Building Bridges by Bringing it Back: A Final Note on Our 2014 Field Season in Costa Rica

Greetings from Northern Minnesota where I will be spending the rest of the summer months getting some much needed rest and relaxation (as well as catching up on writing that I need to get done!).

In this post, I am going to offer some thoughts and reflections regarding our trip to Costa Rica that began on May 23rd and finished on June 8th. Our (myself and my MA students Jessy Arends and Sallie Dehler) mission during this two-week trip together was to present preliminary results from our prior research trips back to the communities, organizations, and individuals that contributed to our data collection or would have interest in the findings we are developing.

Before I discuss this trip and what we were up to, it’s important to briefly review the theoretical and applied anthropological goals of this National Science Foundation-funded project. In a nutshell, the project is aimed at understanding the movements and motivations of Costa Rican migrants to the 10 kilometer buffer zones of three Costa Rican national parks: Arenal, Carara, and Barra Honda. In the past two summer field seasons we used cognitive anthropological methods, also referred to as cultural consensus modeling, to elicit and test whether there is shared cultural knowledge (a model) among migrants to these zones. As well, we employed more traditional interview and survey methodologies to gather data regarding migrants’ backgrounds and opinions about the environmental and economic conditions in their prior and current communities. The project was developed as a response to several publications that used global-level data to demonstrate that populations in park buffer zones are growing at higher levels than in comparable rural areas, likely due to internal migration. Thus, the project is relevant to the continued anthropological conversation regarding the social, cultural, environmental and landscape impacts of creating parks and protected areas. As well, our work can be applied to the theoretical and practical discussions regarding the ways to manage protected areas in ways that both protect biodiversity and improve the relationship between parks and local human populations via conservation-based development (i.e. ecotourism).

With this in mind we had three main groups with whom we wanted to share our findings: the national park administrators, local government offices, and conservation organizations. Another main goal of our trip was to return and share our data with individuals that expressed particular interest in our project during our prior research trips. I was proud of our efforts to contact these folks in our very short time in each community. In all I gave six formal presentations: one at each of the national parks, two Asociaciónes de Desarrollo (Development Associations, the most local level of Costa Rican governance), and a formal presentation at the University of Costa Rica in the city of San José. Forty-two people showed up to our presentation at the University and they peppered me with over 30 minutes of questions at the end!! My favorite was, “Based on what you’ve learned in this project, what would you do to improve things between communities and parks if you were the director of the Ministry of the Environment?” That, was not an easy question to answer!! We also delivered printed formal reports to two municipalities and five other development associations. Finally, we visited with a number of individuals to both deliver the formal report and maintain our friendships (see our prior post by Sallie Dehler regarding the community of Abanico in the buffer zone of Arenal National Park for a good example of such an interaction).

Image  David Presenting at the University of Costa Rica

While we were very successful at contacting folks and sharing our data, we could always do better, and this is one of the main lessons from this year’s field season. While it is not surprising to anyone that has worked in rural places in Latin America (and elsewhere), contacting and planning presentations from the U.S. was difficult to accomplish, so we had to leave much of our planning to the last minute when we were actually in the communities. Of course, with such short notice, many people and organizations were occupied, which then limited our ability to provide formal presentations and deliver reports. So, while we were certainly able to present to people, more lead time and better communication on our part would have provided more chances. In particular, the municipalities where we dropped off our preliminary reports would have loved a presentation, but needed formal notification to fit us into their weekly meetings. The lesson learned is to do more of the lead work (finding contacts within the organizations) to establish better connections for planning purposes. As applied anthropologists, we are obliged to share our data back to the people whom we study, and we learned a number of lessons about how to do this in a more effective manner in the future.

While we could have done more, we were very happy with the receptions we had at all the formal presentations and with the other organizations we contacted. The park administrators all thanked us for providing an essential service for them, and they were all very interested in continuing to find ways to not only understand the communities around them (something they have very little time and money to do), but to also engage them in ways that are mutually productive. They were also quite excited about the GIS-based website that our partners as the University of Costa Rica’s Observatorio de Desarrollo (Development Observatory) put together (to check it out go here: The municipalities and development associations were also very attentive and interested in our results. They showed keen interest in the ways our data can help them to manage their communities’ growth in the future. Finally, it was incredible to appear “out of the vapors” for many of our informants to show them what our collective data had to say. It was not only fun to discuss our work, it was so nice to visit with people that taught us so much. A personal highlight for me was a visit with Don Mariano and Doña Norma in the buffer of Barra Honda. We caught up on recent events in our lives and, as always, they showed us around their property and shared the bounty of their lovely rural plot.

Image David and Don Mariano, Barra Honda National Park Buffer Zone

Lastly, I wanted to share an observation that will likely be no surprise to those that have worked in rural development, but one that was reinforced during our time in the field this past few weeks. One thing that was surprising during our presentation at Barra Honda was–despite the fact that Barra Honda has the smallest number, most distant, and poorest communities in its buffer zone–there were more community members present at their presentation than at either of the other, more developed, parks. This, as became obvious during a later conversation with one of the assistant park directors that we gave a ride back to town, is due to her efforts in involving the communities in the park. Her hard work to develop a positive relationship with the communities meant that she not only contacted them to let them know we were coming, but that they also showed up. She even said that if transportation were better organized, even more community members would have shown!! So, again, the relationship between parks and communities is something that is fostered, developed, and grown, and it is often the work of committed individuals that makes it happen.

Image David presenting at Barra Honda National Park

So, in the end, we had a very productive, fun, and educational trip. It was a VERY different sort of fieldwork than any of us had conducted before, but it was one that left all of us feeling proud and excited about continuing to develop our relationships between Costa Rican parks and their surrounding communities. It was very fulfilling to be able to have a “broche de oro” (golden pin) for our project. I think that Sallie and Jessy were able to learn a lot about bringing information back to communities and organizations. As well, it was a nice way for our research team to reflect on the collective adventure we’ve been on for the last two years, and we even got to fit in a bit of exercise and fun in the parks!

Image Jessy and Sallie at the Overlook/ Mirador at Barra Honda National Park

Image David, Sallie and Jessy at the Barra Honda Mirador

We hope everyone else in the AMEC family is having a productive summer and that Costa Rica continues its success in the World Cup (it is only their second time to the round of 16)!!!! ¡Apoyamos la Sele, vamos Costa Rica!

See everyone back at the Cobb at the end of July!

David Hoffman
Assistant Professor



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.



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

Sallie Dehler
Graduate Student


Better Together in Costa Rica

¡Hola desde Costa Rica! Hello from Costa Rica! We (Dr. David Hoffman and MA students Sallie Dehler, and Jessy Arends) are keeping busy with presentations and sweating out the toxins built up from stress of the semester in humid Costa Rica. The team is here presenting the preliminary analyses we performed on data that we collected last summer. The data we are presenting is part of David’s NSF grant that investigates human migration to the borders and three national parks in Costa Rica. This blog entry will detail what the team was up to in their first park destination, Carara National Park.

Carara National Park is located along the central pacific coast near tourism centers known for coastal recreational activities (such as surfing and scuba diving). The park itself is most frequently visited by birders looking for the scarlet macaw (interesting fact: the scarlet macaw mates for life and eats almonds) that is abundant in the area. This project worked within communities in the 10 kilometer buffer zone of Carara National Park that had demonstrated a statistically significant increase in population due to in-migration of Costa Ricans from other parts of the country. The communities around Carara National Park included parts of Orotina and Quebrado Ganado. Orotina is known as an agricultural and commercial hub while Quebrado Ganado is a destination for migrants who want to access coastal development and the tourism employment opportunities.

We began our work at this park by contacting informants who had participated in the interviews that were conducted last summer. While we couldn’t reach all of them (there were 41 across the buffer zone) the ones we did come into contact with were happy to see our preliminary results on paper and we were happy to see them again! It is very rewarding to visit old friends and contacts. Another big part of this trip is presenting our preliminary results in a more formal setting back to the development associations of the communities and to the park officials. We were able to drop off a copy of our preliminary data report to the mayor of Orotina and briefly chatted with the vice-mayor about potential collaboration and presentations in the future. David did a great job presenting to the development association of Quebrado Ganado and to the park officials at Carara National Park! Jessy and Sallie’s courtesy laughs played an integral part by lightening the mood! The presentation at the park was briefly interrupted by a surprise guest appearance; a park official had wrangled a gigantic boa constrictor from the nearby town we were staying in and had brought it by the presentation in a doggie carrier. We were shocked and terrified but thrilled to see such a magnificent creature of the wild. The presentations were a hit; the communities and the park were pleased with the results and eager to utilize them in improving upon policies and projects relating to community development and relations.

David presenting for Carara National Park Officials

David presenting for Carara National Park Officials

The boa constrictor

The boa constrictor

While the team has certainly been working hard this trip, the pressure of collecting massive amounts of data is off, and they’ve been able to balance work with some fun! We went to an amazing, expansive beach one afternoon and today completed a grueling and steep waterfall hike. We are enjoying our last fieldwork trip together and have come to the conclusion that everything is better, together. We hope you are having an awesome summer and we will check back in when we are finished with our work at our next park destination, Arenal National Park.

Sallie and David in front of Carara National Park Office

Sallie and David in front of Carara National Park Office

As they say here, pura vida mae!

Jessy Arends

Graduate Student