By Tim Høiland
Flourish magazine, Winter 2011
The small, quiet town of San Rafael sits amidst passing clouds on the slopes of Volcán Barva in the heart of Costa Rica. The confluence of two strong air currents—one rising from the warm, humid lowlands to the north and the other descending from the cool, dry central valley to the south—has produced dazzling ecological biodiversity in San Rafael’s environs. This is Costa Rica at its best: a rich ecosystem—well protected to ensure the survival of rare species—that in turn supports the country’s growing ecotourism industry and stimulates the local job market.
Just over the horizon, however—three kilometers as the quetzal flies—the scene is quite different. The town is called Cinchona. That was its name, anyway, until one Thursday afternoon in early 2009, when an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale struck central Costa Rica. Cinchona, perched on a thin mountain ridge, was essentially split in half. The buildings and houses that remain are rubble. The rest have vanished, scattered and buried in the ravine below. Officially, the death toll stands at 34, though some suspect the number is higher.
The survivors, some 1,200 of them, have relocated elsewhere, and well over a year later adequate recovery and reconstruction efforts remain frustratingly elusive. In some cases, the situation has only worsened.
Development or destruction?
Route 126, which passed through Cinchona and the epicenter of the earthquake, had been a key highway connecting one side of the country to the other. The earthquake destroyed several bridges and damaged about 12 miles along this route, while landslides swept away a stretch of a mile or two completely.
All things considered, the infrastructure damage was fairly concentrated. Despite an ongoing reconstruction project, however, the damaged roads remain treacherous, and only four-wheel drive vehicles can make it all the way through. As of yet there is little to show for the millions of dollars in government contracts already allocated to this road reconstruction project that sputters on without an end in sight. Rather than properly reconstructing the small stretch of destroyed road and repairing the damaged portion, government officials are now proposing a completely new route, more than ten miles long.
The highway cuts through steep, mountainous terrain in an active seismic zone that receives plenty of rainfall. So geologists, engineers, and other experts have expressed serious concern about the striking lack of precautions being taken against future disasters in the road’s rebuilding—precautions considered essential for the safety of travelers and for avoiding severe environmental damage, especially to rivers like this area’s Sarapiquí.
Local residents worry that the experts’ warnings aren’t being heeded, knowing full well that they—community members, not government contractors—are the ones who will live with what is built.
While some community residents in San Rafael are supportive of the proposed new route—hopeful of new economic opportunities—many fear their entire way of life will be threatened. They also struggle to understand why a new route is necessary: While large portions of the existing road were damaged, much of it appears salvageable.
It comes as a surprise that environmental destruction of this sort would be permitted in Costa Rica, a country dubbed the “greenest” on earth. While global deforestation marches on (claiming, ironically, an area roughly the size of Costa Rica every year), Costa Rica itself has, for now, successfully reversed the trend. Twenty years ago only about 20 percent of the country was forested. Today that number is estimated to be at least twice as high.
On the whole, Costa Rica—despite its tiny geographical size—has asserted global leadership in environmental protection and stewardship. That’s what makes the situation in San Rafael and its surrounding communities so worrisome.
Homegrown stewardship solutions
“The earthquake caused a lot of damage in the area,” says Fabian Jimenes, somberly recalling the death of a close friend in a landslide triggered by the quake. “Even so, I think that the damage people have caused since then is even worse.”
Jimenes is not a community leader or spokesman as most would understand such terms. But in a very real way, the fate of the community rests on his shoulders.
Every morning at 7:30 Jimenes walks down a steep trail of red volcanic gravel into the jungle, carrying only a small backpack. He crosses a bridge over the Sarapiquí, which in San Rafael is small and shallow before becoming a mighty river further downstream. On the other side of the bridge, just past a dairy barn, he comes to a clearing in the forest and enters a white and blue building where he sits down and opens a notebook. He then spends the rest of his day with his classmates, learning math and science and grammar and civics and English.
Fabian Jimenes is 16.
He is in the seventh grade, one of ten students in the area’s first secondary school, which opened earlier this year as an initiative of the Association for Development through Education (ADE), a nonprofit organization focused on local capacity building through education and ecology. For now the organization is focusing on San Rafael, a community rattled first by the earthquake and now, more subtly, by environmental uncertainty.
“ADE is very excited about the possibilities for environmental education, discipleship, and sustainable development here,” says Tomás Dozier, who grew up in San Rafael and returned to help start the organization last year after seeing how the earthquake had affected his friends in the area. “What was once a community with well-established rhythms and routines is now a community unsure about its future.”
In collaboration with universities and other ecological and development organizations, ADE hopes to bring vocational training to community members and to facilitate a better understanding of pertinent environmental issues, in an effort to equip Fabian Jimenes’s generation and those that will follow it with sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.
Education in real time
A recent census of San Rafael found that 98 percent of residents have no more than a sixth grade education, so ADE’s educational efforts have begun at the high school level, with students like Fabian. Plans are underway to add adult education classes in the evenings and to accommodate the growing demand for education among non-traditional students.
This is not education-as-usual. Recently, along with professors from the University of Costa Rica’s world-renowned biology department, ADE students set out to investigate the road reconstruction project for themselves. Armed only with flip video cameras and inquisitive minds, they assumed the role of community stakeholders for whom the well-being and future of the community are of utmost importance.
Seeing a stretch of cliff-hanger highway held precariously in place by stacked bags of dirt, students considered whether they would feel comfortable living in a house below, given the heavy rainfall and frequent earthquakes they know all too well. Seeing dump trucks pushing piles of dirt into rivers, they began to ask what this might mean for those living downstream.
Fabian and his peers recognize that the future of the community is in their hands and that an education is vital if they are to help the community move forward while still preserving its land and way of life.
Care for creation, care for community
For Dozier and his teammates at ADE, all of whom are Christians, concern for neighbor goes hand in hand with care for creation.
“Creation models in the most intimate way the complexity and sensitivity we have with our environment around us,” Dozier said. “Proactive care leads to mutually beneficial gains for us and for the environment. Haphazard actions and blatant disregard for the environmental life around me cause damage that might provide instant gratification for me, but leaves the community with long-term consequences and dismal returns.”
Similarly, he says, our relationships with our neighbors can be either positive or negative. “If we sow seeds of mercy and grace and forgiveness, as modeled by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we’ll have a beautiful ‘garden’ around us as a community in our time of need,” he says. “If we disregard the spiritual needs of our neighbors, however, we all suffer the negative consequences from these short-sighted actions.”
Creation care, like community development, requires long distance vision. It requires the participation of everyone—students and parents, biology professors and dairy farmers, those with master’s degrees and those with a third-grade education.
“When I finish high school I may go to the university,” Jimenes says on his daily walk to school on the trail of red volcanic gravel, winding down to the bridge in the jungle. “I want to learn languages—English, German, French. But this is my home. My family is here. My future is here.”
Meanwhile, just upstream, bulldozers push piles of dirt into the Sarapiquí.
Tim Høiland is an independent writer exploring the intersection of faith, justice and peace in the Americas. While in Costa Rica he lived in a formerly abandoned house in the jungle among vampire bats, cows and quetzals. Read more at www.tjhoiland.com.
Photo of the region of Costa Rica affected by the 2009 earthquake courtesy Tim Høiland