The Scoop on Sustainability: Pura Vida: The pure life, but for who?
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
According to the Happy Planet Index (HPI) calculated by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), I was headed to the “greenest” country in the world. UNH was offering the opportunity to study sustainable development abroad in Costa Rica and I applied overnight. The hidden gems of Eco-Tourism and sustainability were just weeks away and I could hardly wait. Before the summer semester began I decided to explore the country on foot with my trusty tour book in hand.
My adventures included summiting Cerro Chirripo, the highest peak in the country, trekking through virgin jungles, and exploring a variety of farming techniques. I boated out to a remote lodge where turtles are saved, and came face-to-face with animals that are near extinction. All of these adventures were possible because of Costa Rica’s commitment to preserving their land and biodiversity. However, I quickly realized the locals were nowhere to be found and I was living the life of an eco-tourist.
Eco-tourism grew out of the government’s incredible protection system, which includes over a quarter of the country’s land. Everyone began to recognize the diversity and richness of nature and wildlife that makes Costa Rica a true natural paradise. This shift in thinking led to the profitable eco-tourism industry that brings millions of people and millions of dollars to Costa Rica yearly. At the very root for protecting this land was to preserve it for future generations – but who stands to benefit exactly? Are the locals benefiting enough from a government that seized a profitable opportunity to bring visitors to its land?
Craving more examples of sustainability at a local level, I took off for Corcovado National Park on the remote Osa Peninsula. Sirena Station located at the center of Corcovado Park is the most biologically diverse place on earth according to National Geographic. Here is where I thought I would be immersed in local heritage and converse with the natives. I arrived to a vast amount of rare animals, such as jaguarondis, bull sharks, and monkeys and a much more diverse crowd than I had expected. Every visitor seemed to be from a country other than Costa Rica. After boating through mangroves and shark-infested oceans I was shocked to find an airstrip, cable television and a restaurant. This was almost as shocking as the absence of Costa Rican visitors.
As I was exploring this preservation I thought to myself, “Who is this actually preserved for?” I had the rare opportunity on my hike to come head-on with a Baird’s Tapir, the largest wild mammal in the region at roughly 6 feet in length and 600 pounds. Luckily, it was as scared as I was and we ran in separate directions. As I retold my tale to the average city dwellers, they listened in awe. I realized that I had been to a place few Costa Ricans have ever been, yet spectacles such as this is what their country is known for.
After my Osa adventure, I was confused as to whether the local people partake in the enjoyment of sustaining their land. Our teachers assured us that the locals benefit from sustainability, and promised us a visit to EARTH University to prove it. EARTH University offers educational programs that assist in the development of global leaders in environmentalism, sustainability and innovation in the developing world.
We saw at EARTH ways to reduce the use of resources and live more efficiently. For example, EARTH produces nearly all of its food and their main goal is zero waste. One third of EARTH’s students are Costa Rican, ensuring the spread of the knowledge and application in their communities. This was shown when an exact replica of an exhibit I first saw at EARTH was mimicked by my host family’s organic farm. My Mamichicitica, or host mother, replicated the biodigestor which converts solid waste from the house and animals into electricity for heating and methane gas for cooking. She adopted this system to maximize efficiency on her farm and also to profit from the eco-tourism opportunity of hosting students through EARTH. Staying on the farm allowed me to see firsthand EARTH’s impact on the local people and strengthened my faith that sustainability was for the people.
The bottom line is that living in Costa Rica for this length of time with native Costa Ricans offered me a unique perspective from that of eco-tourists. For the natives, sustainability in Costa Rica is profitable. Eco-tourism in Costa Rica has proven to the natives that their greatest potential for income may be protecting their country’s land and biodiversity. The bigger challenge, and achievement however, may be a cultural shift in how nature and the environment are viewed. Will the Costa Ricans continue to see the environment as an industry or will they come to understand the natural world as an innate part of themselves, a pillar of their cultural heritage, health, well-being and happiness?
Erin Jackson is a senior in the Whittemore School of Business and Economics. She is also the captain of the UNH women’s soccer team and an intern at the campus-based nonprofit Climate Counts.