In Langscape Magazine Articles

Pura Vida: Costa Rican Peasants Fight for a World That Contains Many Worlds

November 09, 2020

Felipe Montoya-Greenheck

Peñas Blancas River

The Peñas Blancas River is the lifeblood of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor and of the peasant communities living there. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, 2020

Southern Costa Rica is one of the country’s most biodiverse regions, with ecosystems ranging from the highest tropical alpine peaks and glacial lakes in the Talamanca mountain range, to the lowland rainforests and Pacific mangroves, with an endless network of streams and rivers forming the Great Terraba River watershed. The region is home to five of the eight Indigenous Nations in the country, who have inhabited those lands for generations, going back at least three thousand years. Today, while regularly ranked among the country’s poorest areas, southern Costa Rica hosts resilient rural communities with strong links to the land and to their traditional ways of life.

Today, while regularly ranked among the country’s poorest areas, southern Costa Rica hosts resilient rural communities with strong links to the land and to their traditional ways of life.

In 2004, a community initiative led to the creation of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor (or COBAS from the initials of its Spanish name), which connects isolated patches of forest from the highlands all the way to the lowlands, along the course of the Peñas Blancas River. The goal of this conservation effort was to safeguard the local biodiversity by facilitating the movement and expanding the habitats of native species.

At the same time, the creation of the corridor also aimed to improve the well-being of the local human communities—seven of which, mostly made up of peasant families, inhabit the COBAS. Community members mainly grow coffee and sugarcane and raise cattle on pastures in the hilly terrain. The Peñas Blancas River is an integral part of these peasant communities’ daily life—the place where they obtain water for their crops and cattle and where they go with their families for entertainment.

river and local livelihoods

The river and local livelihoods are intertwined and interdependent. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, 2020

As small landholders, they barely derive enough income from farming to raise their families, so they often seek employment in construction, commerce, and services, mostly outside the COBAS. Many households also have family members who brave the vicissitudes of illegal immigration into the USA to find work, save money, and return with capital—or send remittances—to be invested in their home communities. Yet, despite the economic difficulties they face, most of the peasants living in the COBAS wouldn’t trade how and where they live for permanent life in the city. Above and beyond making an income, many find the source of their well-being in their relationships with other people, with nature, and with their spiritual world. In their own words, gathered by my student and collaborator, Mburucuyá Marcela Ortiz Imlach:

“A peasant is someone who is born, grows up, gets old, and dies in the countryside (campo). Ever since peasants have existed, God has been supporting them. God knows that peasants have to deal with many struggles. Peasants are the umbilical cord that connects the land to the people. You may produce tons of computers, but you can’t eat them. When a baby cries, you can’t feed him or her a computer; you have to give him or her a milk bottle. This is what governments and urban people can’t understand.”

Peasants are the umbilical cord that connects the land to the people.

“Nature, the rivers, the songs, the day and the night . . . everything looks beautiful here. I can’t find the beauty I have here . . . anywhere else. Just sit down and you’ll see many different animals. Everything is pure life (pura vida) here.”

“When looking at the mountains, you’ll see many different birds. If you look at my land, you’ll see that I chose to plant some trees specifically to attract birds to visit my place. Watching them makes me feel very happy. I have been seeing them since I was a child. Watching nature, trees, animals . . . this has been part of most of my life. What would we do without nature? Having a biological corridor helps people follow through with the idea of preserving the trees and the sources of life for all beings.”

Peñas Blancas River

The Peñas Blancas River infuses life into the biodiversity of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, 2020

thriving lifeworlds

The thriving lifeworlds of the other-than-human inhabitants of the Peñas Blancas River ecosystem. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, 2020

With so strong a sense of belonging, it may come as no surprise that the communities mobilized vigorously to protect their river when it was threatened with the construction of a hydroelectric plant. The mobilization took the form of letters, artwork, public protests, marches, meetings with politicians, and spiritual pilgrimages to honor the river. Community members countered the developers’ slick arguments about sustainable development and clean energy by expressing values linked to peasant lifeways and to the lifeworlds of other species dependent on the river.

The community marches for the river: “You can help! The river is counting on you for it to continue to support life.” Photo: Ríos Vivos, 2016

Indeed, their struggle was aided by the unexpected reappearance of an animal species that had been declared critically endangered and was considered extinct in the area: the harlequin toad (Atelopus varius), which had once made this river its home. This is a story about the interconnectedness of nature and culture and how people can come together to fight for a world that contains many worlds.

harlequin toad

The harlequin toad (Atelopus varius), an endangered species, reappeared in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, contributing to the communities’ arguments against damming the Peñas Blancas River. Photo: Andrés Jiménez Monge, 2017

What led to this fight? Nearly 100 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity is produced from renewable sources, mainly hydroelectric plants. This is a reason for pride in the country and elicits the admiration of the international community for this small nation’s achievements in sustainable development. The country’s mountainous topography and abundant precipitation make it an obvious choice to dam rivers upstream to harness the energy potential of water when it is released and, with the full force of gravity, goes through turbines to generate hydroelectric power. This has been the common policy for the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), which was created in 1949—the year after the revolution that gave rise to the democratic Republic of Costa Rica, its political constitution, the abolition of the military, and the creation of other state institutions entrusted with safeguarding the well-being of people.

Over time, however, global political and economic forces began pressuring the Costa Rican welfare state to scale down social services, reduce the size of government, and allow the logic of free markets to determine the viability of state institutions. In this context, the generation of hydroelectric power, which had been solely in the hands of the ICE, was opened up for limited competition in 1991 and then expanded in 2012 to allow private corporations to generate electricity. What at first had been conceived primarily as a vital service provided by the state for the development of the country became an opportunity for private companies to generate profits. No sooner had this legislation been decreed in 2012, than applications for damming rivers began to mushroom throughout the country. One of those rivers was the Peñas Blancas in the COBAS.

What at first had been conceived primarily as a vital service provided by the state for the development of the country became an opportunity for private companies to generate profits.

That same year, a corporate developer showed up in the communities to present his company’s plans for building a dam on the Peñas Blancas. He explained how this would bring jobs to the community, generate clean electricity, and contribute to the sustainable development of the country. Many of the locals were pleased to see this opportunity come to their communities. Some even offered to sell parts of their land to make room for dam construction. Others, however, were wary of the fine words and promises. They came together and formed the Ríos Vivos (Living Rivers) movement to look into the implications of this and nearly twenty other proposed hydroelectric dam projects in southern Costa Rica.

Elders of Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

Elders of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor communities proclaim their defense of the river at the Municipal Palace. Photo: Ríos Vivos, 2016

Soon, Ríos Vivos discovered that tucked away in the developers’ proposals were things that shed a very different light on the prospective dams. They promised jobs—but those were limited to a few months during the construction phase, after which only one or two jobs would be created for outside professionals. They promised to allow an “ecological flow” that wouldn’t affect the ecosystems and the social uses along the river—but their definition of “ecological flow” was to divert ninety percent of the water, turning the Peñas Blancas and all eighteen other rivers in the region into bare riverbeds of dry rocks. To generate corporate profits, the developers would tamper with and destroy the places where families used to spend weekends together swimming in waterholes along the river and gathering fond memories, and where an uncountable number of animal and plant species lived their lives.

enjoying clear waters

Local and visiting families enjoy the clear waters of the Peñas Blancas River, now freed from the threat of the hydroelectric dam. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Grenheck, 2020

It’s not easy to fight corporate interests, especially when their purposes are cloaked in narratives of sustainable development, clean energy, and contributing to the local economies. Who could possibly be against such offers? Yet, Ríos Vivos took them on, informing the communities of what was left unsaid in the Peñas Blancas developer’s presentations and documents. Ríos Vivos also brought community members together in a collective effort to remember and express the importance of other values that are often taken for granted—values that could well be jeopardized with the construction of a dam and the drying up of the river. In the words of some residents, recorded by another student and collaborator of mine, Carmen Alejandra Umaña-Kinitzki, during these activities:

“Water is life.”

“Creeks and springs are the blood of the river.”

“Rivers are the veins of the world.”

“Water has no price; it is the lifeblood of our veins.”

“Without water, we are nothing.”

“All water is indispensable for terrestrial and aquatic life and the survival of species—you can find unique species here—water signifies life.”

“The river has to be preserved, for flora and fauna. The flora needs good water to live, and fauna, too. By maintaining the river, you maintain the flora and fauna—and they are important.”

“Water has no price; it is the lifeblood of our veins.”

The value of preserving the river for the benefit of plants and animals was pitted against the value of diverting almost the totality of the river’s water to generate electricity as a “sustainable” commodity for sale, for corporate profit and national development. In the language of the state-supported paradigm of sustainable development, which centers on guaranteeing the satisfaction of today’s needs without compromising those of future generations, value is placed primarily on the needs of humans. The local people defending the river, instead, spoke to the needs of those other than human. In the battle of narratives, the “sustainable development” twist meant that the deck was stacked in favor of the developers.

The developers were also allowed to produce the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on their own, without any third-party oversight. In accordance with the Costa Rican Biodiversity Law, special care must be taken to protect endangered species. The EIA for the Peñas Blancas River, however, claimed that no disruption would ensue for whatever wildlife was found along the river—which, they asserted, amounted to common species in need of no special protection. But it’s one thing for the company’s biologist to compile a report after surveying the Peñas Blancas for a few hours to fulfill one of the EIA requirements. It’s entirely another to draw from the local knowledge accumulated over generations of lives lived by the river, interacting with it and with the other living beings there.

The value of preserving the river for the benefit of plants and animals was pitted against the value of diverting almost the totality of the river’s water to generate electricity as a “sustainable” commodity for sale, for corporate profit and national development.

Discussion of endangered species arose among community members. Several people mentioned having recently sighted the neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis) swimming in the Peñas Blancas. But no one had a photograph of it. Stephanie Butera, a graduate student and collaborator of mine and a friend of the COBAS communities, took it upon herself to track the endangered neotropical river otter for several weeks. She could only find circumstantial evidence to support the accounts of sightings, however, and during that time she was unable to procure a photograph. The otter remained elusive.

Then it happened. Not the appearance of the neotropical river otter, but that of another animal. During those conversations about rare species along the river, a local peasant mentioned that a few days earlier he had spotted an animal he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. He pulled out his cell phone and showed us a blurry picture of a multicolored toad. It was a harlequin toad. With the support of community members, my student and collaborator Andrés Jiménez Monge carried out a systematic study of this spectacular inhabitant of the Peñas Blancas River, one of the two spots in the country where that toad species had been rediscovered. He recorded its presence with numerous photographs.

 harlequin toad

After becoming an ally of the Ríos Vivos movement, the harlequin toad, still an endangered species, continues to inhabit the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. Photo: Don Downer, 2019

After community pilgrimages to the river’s headwaters, after demonstrations before the municipal government offices, after marches to the National Legislative Assembly, after meetings with the Minister of the Environment, after continuous challenges to the developer’s EIA, after repeated weekend gatherings at the river’s waterholes to reaffirm the communities’ love of swimming and splashing together in its waters, and after the discovery of a population of harlequin toads, standing for all the non-human lifeworlds connected to the river, the Peñas Blancas Hydroelectric Project was eventually tabled.

Peñas Blancas River

The Peñas Blancas River, whose life-giving qualities the local communities were able to protect, preventing it from being reduced to a dry bed of rocks. Photo: Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, 2020

Clear waters continue to flow down from the Talamanca mountain range, nurturing the livelihoods and lifeways of the peasant communities in the COBAS and sustaining the web of life whose threads are interwoven with the river. As one community member summed it up:

“Everyone talks about the importance of water, that we couldn’t live without water. That’s true, but we wouldn’t have water if it weren’t for the trees.”

“Everyone talks about the importance of water, that we couldn’t live without water. That’s true, but we wouldn’t have water if it weren’t for the trees.”

And we might not have the river if it weren’t for the harlequin toad.

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Montoya Greenheck.

Felipe Montoya-Greenheck is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist who has worked with Indigenous and peasant communities in Costa Rica for thirty years. He is a professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. In his free time, he tends his tropical fruit orchard in southern Costa Rica.