The influx of conservation-minded foreigners and green business investors into Latin America brings great potential for promoting sustainable development throughout the region, especially if they consider practices that prevent the forced economic migration of local people. To accomplish this, foreigners need to become informed and sensitive to the issues that the locals face as a result of their presence and adopt a win-win mentality with their host country.
In Costa Rica, there is an especially urgent need for awareness within the expatriate community. Currently, thousands of foreigners are buying up all the land they can afford, and calling upon their friends, business partners and families to buy up all the neighboring farms as far as the eye can see, thereby displacing countless farming families. Some are starting conservation projects and eco-businesses that will help save endangered ecosystems over the short term, but are they truly sustainable in the long run?
Well-intentioned, eco-minded foreigners could choose to establish themselves as socially responsible neighbors and merge with existing conservation and development efforts by collaborating with locals. Unfortunately, most do not. Foreign-owned eco-businesses in Costa Rica continue to hire locals only for low-end service jobs, such as gardening and housekeeping, and often remain completely ignorant that locals are sincerely interested in greening their economy. Without valuable training, access to information, technology, and resources, locals have a hard time participating in ecotourism, organic farming or other kinds of green business ventures.
Starting a community recycling program.
However, if a foreign-owned lodge choses to outsource services, such as tours, to local entrepreneurs and provides training for meaningful jobs, they play a valuable role in vitalizing the local labor market with conservation-oriented business skills and opportunities. And if a restaurant showcases local artisanship, and purchases its produce from local organic farmers at a fair price, they create a local market for sustainably produced goods that wouldn’t otherwise exist in the area.
This kind of collaboration not only helps the local farmers combat poverty and economic stagnation, it begins a process of empowerment and sustainable development in the immediate area of the foreign-owned green business or conservation effort. Fair and healthy competition can increase the growth potential of the local green economy, benefit both the foreigner and the host country, and lead to true long-term ecological sustainability and peace.
The author welcomes comments and feedback on what is presented in this article. For assistance with social-impact evaluations, inter-American relations, and the development of socially responsible eco-business and project strategies, please email: connectionsinstitute (at) gmail.com.
Begin with cooperation. Photo by Jon Orlando
To learn more about CRCT’s work, please visit www.conservecostarica.org . To Adopt a Rainforest Farm and support CRCT’s socially responsible conservation efforts, please email: info (at) conservecostarica.org.
Photos courtesy of Jon Orlando. To see more photography by Jon Orlando, visit www.jonorlandophoto.com