by Felipe Montoya-Greenheck
Throughout history, peasants around the world have faced the threats of empire, urban expansion and the lure of urban opportunities, over-taxation, and both abandonment and persecution by the state. In our generation, they have also been confronted with dispossession by the corporate machinery, lubricated by neo-liberal international agreements favoring free trade. Add to this the permanent challenges of climate variability with droughts and floods, crop blights and pests, now increasingly aggravated by global climate change. Yet, against all odds peasants persist and continue to feed the majority of the world on a diminishing land base.
When many of these pressures displace peasants to marginal lands, moving them to the frontlines of the agricultural frontier, and at the edge of territories not fit for farming, but ideal for conservation, peasants are often forced to eke out a living at the expense of degrading fragile lands. This scenario, repeated the world over, has led many to place the blame of environmental destruction, such as deforestation, hillside erosion, and overhunting, among others, directly upon peasants and their subsistence livelihoods. Thus, when the opportunity arises to work alongside peasants at the agricultural frontier, bordering rainforests, to collectively come up with alternatives that will both improve peasant livelihoods and advance environmental conservation, the outcomes are not only of local relevance, but of global import, too.
That is the case of the Las Nubes Project, carried out by the Faculty of Environmental Studies of York University, Canada in the Southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. The Las Nubes Project began in the late 1990s, when philanthropist Woody Fisher donated to the Faculty the Las Nubes Private Reserve, a 120-hectare tract of rainforest bordering the Chirripó National Park, which forms part of the largest protected area in Central America. Las Nubes is located in the headwaters of the Peñas Blancas River, whose watershed is home to a handful of rural communities dedicated mostly to the cultivation of coffee, sugarcane, and pasture for grazing cattle.
Many of the members of these rural communities self-identify as campesinos, or peasants, and they assume this identity with a sense of pride and defiance, well aware that campesinos are seen as backward, unsophisticated, and poor. Their campesino identity is derived not only from their productive activities of cultivating the earth, but also from their cultural upbringing and values, their sense of place and rootedness, and above all from their love for the land. In their own words:
“There is no profession in the world that could pay me … that could give me the satisfaction that cultivating the land does.”
Against all odds peasants persist and continue to feed the majority of the world on a diminishing land base.
“A campesino is someone who is born, grows, gets old and dies in the countryside. Many times he is the only one who can feel the struggles of life. God knows that campesinos have to deal with many struggles. Ever since campesinos have existed, God has been there supporting them.”
“Campesinos are the umbilical cord that connects the land to the people … You may produce tonnes of computers but you cannot eat them … When a baby cries, you cannot give him a piece of … you have to provide the baby with milk! This is what governments and urban people cannot understand!”
“Nature, the rivers, the songs, the day and the night … everything looks beautiful here. I cannot replace the beauty I have here … anywhere. Watching the mountain makes me feel very happy … I have seen it since I was a child. Watching nature, trees, animals … this has been part of most of my life.”
When Dr. Fisher made his donation, York University professor Howard Daugherty was already doing research on ways to achieve sustainable development in the area. During the 1990s, the concept of Sustainable Development had become mainstream, at least in discourse, with over 170 nations signing on to its principles at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. However, the practice of sustainable development — of finding a balance between economic, social, and environmental objectives to serve the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations — was much more elusive. The rural and peasant communities in the Peñas Blancas River watershed, nestled in between forest patches, might be a good place to seek ways of implementing sustainable development strategies.
A century before, in the 1890s, the region was predominantly forested, and Indigenous inhabitants were being displaced by the first white settlers who arrived there in search of new lands to farm. In the 1930s, construction of the Interamerican Highway began in the region. During this time, a young American naturalist, Alexander Skutch, found his way to the area and settled in a forest next the Peñas Blancas River. By the 1990s, Alexander Skutch’s farm remained one of the few forest patches in a landscape converted mostly to farmland. Finally, Alexander Skutch sold his farm, Los Cusingos, to the Tropical Science Center, a Costa Rican research center, which would serve as steward of his 78-hectare forest. In 2005, the Tropical Science Center, along with York University and the local organizations and communities, created the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor (ASBC) to link Los Cusingos at the lower end of the Peñas Blancas watershed, to Las Nubes at the upper end, with the objective of promoting environmental conservation and improved community well-being through the implementation of sustainable productive activities. In the words of a local campesino:
“Before, this was pure paradise. I grew up seeing all types of animals, and during some time they were not here anymore, but now they are coming back … I think this is happening because of the creation of the corridor. What would we do without nature? Having a biological corridor helps people mature the idea of preserving the trees and the sources of life for human beings.”
The creation of a biological corridor as a way of caring for biological diversity is intuitively understandable. By linking forest patches through reforestation, and implementing environmentally friendly farming practices, such as tree-shaded crops, reduced biocides, and agro-ecological techniques, the territories of many species are extended, allowing animals to find food, shelter, and mates more readily. This, in turn, fosters the functions of these animals as seed dispersers and pollinators, and creates a positive feedback loop that further expands these ecosystems and enriches species diversity. But how might this contribute to improving peasant livelihoods? For the communities in the ASBC, whose sources of income are limited, variable, and often unpredictable, the possibility of complementing their agricultural earnings with rural community ecotourism was one option that seemed potentially promising.
There is still much work to be done … to find a balance between increasing the economic benefits of ecotourism and limiting the many potential threats that tourism may bring.
Rural community ecotourism is an industry that celebrates and favors biological as well as cultural diversity. From its inception, in response to local interests, the Las Nubes Project sought to facilitate and promote a type of tourism that would remain in the hands of the campesinos in the corridor. Every year, the Faculty of Environmental Studies takes a group of students on a field course to the ASBC. During their stay, local homes provide room and board to the students. In this way, local families are able to complement their income from farming by providing these services to visitors to the ASBC. However, the supply of lodging services among these communities far exceeds the demand created by York University’s students. Despite a few other educational institutions also bringing student groups to the ASBC throughout the year, the income provided by this scale of tourism is very limited. While it currently permits an intimate exchange between locals and visitors, whose benefits extend beyond the monetary transaction, there is still much work to be done in the ASBC to find a balance between increasing the economic benefits of ecotourism and limiting the many potential threats that tourism may bring.
The mission of the Las Nubes Project is to contribute to a community-appropriated, cross-cultural, transdisciplinary, inter-institutional process of local livelihood improvement linked to environmental conservation practices. In this spirit the Las Nubes project has sought to diversify livelihood options that are conducive to environmental conservation. An early initiative was to market shade-grown coffee cultivated by local small-scale farmers. York University was able to link local farmers co-op CoopeAgri with Canadian coffee retailer Timothy’s to sell Las Nubes-brand coffee under an agreement that, for every pound of coffee sold, Timothy’s would donate one dollar to the Las Nubes Project to invest back into the ASBC in research, education, and community projects.
For the past three years, during the summer field course, the Faculty of Environmental Studies and local community members have also organized the Alexander Skutch Festival, to showcase the biocultural production of the ASBC. This festival features stands for local artisans to sell their wares, for local organizations to present their projects, and for York University students to provide interactive environmental education activities. The festival also serves as a venue for performances by local dance groups and musicians, and it has grown to include ideas from the local youth and other community members, such as horse races, a dog show, and a bike rally within the ASBC. Through the sale of food, the festival raises funds for the local school. Ultimately, this event is envisioned as an opportunity to exhibit the biocultural richness of the ASBC and to strengthen people’s collective identity around the corridor.
An ongoing effort aiming to strengthen local capacities to interface with globalization through knowledge mobilization is an International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-funded project to create an online map-based interactive information hub meant to allow local residents to upload information about their community tourism offerings, as well as access information relevant to the ASBC. Ancillary to this is the recent project to establish a local library and computer resource center, la Casita Azul (so named after the blue-painted office building of the local aqueduct committee, part of which houses the library). The objective of this space is to provide computer and internet training and facilities, especially to local women and youth.
Biocultural diversity is inextricably linked to the respectful stewardship of the biosphere in which we live.
The Las Nubes Project is also building a research, education, and community outreach center across the river from the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, to serve as an international venue for performances, conferences, seminars, workshops, classes, and gatherings dedicated to issues of sustainability, conservation, and community well-being, as well as a space for researchers dedicated to topics relevant to the ASBC. Besides bringing experts from around the world to the ASBC, this space hopes to take the ASBC to the world, as an example of long-term collaboration between local communities, academia, and research organizations to promote rural livelihood improvement linked to environmental conservation.
Already this type of collaboration has generated important results for local biocultural well-being. With the liberalization of the energy sector, opening strategic state institutions to private competition, in the last few years there have been numerous bids by private corporations to build hydroelectric dams throughout Costa Rica. The southwestern slopes of the Talamanca mountain range are the source of numerous rivers, now threatened with the construction of close to twenty damns, among them the Peñas Blancas River in the ASBC. Community mobilization and assistance by York University in the form of targeted research have made it possible to fend off the threats to the social-environmental well-being represented by the proposed hydroelectric dams.
The collective struggles to improve the lot of the common people while protecting the commons — such as the forests and the rivers that are the home and life-support of an abundance of life forms and the source of well-being for local communities — are not only driven by recognition of the benefits provided by recovering and safeguarding these commons. Importantly, they also stem from recognition and celebration of the intrinsic value of the biocultural diversity that is inextricably linked to the respectful stewardship of the biosphere in which we live. While there is still much work to do in the ASBC to bring us closer to the goals of social-environmental sustainability and well-being, the Las Nubes Project looks upon the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor and its rural and peasant residents as a promising arena for achieving a small part of that desired world in which many worlds are possible.
Visit the website for The Las Nubes Project.
An environmental anthropologist, Felipe Montoya-Greenheck is the James and Joanne Love Chair in Neotropical Conservation and Director of the Las Nubes Project in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada. He has worked with rural indigenous and peasant communities in Costa Rica for over twenty years. Read more from Felipe Montoya-Greenheck:
- Cultivating Respect: Reviving Forgotten Plant Knowledge in Costa Rica
- Pura Vida: Costa Rican Peasants Fight for a World That Contains Many Worlds
- Legal Rights and Spiritual Responsibilities: Indigenous Land Struggles in Costa Rica
Altieri, M. (2002). Agroecology: the science of natural resource management for poor farmers in marginal environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 93(1), 1–24.
Bollier, D. (2015). Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society.
Grain. (2014). Hungry for Land: Small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all the farmland. Report GRAIN, May 2014. Retrieved from https://www.grain.org
Montoya-Greenheck, F. (2014). Engagement in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. Retrieved from https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/engagement-in-the-alexander-skutch-biological-corridor/