Engagement in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

By Felipe Montoya-Greenheck, York University §

Sometimes engagement in the field grabs you when you are busy grading papers at your desk, and then it doesn’t let go, or rather, because of the urgency of the matter, one cannot let go. My recent post as director of the Las Nubes Project at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, put me in charge of a research, education, and community action program centered in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor in southern Costa Rica. In 1998 a tract of rainforest, the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, bordering the Chirripó National Park was donated to York. While emailing and Facebooking with community members, researchers in Costa Rica, and my own Master’s students to plan participatory research projects in the corridor, communications began to pile up confirming the dreaded news that ten new hydroelectric dams were being planned for the watersheds on the Pacific side of the Chirripó mountain, two of which were located on the river that runs through the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. Photo by author.

In 1998 the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, a tract of rainforest bordering the Chirripó National Park, was donated to York. In 2004, Las Nubes became part of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, a collective initiative involving, among others, local communities, NGOs, and universities, including York. Since then, the Las Nubes project has sponsored over 25 Master’s and PhD research projects in and around the corridor, has taken hundreds of students there on summer field courses, and has worked alongside community members to advance initiatives to improve local livelihoods and environmental conservation. Las Nubes Coffee grown in the region is sold in Canada and part of the proceeds are used to fund Las Nubes projects. With its more than 300 bird species, we are working on a bird guide to promote the corridor as a must-go destination for birders. We are also in the midst of planning the construction of a research, education and community engagement center near Las Nubes that will serve as a local, national and international hub for activities around Neotropical conservation and livelihood improvement.

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes. Photo by author.

A few months ago, while in the field presenting some results from an ongoing research project on mammal monitoring, where we showed pictures of pumas, ocelots, coyotes, anteaters, wild pigs, and other animals that were caught on film during their mostly nocturnal amblings through the corridor, there were some mumblings about hydroelectric plants being planned for the rivers of the corridor. With the exuberant response from the community regarding the mammals that few realized were living among them, these rumors of dams were drowned out.

Puma captured with camera traps.

Starting in late August, however, what began as a trickle has become a flood of emails reaching my desktop computer, documenting how private enterprise is rushing forward with plans to build 10 hydroelectric dams, affecting each and every one of the rivers that runs from the highest peak of Central America down to the Pacific Ocean. These plans are endangering the last remnant of Evergreen Seasonal Tropical Rainforest in the country, threatening the survival of a number of endangered species, including the neotropical river otter, and destroying the ecological connectivity local communities have worked so hard to recover and maintain.

Ironically, community engagement, instead of thrusting me into the field, has suddenly kept me at my desk at my university: doing bibliographic research into the possible impacts of hydroelectric dams on river ecology and surrounding ecosystems; encouraging graduate students to take up research projects that will explore appropriate energy generating technologies as alternatives to hydroelectric plants, sample and describe the aquatic species in these rivers, or document environmental services rendered to local economies by the ecologic connectivity of the corridor; seeking the advice of academic colleagues who are specialists in resource management, hydrology, and environmental law; and writing to municipal governments and state ministries, as well corresponding with local activists.

In other moments and circumstances, engagement took on a more ethnographic expression, based on participant observation, collecting life histories, carrying out surveys, holding workshops, organizing festivals, and even giving back to communities information from my research in the shape of fictional (but truth-based) puppet shows, comic book stories, and video animations.

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013). Photo by author.

So, engagement, more than a specific activity, I have found, is an attitude. It has to do with working together with people dialogically, like in a conversation, creating something greater than the sum of the individual parts. Circumstance will dictate the best means of engagement. Sometimes it requires walking and talking, or sharing seeds and making food. Other times it may require organizing workshops or celebrating festivals, collecting or telling stories. Often it involves holding hands and working shoulder to shoulder. But one thing it always demands is listening. Listening to local concerns helped me establish the requirements for the research, education, and community engagement center we are in the midst of constructing. Listening also moved us to create the bird guide to market the corridor as a birder’s destination, and listening is what now moves me to mobilize against the destruction of the rivers in the region of Las Nubes.

Community members of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor increasingly express their opposition to the privatization of the water, to the destruction of their rivers, to compromising their options for community-based tourism as a complementary source of income. They express their understanding that water is vital for life, and their perspectives that consider the rights of Nature as something worth defending and fighting for. They demand to be consulted regarding infrastructure projects in their communities, and they seek to have a say over their territories, their livelihoods, and their destinies. These expressions that come from small farming communities that have been marginalized socially, economically, politically, and now environmentally, are what currently engage me in the field of environmental anthropology. Their concerns and yearnings are those of common people from around the world.

Engagement in one small region of Costa Rica is less limited or restricted than it might seem at first glance. Successful struggles here may easily translate into victories elsewhere in the world. Strategies that allow these local communities to protect their fragile environment, and that permit them to maintain their autonomy, sustainability and equity, may provide road maps or guidance for similar struggles elsewhere. Engagement in these critical times is all the more rewarding because the stakes are so high. I cannot conceive of any alternative other than being engaged. So, I don’t fret that my boots are not on the ground, as long as sitting at my desk in front of my computer involves acts of engagement.

Felipe Montoya-Greenheck is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist, currently serving as Chair in Neotropical Conservation at the Faculty of Environmental Studies in York University, Toronto, Canada.