Native Costa Ricans Discuss Relationship Between
Humans and the Rainforest
By Dawn Ramos



The reach of the global marketplace is affecting Costa Rica’s land, flora, fauna, people and economy. Increased international trade seems imminent. Political stability and the sheer beauty of Costa Rica’s plush rainforest help make tourism foremost among the country’s industries. The influx of travelers plus the resultant development boom make environmental protection a hot topic — a globally warm topic, at the very least — for those concerned about Costa Rica’s natural resources.

Protecting the diminishing rainforest and the rights of indigenous people are ongoing struggles. Disparate lines of logic inform the debate over how Costa Rican land should be used and who should make those decisions. Some claim increased trade and tourism destroy Costa Rica’s unique lush tropical beauty and biodiversity. Others argue that ecotourism helps people learn to appreciate natural resources and become better stewards of the environment. What are the best ways for people to interact with the natural environment?  Can commerce and all the species inhabiting  Costa Rica mutually and beneficially serve one another? Three native Costa Ricans share their views.

An Indigenous Artisan
Jorge Fernandez Reyes is a member of the indigenous Maleku tribe. He is an artisan who works in a roadside kiosk selling handcrafts made by his group. Explaining through an interpreter that he does not consider himself politically involved, Reyes says he is concerned about the rainforest. At the same time, he supports increased trade. “I think that will bring an increase in the number of tourists. That of course will benefit artisan workers. We need tourists. That is the purpose of our artisanship,” he says.   

Reyes knows all too well that increased trade and tourism result in further land development. “In the Talamanca Mountain Range there are a lot of indigenous people. The large area where most of my tribe lives is protected. We are aware there are companies who are looking at our land as part of a development option. The indigenous people have fought a lot and we are supported by certain laws that protect us,” he says. “Right now we are protected but maybe,” he adds thoughtfully, “that could change and we won’t be protected anymore. We have been told we could lose the land.”

Another aspect of so-called free trade is that workers’ wages become suppressed. To this Reyes asserts, “We are survivors and we live off what we make in artisan work.” But if the rainforest is developed further, the Maleku stand to lose the sources for their crafts. “I can’t imagine what would happen if we lost our natural resources,” Reyes ponders, adding that his people are not afraid. “But there is an uncertainty,” he admits.

Those uncertainties are not assuaged by the humanitarian aid that Reyes says the international community has been led to believe benefits the Maleku people. “I would like people to know that indigenous groups have been treated poorly. I wish the international organizations would give donations directly to the indigenous tribes instead of to the government,” Reyes says. “They say they are helping us but the international help they mention all of the time never comes because of political manipulation,” he protests.

Reyes is certain that the earth itself is foremost among the needs of his people. “Without the earth we can’t survive,” he asserts. Reyes explains that traditional Maleku artisan production methods are sustainable. “Some people believe we don’t even care about nature,” he says, bemused. “Some people say we are destroying the environment. For example, we use iguana skins for our drums. But we have an area where we raise iguanas,” Reyes assures. Regarding their wood usage, he says, “The bolsa trees we chop down to make our crafts and boats grow rapidly. In two years it grows into a big, big tree.”

A Career Environmentalist
Someone else who concerns himself with trees is  Carlos Manuel Rodriguez E., the Regional Vice-President of Conservation International’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation. Until Costa Rica’s national administration changed in 2006, Rodriguez served for four years as the Minister of Environment and Energy, prior to which he was Vice Minister. And before that he was the Director of the National Park Service. In his current role, Rodriguez supervises Conservation International’s regional operations from  Mexico to Panama. The organization implements conservation priorities by doing environmental research and by working with governments on policy issues that affect the environment.

There is strong economic pressure for development in  Costa Rica. Rodriguez explains that the goal is not to stop tourism and development, but to ameliorate associated environmental problems that might otherwise go unchecked. “Anyone who calls attention to problems is labeled a radical,” says Rodriguez, who has a reputation for being outspoken. “You need to be quite objective to see both sides of the coin,” he adds. As a positive result of foreign investment and development, he cites projects that have replaced slash-and-burn agriculture and over-hunting, two practices that have been extremely detrimental to the local ecosystem.

Costa Rica is caught in the catch-22 experienced by many developing countries. The country needs foreign investment to fuel continued economic growth. But short-term financial gains often result in long-term environmental consequences. Using tourism to lure foreign capital can have this effect.

Rodriquez is concerned about the misuse of the concept of ecotourism. The characterization of travel options as eco-travel is often no more than a marketing strategy used to attract green-minded international travelers. The moniker is used so casually that it has become unreliable for those sincerely interested in minimizing their carbon footprint. To make the ecotourism label more meaningful, Costa Rican environmentalists have lobbied for a law requiring a certification program for businesses that allege themselves to be green. So far, this plight has been thwarted, according to Rodriguez.

Something else Rodriguez laments is the land loss experienced by Costa Ricans. “The best land in the country is being bought by foreigners,” he claims. “The inflation makes everything very expensive and Costa Ricans can’t access property.” Clarifying that he doesn’t have anything against foreigners, Rodriguez says he welcomes them. His objection is to seeing land fenced off from locals, including the indigenous groups, without regard for their rights.

On the bright side, Rodriguez says win-win situations have been created that help the indigenous tribes as well as the environment. For example, there are programs that employ indigenous people to do much-needed conservation work. “We’ve been working with them to develop new economic alternatives,” Rodriguez says.

A Naturalist Tour Guide
Allen Chaves, who also works to conserve nature, considers his job important because he encourages others to care for the rainforest. Along with who he calls other “ecologically-minded people,”  Chaves works as a naturalist guide at the Ecolodge Private Biological Reserve. He runs a zip-line course that allows participants to view the rainforest canopy from above. According to Chaves, the Ecolodge location is one of over 100 such attractions in  Costa Rica.

“We invite people to love nature,”  Chaves says. “Some people want to see the forest,” he says. “It is good for the tourists because they learn. People ask questions. They enjoy it when we explain about the trees. And they appreciate the animals,” he continues.

Some environmentalists posit that zip-line courses degrade biodiversity. Their fear is that trees are harmed and natural habitats are upset by human movement and noise.  Chaves believes the effects on the ecosystem are minimal. He feels minor disruptions, if any, are offset by the educational value of the experience. “When they come here and see something, they love it,” he says of tourists. Also, during the on-ground portion of zip-line tours, hikers are required to stay on the trail so as not to disturb nearby plants, insects and wildlife.

Chaves claims zip-line builders take special precautions with their trade. “When we attach the cable to the trees we attach pieces of wood to protect the trees. The cable runs through the wood. It never touches the tree,” he promises.

Since people want to see nature’s splendor,  Chaves says guided tours are preferable for the safety of people and preservation of the rainforest. “It is bad for too many people to enter the forest,” he admits. “We recommend people do not walk in the forest alone. And it is prohibited,” he admonishes. “Plus it is dangerous. There are snakes,” he adds with a knowing wink.

From the front porch of the Ecolodge property,  Chaves stares into the distance as he ponders the land around him, looking for words to sum up his thoughts. “We are in the middle of two volcanoes between the Pacific Slope and the  Caribbean Slope,” he says. “In a short distance we can find different temperatures and forests ... rain forests, cloud forests, dry forests. And they are completely different. Maybe it is important to mention that for us, this is a small paradise.” 

Dawn Ramos is a free-lance social justice writer. She has a particular interest in the interplay between politics, spirituality and human/civil rights.

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