Social and Cultural Capital: Empowerment for Sustainable Development in the MOUNTAINS OF ESCAZU, COST by Phillip J. Montoya - HTML preview

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                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 speaker.

                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 the Mountains of Escazú).  This last was quite a surprise for me, on encountering an experience of this sort in my home town of Escazú.

                I should clarify here that I am Costa Rican.  However, after the first two years of my life, my father was hired by the United Nations, spending the next twenty years mostly outside of Costa Rica along with his family.  Except for home visits every two summers, one year in high school in 1973, and three years of graduate school in tropical ecology at the University of Costa Rica between 1984 and 1987, I had not lived in my native country.  By 1989, when I began exploratory fieldwork in anthropology, my parents had already been in Costa Rica for seven years, retired and dedicated to restoring adobe houses and growing coffee.  Back in the house where I was born, in my home town of Escazú, I never stopped feeling somewhat of an outsider, despite the uncles and aunts and large number of cousins that lived close by, and the numerous people who recognized me at least through my family name.

                Thus, I was anxious to hear of the experiences of environmental protection and community action in Escazú.  The first panelist to speak was Luis Diego Ugarte of the MEC, who presented a summary view of the global situation in which responsibility for the current environmental degradation was placed on "the system" where 25 percent of the world's population used 70 percent of the world's resources.  "Exploitation and environmental degradation are not errors of the system, but actual symptoms of it."  He  explained that the goals of MEC were to work not only for environmental protection, but for the construction of a "social ecology" that would encompass social, economic and cultural factors.  MEC hoped to achieve this through the participation of the municipalities, the gathering of updated information, and finally by means of environmental education.  But according to Ugarte, MEC had already met with partial defeat when they undertook a project of environmental education in the community of San Francisco de Tres Ríos, and encountered suspicion and lack of interest on the part of the local people.  "This response," said Ugarte, "was the best illustration that what in fact was most needed was environmental education." (Field notes, June 28, 1989).

                It occurred to me that the problem encountered by MEC lay in the fact that its members went into communities other than their own, with intentions to teach global perspectives that had no obvious relevance to the everyday lives of these people.  MEC's well-intentioned efforts at informing and educating the people to improve local participation were threatened by a lack of a deeper understanding of what actually mobilized people.  My impression at the time was that if MEC continued in this vein, it was destined to fizzle out, leaving its idealistic members disillusioned with the apparent indifference of the common people.  Ten years later, not surprisingly, what remains of MEC is scarcely a memory.

                The second to speak was Carmen Durán of the governmental institution DINADECO.  According to Durán, current environmental problems were mainly because "our civilization has separated itself from Nature".  Also to blame was the "avarice of a few people, the lack of conscience of a few industries, and ignorance on the part of the campesinos (small farmers)".  Of the important achievements claimed by DINADECO in matters of environmental protection, was the installation of public garbage cans in numerous communities.  Duran's discourse, as a government representative, defended "the system" that Ugarte attacked.  If the system had deficiencies, it was intrinsic to "civilization" and thus irreversible.  Otherwise, the problems were mostly due to the exceptions arising from the deviance of a few elite individuals and industries, and the ignorance of the productive masses.  The practice of DINADECO was consequent with its discourse, patching up the irregularities of a system that supposedly worked. (Field notes, June 28, 1989).

                My impression of Duran's presentation was that it was a simplistic pro-status quo response to Ugarte's attack on "the system".  Although both positions still seemed to be imbued with a mostly environment-development dichotomy, already surpassed, at least rhetorically, by the concept of sustainable development, each revealed positions that I would later find distinguished contending perspectives of sustainable development.

                The third case was offered by Romano Sancho in representation of CODECE.  He presented the experience of a grassroots community organization, its inception and its near four-year struggle to protect the watershed and rivers that provided the community with most of its water.  Because this case was in Escazú, I took special care to take complete notes on all Romano said.  He explained how sometime in 1985, he and his wife Paulina, and many other residents of San Antonio de Escazú, began to hear loud bangs resounding in the mountains.  They wondered what neighboring towns might be celebrating fiestas with such an abundance of fire-crackers.  Soon enough, campesinos who went looking for their cows let out to pasture in the mountains reported that tractors were carving a road up to the summit of La Cruz.  The bangs were the sound of boulders crashing down the mountain.  Great sections of the mountain were dumped into the streams below.  The reservoir on Río Agres, the confluence of several of the affected streams, was filled with mud and the people of the surrounding villages no longer received any water.

                In response to this, Romano, along with a group of concerned community members, created CODECE to fight for the defense of the Mountains of Escazú and the rights of the local people.  Their first battle was against a Spanish priest, Father Revilla, who was responsible for the tractors in the mountain.  Revilla's project was to build a monument in the Mountains of Escazú to celebrate the 500 years of Christianity's victory over heathen America, and a basilica for Christian pilgrimage.  After winning this battle, many other struggles ensued where CODECE fought against numerous threats to the environment of the mountains and the welfare of the people.

                Romano admitted that CODECE had created many enemies, mostly among those interested in destroying the mountains for private gain, and their accomplices in the government at the national and local level.  Had it not been that CODECE was made up of a wide array of concerned community members, including farmers, home makers, students and professionals, CODECE would probably already have succumbed to the pressures of its adversaries.  What resulted, however, was quite the contrary.  CODECE had become a model community organization of Costa Rica, continuously engaged in struggles to defend the environment and well-being of the local people.

                According to Romano, what CODECE had experienced in dealing with the legislators and the judicial system, as well as the indifference they encountered in the local municipal governments, highlighted the difference in interests between the communities and the political/governmental bodies.

                "These operate under entirely different criteria," he explained, "one of which is a different time-frame.  Governmental bodies, even though they are local municipal governments, operate under electoral criteria, and thus within a political time-frame.  For them, the universe has an existence of four years.  Communities, on the other hand, operate under social criteria and act within a cultural time-frame, that being of at least three human generations long.  Obviously, mutual interests are hard to come by.  Fortunately," Romano assured, "governmental organizations are not monolithic, and present cracks in their systems, cracks which can be exploited."

                In addition to the legal battles taken up by CODECE, Romano mentioned the work the organization was carrying out in reforesting the Rio Agres watershed with the participation of farmers and students from the schools of San Antonio and Escazú.  The other area that CODECE emphasized was that of education.  "Our project is meaningless," Romano explained, "unless we simultaneously carry out an educative effort."  This effort was aimed at the landowners in the Mountains of Escazú, at students, and at members of the community.  "We have emphasized," said Romano, "that for the project to be successful, it cannot go against them [the local people] or even proceed without them, but that it requires their participation.  And the reactions have been very positive." (Field notes, June 28, 1989).

                Romano's presentation impressed me.  CODECE seemed to be actively involved in complex issues that included environmental protection and community empowerment.  Moreover, his analysis of this relationship offered insightful elements I had not yet encountered in the academic literature.  Most of all, however, I was thrilled to learn about the existence of such an organization in my own home town.  I arranged with Romano to attend their biweekly meetings, Tuesday nights at 7:00 at the Juan XXIII School of San Antonio de Escazú.  Although he seemed somewhat suspicious of my intentions, not recognizing me as one of the residents of Escazú, he asked me my name and cordially invited me to the meetings.

                I arrived a little before seven and sat on one of the concrete benches along the fence of the school, biding my time, gazing at the Great Metropolitan Area that spread out illuminated in the valley below, contrasting sharply with this town that was still eminently rural.  San Antonio de Escazú is nestled among the peaks of the Mountains of Escazú.  Adobe houses were still common there, as were other traditional traits more and more difficult to find in much of Costa Rica.  San Antonio still had ox-powered mills or "trapiches" where locally grown sugar cane is pressed to make the raw sugar that traditionally has been a staple in the diet of Costa Ricans.  Also in San Antonio one commonly saw men riding their horses to and from their work in vegetable fields and coffee plantations, these being the major crops grown in and around the town.

                By 7:30 I was about to leave, when a Jeep stopped in front of the school with Romano and a few other people inside.  A tall thin man, dressed in city clothes got out and unlocked the chain of the school.  Some of the young men and women waiting around greeted him as "profe" (teacher).  Romano went into the school and opened up a room for the meeting.  When I walked in, he seemed very glad to see me, unlike the first impression I got from him.  He introduced me as the son of Francisco Montoya to the other members that were present.  Apparently, he had found out more about me.  One of the members, Rodolfo León, a large heavy-set man with a baritone voice and a thick mat of black hair, black mustache and calloused hands, could not place my father, but vividly recalled my grandfather.  "Oh yes, don Pancho with the stiff leg who grew chayotes, of course I remember him."  The man referred to as Profe also came to the CODECE meeting.  He was Francisco Mejía, nicknamed Pito, and was the secretary of CODECE.  A young woman, Maritza León, unrelated to Rodolfo, also attended the meeting. (Field notes, July 18, 1989).

                Maritza briefly read the minutes of the last meeting.  Then they discussed the jobs that were pending before the community reforestation project could be initiated.  I tried to take notes inconspicuously.

                "Goicoechea, who has 300 hectares," Maritza read, "has conceded five hectares to be reforested.  On these five hectares that border the rivers, we can plant 2000 trees, that's 400 trees per hectare.  Carlos Monge and Vin Calderón have also said we can reforest part of their land.  We'll do the reforesting every Sunday in August, and in September we'll go back to clean up the weeds around them.  The Forestry Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture has agreed to donate the trees.  We have asked for Jaúl, Dama, Murta, Aguacatillo, Duraznillo, and María.  We don't want Cedro as it is too tempting to cut down with the high prices it has on the market."

                "The plan is to invite members of the local organizations to participate: the Red Cross, Tertulia, the Boy Scouts, the Association for Development of El Carmen, the Sports Committee of Escazú, as well as individuals.  Padre Walter of the Church of Escazú has agreed to announce this project during mass.  A letter explaining the program has to be written and delivered to these organizations."

                "Felipe," Romano addressed me, jolting me out of my anonymity, "you can take the letter to the Red Cross in Escazú.  Tomorrow I'll bring the letter by your house." (Field notes, July 18, 1989).

                Delivering this letter was the first "duty" I undertook for CODECE.  Little did I imagine that this simple act of collaboration would lead me to a decade-long involvement with the Association and its efforts at implementing sustainable development.

                On Sunday, July 30th, we met in front of La Guardia Rural at about 7:30 am.  The Boy Scouts had some 5 boys participating.  The Red Cross also had 5 young men there.  Five women came along, one of which was a Peace Corps volunteer.  There were also another 8 boys and girls.  Already gone ahead of us were 11 men, most of them farmers from the area.  In total, there were about 40 people.  The walk up to the site of reforestation took nearly two hours.  On the way, some of the children and women recounted the legends told of Pico Blanco, of which there are many.

                On the way up, private plantations of cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) abounded, under which there was little if any undergrowth.  The species most promoted by the National Forestry Directorate were pine, cypress and eucalyptus, none of them appropriate for hillside reforestation in the tropics.  Comments by the farmers as they passed these plantations revealed that they are aware of this.  "Cypress," they said, "has a terrible shade.  It burns the soil.  Sure, it grows straight and fast, but it depletes the soil."  At a point about half way we met up with the others who had started out earlier.  One of the men was loading a horse with 50 trees to carry to the site.  The trees donated by the Forestry Directorate were not the promised array of species, but only a single species, Jaúl (Alnus accuminata), all 300 of them.  Fortunately, Jaúl is a fast-growing native to the area and appropriate for hillside reforestation as it permits a lush undergrowth that protects the soil from erosion.  One of the minor peaks of the area was called El Jaular, and on one of the slopes of La Cruz a private plantation of Jaúl seemed to be thriving.

                The reforestation site had slopes steeper than 45 degrees, very susceptible to erosion.  The hope was that the Jaúl would quickly establish themselves and begin a process of forest succession.  Some men with long narrow shovels dug the holes.  The other men, women and children planted the trees.  It took less than two hours to plant the 300 trees.  By 11:30 am we were finished.  Romano gave a short speech thanking the participants and reminding everyone of the importance to the endeavor.  Then everyone ate their lunches.  Candies were passed around to the children, and a little bit of rum for the adults.  On the way down by another route we stopped at a relatively flat field nestled in the mountains, known as Llano San Miguel, where we played a mejenga, a soccer game among the men and boys.

                A few days later, I met with Romano at his house in San Antonio to talk about the future plans of CODECE.  "The ultimate goal," he said, "is to buy this land, so that the community owns it, and make it into a Community Forest for tourism and education.  But for now, there are several things on the agenda.  First, there is the prospect of setting up a small legal office, the funds for which are about to be granted by the Inter American Foundation.

                "Then, there is the inventory of the flora and fauna of the area that 10 biology students from the University of Costa Rica will begin this month and continue during the entire year.  Their work will include field surveys, where each of them is a specialist in different areas.  They will also conduct interviews with the people of the area, especially the older people who know of species that exist or have existed in the area.  At the end of the project, we will put out a publication with all the information gathered, giving credit to all those who contributed their knowledge, to demonstrate that their knowledge is also important and worthy of publishing, even though it wasn't learned at a university."

                "We also have plans to build our own green-house so as not to have to depend on the Forestry Directorate.  In a green-house set up in the mountains we could grow native trees from native seeds.  The transport of the trees for reforestation would be minimal, and they would already be acclimated to the area.  We are seeking funding for this through the Canadian Embassy." (Field notes, August 5, 1989).

                While I spoke with Romano in his house, humble in its construction, though spacious, located in the foothills between La Cruz and Pico Blanco and next to the Rio Agres, the group of biologists returned from their first monthly ten-day expedition.  While Romano helped them unload, I stayed talking with his wife, Paulina while she prepared more coffee for the other guests.  She showed me a video camera that they planned to take on the next Sunday of reforestation.  Those shots, along with several others already made, would be edited, she said, into a program that would be shown nationally on TV.  Paulina also offered to give me documentation on CODECE, but unfortunately was unable to find the folder among the many books and papers that weighed down a bookshelf on the wall.

                After a third cup of coffee and several hours of talk, I left, making sure we exchanged addresses to keep in touch.  I explained I had to return to New Mexico to resume my studies, but that I would be interested to continue participating in CODECE and possibly have it as a case study for my dissertation.

                I spent the following summers in Costa Rica, becoming more and more involved in the activities of CODECE.  In April of 1992, I returned to Costa Rica to begin my long-term fieldwork.  By then CODECE was equipped with an office of its own, a secretary and a legal assistant on a part-time basis, financed by the Inter-American Foundation.  Much of the work revolved around law suits against individuals whose actions threatened the integrity of the environment.  Since my first encounter with CODECE, there had been great international ferment around the topic of sustainable development, preceding the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the World Summit in June of 1992 to be held in Rio de Janeiro on the 500th anniversary of the European conquest of America.  By this time, CODECE had changed its name to fit its revised mission.  Instead of the Committee for the Defense of the Mountains of Escazú, it was now the Association for the Conservation and Development of the Mountains of Escazú.  The following is a study of my long-term involvement with CODECE and the efforts of sustainable development it attempted in and around the Mountains of Escazú.



Outline of this Study


                In Chapter 2, I present my research methods, beginning with that of participant observation.  I describe the principle settings in which I was able to be a participant-observer, and point out its major advantages and disadvantages.  I explain that it is through participant observation that I was able to gain an intimate understanding of the world of sustainable development.  It was through the method of interviewing, however, that I obtained most of the tangible data that I employ in my analysis.  I describe the nature and extent of the interviews I carried out, pointing out some of the difficulties I encountered.  Much of the information I gathered was at meetings and through archival research of CODECE's documentation it kept on itself.  I also mention several other research methods that complemented this study.

                Because I carried out this study in my "home" town, I address the issue of being a "native anthropologist".  I point out that the term is relative, and describe the different instances in which I was either an "insider" or an "outsider".  Yet, in the end, I consider that being more of an insider was helpful for me to gain access to different areas of information.  The fact of doing ethnology in my home town does not dispel the issue of power differentials recognized today in ethnographic work.  I address this issue in some detail.  Finally, in this chapter I describe the process I underwent in going from data to theory, and point out the main areas of inquiry of the s