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The Dark Side of Environmental Conservation The Dark Side of Environmental Conservation

The Dark Side of Environmental Conservation

by Katie Beck
November 18, 2013

Unlike most law school students nearing the end of what can be a less than enjoyable experience, I spent my final semester living and working in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica. This experience was life-changing, and led to the establishment of The Rich Coast Project, a community storytelling and collective history project aimed at supporting and protecting the cultural heritage of coastal Afro-Caribbean populations and other communities living along Costa Rica’s Talamanca coast.

In an effort to learn more about the challenges facing communities in coastal Talamanca, I began interviewing people about their history, the precarious state of land tenure, and the threat this poses to their cultural survival. I quickly realized there was a story to be told – one that asks how environmental conservation measures can and should be balanced against the needs and rights of local communities. Better yet, how could these measures include the communities and incorporate the knowledge and best practices they have gained over centuries of stewardship to these lands?

Alric Allen, a Puerto Viejo resident, works as an environmental tour guide to share his wisdom of the ecological and biological diversity of his homeland.

Coastal Talamanca is a place that, until relatively recently, lived in virtual isolation, nestled between the lush forests of the Talamanca Mountains to the West and the Caribbean Sea to the East. English speaking Afro-Caribbean fishermen began settling this coastline beginning in the early 1800’s, and built their communities where they lived and worked: right next to the water. 

Over the past several years, local landowners in coastal Talamanca have been stripped of their property rights and economic development has been paralyzed. Homes and businesses have been threatened with demolition orders and residents have faced criminal charges for pursuing better lives for their families.

Luba Cook Campbell stands in front of her home in Manzanillo. She is one of several residents facing the threat of demolition for allegedly violating the coastal zoning law. The majority of Manzanillo, founded over 200 years ago, is located within this coastal strip.

Costa Rica has developed an admirable policy imperative to protect and conserve its vast natural resources, and has established itself as an international leader on environmental issues. As this reputation has grown, so have the instability of land tenure and economic insecurity of the people living within the country’s vast protected areas.

Lifelong Punta Uva resident, George Hansell, discusses the pros and cons of development

What we're doing to help local landowners:

The Rich Coast Project wants to make sure that these communities have a chance to tell their own story. Our goal is to work within these communities to combine storytelling, visual advocacy, interdisciplinary research to update their recorded history, expose their present situation, and explore their hopes for the future of their children and neighbors.

We’re teaming with local residents, socially-engaged artists, and scholars from a range of disciplines to explore better approaches to the competing aims of environmental conservation and sustainable development through the example of this community’s experience.

We’ll be taking our lead from the locals, letting the community drive the development of the project and considering how this approach – combining local storytelling with legal research – can be leveraged to support other communities in different parts of the world.

Lessons we've learned from our conversations, that you can put into practice:

Support local and regional NGOs. See if the big name NGOs you're thinking about supporting have good relationships with local and regional NGOs.

Pay the extra penny and try to be a socially-responsible consumer. Certification schemes like Rainforest Alliance may not be perfect institutions but they are better for local communities than Hersheys or Mondelez are.

Be a responsible tourist. Try to support the local economy when you choose where to stay and what to do. Both of these things can work to crowdsource relationships with communities, empowering them economically and socially.

Support conservation efforts in your own community. Buy local whenever possible, compost and recycle, be mindful of your energy and water consumption. Even small behavioral changes can start a virtuous cycle within your own community.

If you'd like to support our project, you can contact us, join our volunteer network, or donate to our Indiegogo campaign until November 24 (or to our Fiscal Sponsor after this date). If you’re an interested organization, grantmaker, media outlet, creative professional, academic, or anyone with good ideas, we want to partner with you! Click here to add your support to your To-Do list.

This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good-- our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

The Rich Coast Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Rich Coast Project must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

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