Archive for May, 2013

This post was initially published on the Arcadia University’s Lessons from World Travel blog. I went to Costa Rica to study indigenous rights and sustainable development. Prior to my January 2013 field study in Costa Rica, I wrote a list of questions to answer once I got back with the hopes that my travels would have given me insight into my questions. Here is what I had to say:

In my initial post I posed several questions about the hydroelectric project, sustainable development, and indigenous culture prior to visiting Costa Rica. This post is my responses to those questions.

The El Diquís Hydroelectric Dam Project:

  1. What is the level of distrust between parties in the Boruca dam mediation process? Has distrust been a big factor in failed negotiations? What are the techniques used to alleviate this?


Among the indigenous tribes there is a general sentiment of distrust of ICE’s actions. The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) has been planning to build a dam within the Buenos Aires region for over 40 years. During this time the country’s human rights legislation has been discussed time and again. Because of ICE’s actions in the last decade of purchasing indigenous land from a non-Indian and beginning construction prior to any sort of tribal consultation or consent has led to a great rift between many tribal peoples and ICE. Many also blame the government for not ensuring their rights are protected. The Constitutional Court of Costa Rica has halted all construction and ordered ICE to fulfill its legal requirements and begin consultation with affected tribes right away. In order to alleviate the tensions caused by distrust both parties need to go into consultation with the desire to want to discuss and hear the other stakeholders side- opposed to only wanting to proclaim what their own position is. This is important, because in the world of negotiations opinions and positions can change.

  1. The negotiations have been going on for decades. How stable have the mediators been? Has the stability of the mediator(s) lead to improved negotiations or has it hindered them?

The Village of Boruca

The mediators have not been stable outside of the tribe. Several indigenous community organizations have appeared over the years and have made a stable presence fighting for the community’s rights. These organizations have learned the legal rights accorded to them by the Costa Rican government and also international UN declarations of indigenous rights that Costa Rica has signed. Using this knowledge they have been able to gain legal representation and were able to file a lawsuit against ICE which successfully halted construction. I think it was due to the instability of mediators in the past that tribal members have stepped up to form these community organizations which have been quite a positive thing for the tribes. Having knowledge and power over their representation has helped alleviate some of the feelings of helplessness against such a large company as ICE.

  1. Are there any new factors present that have not been discussed in the conflict assessments that I have read?

The conflict assessment I read prior to the trip left off several years ago. There has been many new developments since then. Most notably what I’ve previously discussed about the construction on indigenous land illegally sold to ICE by a non-Indian which was halted by Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court. Also, a big development is a report released by the U.N.’s Special Rapportuer on the rights of indigenous peoples. James Anaya traveled to Costa Rica in 2011 specifically to research the potential human rights violations that this hydroelectric dam project may present to several indigenous tribes in the Buenos Aires region in Southwestern Costa Rica. This international recognition is a big deal for the indigenous community. The Special Rappartuer sent the Costa Rican government a list of recommendations to act on right away which include ensuring that consultations between the tribes and ICE reach a ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ on whatever direction the project ultimately takes.

Indigenous Peoples:

  1. How have the indigenous people of Costa Rica preserved their native cultures? How do they balance their own identity of their tribe as well as being Costa Rican? How has globalization and/or tourism influenced their cultures?
Visitors Center in Boruca

Visitors Center in Boruca

I cannot speak for all 8 indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, but I can say what I’ve learned about how the Boruca and Térraba have preserved theirs. For starters, globalization and tourism have both affected them in both positive and negative ways. Negative because now more outsiders, or non-indigenous people, are moving onto their territory and the tribe has been struggling with the government to reclaim some of this territory. Also, now everyone speaks Spanish and almost all of the indigenous languages are becoming extinct. There are, however, attempts to save and record them. Some positive effects include jobs and money from making and selling crafts. In the village there is also a visitor’s center. While walking around the Borucan village I noticed through someone’s open door a big screen TV. The general public’s notions of what it means to be indigenous is probably not always accurate. Globalization has basically reached everywhere. As I’ve previously stated there has been an increase in community organizations since ICE proposed the dam, I think if cultural preservation was not on everyone’s mind in the past, it is now. Just recently journalism students from Elon University in North Carolina have helped the Teribe (Térraba) Indigenous Cultural Association publish a website (Terraba.org) with information about the tribe’s culture, medicinal herbs, and even video commentary of how the dam project would affect the tribe.


Sustainable Development:

  1. What lessons from Costa Rica regarding environmentalism and sustainable development can be learned? Are there any aspects that can be applied within the United States?

Costa Rica has set a big goal to become carbon neutral by 2021. This country is composed of numerous protected rainforests, wetlands, and beaches. Costa Rica can boast about being one of the most biodiverse nations on earth. The United States does not boast about promoting “green,” “sustainable,” or “renewable” energy and technology. We could definitely learn some lessons from Costa Rica. However, this is such a detailed question that I am honestly not prepared to answer. The El Diquís Hydroelectric Project is encouraged by the Costa Rican government for its renewable energy potential. However, as I have learned there are also quite serious effects to communities when they have to be uprooted for development. Sustainability involves more than just the environment. Sustainability involves us all. This, perhaps, is the greatest lesson learned in Costa Rica which I can bring home with me and apply in everyday life.


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