Volunteering in Costa Rica Provides Lessons For Environmentalism at Home
By Betsy Melenbrink
In the midst of a metropolis like New York City or the suburban sprawl of northern New Jersey, it may be difficult to imagine that pristine wilderness exists anywhere. But step under the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest and you step into a land untouched by the ravages of time. When Spanish conquistadors disembarked on the coast of this land, which they optimistically named “rich”, they found little by way of mineral wealth. This, in addition to the sparse native population (traditionally used by the Spaniards for forced labor) and the dense tropical rainforest, discouraged the conquistadors from making inroads. Consequently, the tiny region attracted few settlers and little interest from the Spanish crown. Costa Rica slipped quietly into a peaceful democracy, marred only by two brief periods of violence in the last century, the second of which ended with the abolishment of the Costa Rican military in 1948. Now Costa Rica regularly comes out at the top of the Happy Planet Index (a rating of the world’s “happiest people”) and typically ranks in the top five “greenest countries” in the world.
Costa Rica is stable, peaceful, and has a good portion of its natural resources intact. It is blessed with beautiful beaches, thunderous rivers, lush tropical rainforests, active and inactive volcanoes alike, diverse flora and fauna, and climate zones that vary with altitude. The picturesque landscape of the country has led to a booming tourism industry, the top contributor to GDP. Most popular are adventure tourism and eco-tourism, which include such activities as whitewater rafting, zip-lining through the rainforest canopy, hiking to the tops of volcanoes, guided tours through the rainforest understory, and at the end of the day relaxing in a local bar with an Imperial (Costa Rica’s national beer) in hand.
Costa Rica decided relatively early on to invest in its natural splendor by creating preserves and national parks. It has developed an extensive education and awareness program, much like existing programs here in the United States. The Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) are taught to participate in the “4Rs”: recycle, reuse, reduce, and reject. There are recycling campaigns, reforestation movements, and protests against actions that are potentially damaging to the environment, such as open pit mining. Nearly all of the energy used comes from renewable sources and the country aims to be carbon neutral by 2021. However, nearly all of the recycling initiatives, waste management, and environmental education are centered about urban areas. Far removed from this emphasis on environmental protection are the people who live in small rural villages.
I was able to see the limitations of government-sponsored environmental education when I spent several months working in a rural Costa Rican mountain village. Families in this village have limited transportation and waste management options but ample access to rivers. As a result, most of the waste in these areas is either burned (an illegal practice) or placed in the river and then washed downstream where others are forced to cope with polluted water. Since no one lives upstream of them, the families in the village where I stayed were not able to witness the consequences of throwing trash into the rivers and streams. The trash and recycling collection programs in place in more urban areas of Costa Rica do not exist in villages miles away from the nearest paved road. Rivers are simply the most expeditious way of removing waste.
Water bodies are also polluted as a result of erosion from deforestation and the burning of sugarcane fields during the harvest season. Much of the agricultural runoff is also loaded with pesticides and herbicides, further polluting streams. This chemical form of contamination can often go unnoticed and can present a health hazard for those who rely on the streams for potable water, bathing, and washing.
While it is easy to think that these sorts of problems are restricted to “third world”, or developing, countries like Costa Rica, many of them are mirrored in our own country. There are places where environmental education is not far-reaching, where waste disposal services are not convenient or available, where environmental protection is not a knee-jerk reaction. It is important to note that both in Costa Rica and in the United States, those who pollute the environment are not evil people. Chances are, none of them are out to get Mother Nature. If we truly want to globalize environmental protection, we have to make environmental education universal, give easy access to proper disposal facilities, and provide incentives for behavioral change. And we can start right here at home by setting a good example.
Betsy Melenbrink is an ORISE fellow with the Hazardous Waste Support Section within the Division of Environmental Science and Assessment in Edison. She took a gap year before beginning her undergraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and spent that time hiking the Appalachian Trail and volunteering in Costa Rica.
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