Global Prize Awarded to Sustainable Development Initiative in Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica

The Talamanca region of Costa Rica is rich in flora and fauna — it holds at least three percent of the world’s biodiversity — but its human communities are among the poorest in the country. Linking the first statistic with the second is a socioeconomic-development and biodiversity-conservation project called the Talamanca Initiative, which involves groups of farmers and their families in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica and their neighbors in northwestern Panama.

Illustration by Allan Núñez ('Nano')The project’s promise and progress were recently recognized at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, where it was awarded the Equator Prize 2002. Spearheaded by such groups as the United Nations Development Programme, The Nature Conservancy and the Government of Canada, the The Equator Prize aims to encourage development and conservation initiatives in the tropics. According to Benson Venegas, executive director of ANAI, one of the organizations managing the Talamanca Initiative, the prize “tries to show the world that there is hope and that not all is skepticism”.

Further, the Talamanca Initiative was publicly lauded as a model project during the October ceremony marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, held at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The global recognition comes after 20 years of effort by scores of grassroots groups. The Talamanca Initiative involves more than 20 local associations and communities, with more than 1,500 families involved, and aims to encourage livelihoods favoring conservation and the rational use of natural resources. Participants include members of all the social and ethnic groups of the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica, including afrocarribean, indigenous, and mestizo peoples.

In addition to ANAI, other groups managing the initiative are the Small Producers Association of Talamanca (APPTA for its name in Spanish) and the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor, a consortium of groups working to consolidate forested land from the Talamanca Mountains to the Caribbean coast. According to Venegas, one of the project’s main achievements has been “the generation of income for farmers in a sustainable way.”

In fact, members of APPTA now export the greatest volume of organic cacao and banana in Central America to markets in the U.S. and Europe, have their own local processing plant, and have developed sophisticated quality control and marketing strategies. Venegas emphasizes that the quality of life in Talamanca has improved as a result of the initiative’s training in tourism development and crop diversification. Residents also receive payment from the government for the environmental services that the forests they protect provide, such as water conservation and biodiversity protection.

The prize-winning project has its roots in hard times. In the 1970s, when cacao was the only source of income for local residents, a fast-spreading fungal disease forced many farmers to sell their land or cut the diseased cacao trees for lumber. The Talamanca Initiative began in the 1980s to help farmers grow organic crops. Community nurseries were developed to produce seeds and to serve as centers for training and community organizations. Local farms were diversified, allowing farmers to hold on to their lands and preserve their traditions.

José Luis Zúñiga, farmer and president of the Migueleña Conservation and Development Association (ASACODE for its name in Spanish) and of the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor, recalls the struggle to find new ways to survive. “We cannot be conservationists when we are not doing well, because the resources provide our food and that exerts pressure on the resources,” he says, adding, “But a farmer who does not change is left behind.”

Ten years ago, ASACODE members began to cultivate and sell more than just cacao and then ventured into new markets such as tourism. Now they have an accurate accounting of their crop production that helps them research and take advantage of market fluctuations and avoid deception by intermediaries. The association built a small lodge that generates income from visitors, with whom they can share their traditions, knowledge of nature, and farm products.

ASACODE members want to share methods and results, Zúñiga notes. “If an organization takes a step forward, members must share the information with others,” he says. “After all, farmers speak the same language. This includes the women of the community, because half is done by men and half by women, and we join together and share 100 percent of the profits.”

In spite of progress in the Talamancas, Venegas points to one statistic as an obstacle for the local population — 95 percent do not have access to higher education. “The people who make decisions about their future have low self-esteem, which means that a special educational model must be developed for the region, one that will allow people to progress,” he explains.

To provide advanced education, project directors built a training center in Bribri indigenous territory in the Talamancas, where 2,000 people receive classes each year in agriculture, health, conservation, and leadership. These and other training activities are supported by the governments of the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Norway, and Sweden, by the US Agency for International Development, through its Regional Environmental Program for Central America, and by the Global Environment Facility.

Thanks to the initiative’s sea turtle conservation programs, six times as much is now earned from tourists who watch female sea turtles lay eggs along the Caribbean beach at night than what could be generated by sale of every one of the turtle eggs buried in the sand. For years, people have swiped sea turtle eggs from nests and sold them throughout Costa Rica, a tradition that has had a serious impact on the endangered reptiles.

To further promote tourism, the initiative helped establish a community tourism network. Sixteen associations and businesses participate in the network, which has generated 250 jobs and $450 million in the past year-and-a-half.

Venegas points out that sustainable development in the Talamancas is important for the continued protection of La Amistad International Park, which straddles Costa Rica and Panama and was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The Talamanca Mountains are famous among ornithologists due to an amazing natural phenomenon – a massive migration of raptors. Dozens of species of hawks, vultures, eagles and other birds of prey fly from North America south through the narrowing Central America isthmus and pass over the mountains.

Nearly three million birds were tallied during 2001’s autumn migration. The remarkable raptor migrations are drawing even more visitors to the region, further supporting sustainable development.

— Diane Jukofsky and Katiana Murillo

Contacts in Costa Rica:

Benson Venegas
Asociación ANAI
Apdo. 170
Sabanilla, 2070, Costa Rica
tel 506/224-3570

José Luis Zúñiga
Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe
Apdo. 13
San José, 1002, Costa Rica
tel 506/272-2400 o 751-0020

Juanita Baltodano Vílchez
Bribri Talamanca
tel 506/751-0118

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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