Arenal: “A” is for Applied Anthropology

Our journey continued on to Arenal National Park, a park famous for its perfectly conical volcano that reminds me of the pointy mountains that I used to draw as a child. It’s located northwest of San Jose, and is one of Costa Rica’s most frequently visited tourism destinations. Activities around the area include natural hot springs, zip-lining, horseback tours, and hiking.
We started our mornings by visiting the small towns that we did our interviews in last summer. While La Fortuna is the tourism hub of the area, census data gathered from the University of Costa Rica’s Development Observatory showed that the “hotspots” of recent population growth were in these smaller, more distant towns, where the majority of residents worked in agriculture or commuted towards the park for work in tourism. These are the places that tourists never see. One of our more interesting sites in Arenal was a small town called Abanico. This quiet “pueblito” of about 200 residents changed dramatically in 2009, when the Costa Rican government made plans with Habitat for Humanity to relocate refugees from the Cinchona earthquake. People who were displaced from the Caldera highway construction were also included in the housing development. In total, 58 houses were built, and the population of the town tripled almost overnight. However, Habitat and government planners did not take into account crucial factors like access to work and transportation services. Limited and seasonal agricultural jobs in the area, combined with an inadequate bus system to take people elsewhere, left residents with little agency to make successful lives for themselves in Abanico. The government has been largely unresponsive to their concerns. As a result, at least half of the houses are deserted, and the people who remain are understandably frustrated and despondent at times over the situation.

Image View of Arenal Volcano from La Fortuna

So, what role could anthropology play here? In David’s international development class last semester, we spent a long time critiquing development projects and understanding why they fail. Abanico is an unfortunate example of what can happen when planners rely too much on a one-size-fits-all development model and then don’t stick around long enough to see the project through. While Habitat accomplished the obvious goal of building houses, they failed miserably at fostering a healthy, viable community. People always ask me what I could possibly do with a degree in anthropology, and this is exactly where we fit in! First of all, we know how to talk with people and build trust and relationships within a community. Our methodology is all about observation and attention to what is happening on the ground, while also considering the important social, political, and historical factors that influence how people live their lives. Anthropologists also know that:
1. Every project is different and requires its own unique considerations. Development plans must take a holistic look at a situation and figure out the most contextually appropriate method to achieve its goals.
2. The desires, needs, and concerns of the community must be prioritized, and their participation must be integral to every stage of the development process.
3. Successful projects require an investment of time, not just money.
The remaining residents of Abanico face challenging circumstances, but we met some wonderful families there while doing fieldwork last summer. It was great to be able to return and see them again on this trip.

Image 2013

Image 2014 (Side note: the little boy is missing from this year’s picture due to a frijole (bean) in the ear incident. Whoops!)

The rest of our time in Arenal seemed to fly by. David did a bang-up job presenting to La Fortuna’s asociacion de desarrollo and to Arenal’s park officials. We even managed to fit another waterfall hike in there.

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We hope that everyone is having a great, productive summer, and we’re looking forward to hearing about your adventures too!

Saludos,
Sallie Dehler
Graduate Student

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