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Social and Cultural Capital: Empowerment for Sustainable Development in the MOUNTAINS OF ESCAZU, COST

Over the last half century, "world development" has become a major goal of humanity. This
objective has been supported by numerous evolving theories and has been attempted by abundant practices.
Development aid has gone from "developed" nations to serve "underdeveloped" nations in this quest, but the
goal of development has remained elusive. Although much energy has been exerted by many to advance
world development, the overall results still seem dismal. Poverty, hunger, and environmental destruction
continue to loom before us. Conventional development, which sought to remedy these ills by stimulating
economic growth, often wrought environmental destruction and human misery in its wake. Critiques and
counter-theories emerged in search of alternate roads to development, but mostly to no avail. Thus, the last
of the development perspectives of this century, under the vague rubric of "sustainable development", has
stressed the need for reconciling all the previous contradictions of development, so that economic growth be
reconciled with environmental protection, the objectives of the State with those of civil society, and the
needs of present generations, with those of the future. Sustainable development appears to be our last hope
for truly achieving improved life conditions for the vast majorities. At least it sets the groundwork for no
longer making it acceptable to compromise vast sections of people's "lifeworld", such as their cultures and
their environment, to satisfy a singular aspect such as national economic growth. The global consensus of
sustainable development as the accepted development paradigm seems to be saying that "if sustainable
development can't achieve what we are striving for, nothing will."
In this dissertation I will examine the intimate workings of civil society in its attempts at
sustainable development. This study focuses on the efforts of a small community organization in Escazú,
Costa Rica between 1989 and 1998 to protect and improve local life quality in a context where the ideology
of sustainable development prevailed. I examine how strategies of sustainable development were forged,
what resources, including economic, social and cultural, were mobilized, and finally, how the ideology of
sustainable development with its emphasis on reconciliation actually helped or hindered reaching the goals
of social, environmental and economic sustainability.
Entering the Field
In 1989 I received support from the University of New Mexico to carry out exploratory research on
peasant environmentalists in Costa Rica. I only had two months during the university summer break to
carry out my exploratory work. Fortunately, only a few days after arriving in Costa Rica, a round table-
seminar on Environment and Community Action was announced in the newspaper. When I arrived in the
evening, three of the six panelists were seated facing an almost empty auditorium except for two other
people and myself. After waiting half an hour past the scheduled time, five other people arrived. After
some brief murmurs the panelists offered to go ahead with the round-table despite the meager audience, out
of respect for those of us who did have an interest in the subject. One member of the audience suggested that
it was probably not a general lack of interest in the subject, but rather a greater interest of most people in
attending a conference on world peace being held at the same time and where the Dalai Lama was guest
This was my first fieldwork encounter with efforts that began to appropriate and implement the
concept of sustainable development. Despite the absence of half of the panelists (two government
institutions and one private organization), the conference began to reveal some of the local undercurrents
that informed the concept of sustainable development. Moreover, it opened an important door for me to
continue investigating the subject well into the following decade as a full-fledged participant and observer.
The three panelists were a representative of the government institution DINADECO (National Directorate
for Community Development), a representative of the newly formed MEC (Costa Rican Environmentalist
Movement), and a representative of the community organization CODECE (Committee for the Defense of