Women and "Sustainable Development" in the Costa Rican Rainforest: Questioning the Politics of Corporate Environmentalism

By Isla, Ana | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Women and "Sustainable Development" in the Costa Rican Rainforest: Questioning the Politics of Corporate Environmentalism


Isla, Ana, Women & Environments International Magazine


ONE OF THE MAJOR SOURCES OF social tension today is the incompatibility of the demands of corporations and "national" governments for global economic growth and the needs of local communities for security and livelihood. Sustainable development (SD) is commonly believed to resolve these tensions by reconciling global economic interests with ecological interests.

One of the core mechanisms of SD is debt-for-nature investments (DFNI) in which debt instruments held by creditors are exchanged for the debtor's natural resources. DFNI were proposed by corporate environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) traditionally involved in identifying ecologically-sensitive areas and negotiating commitments for research and scientific data collection in Third World Countries. Today, DFNI also include the establishment of eco-tourism and micro-enterprises. Supporters of DFNI argue that this approach addresses both the environmental and debt (or poverty) crises. They claim that the environmental crisis is addressed through the establishment of Conservation Areas that protect vulnerable eco-systems while the poverty crisis is relieved through microenterprises. However, my research on the impact of a Canada/Costa Rica DFNI project on women in three Costa Rican communities reveals that this is very far from being the case.

In my doctoral work, I document the processes by which the Canada/Costa Rica debt-for-nature investment, used by The Arenal Project in the Arenal Conservation Area, is radically altering ownership claims and the regulation of forest access. The Arenal Project, carried out by the World Wildlife Fund-Canada (WWF-C) and the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), involved the development of a Land Plan for SD. In the plan, approximately half (116,690 hectares) of the land was declared as a protected area within the Arenal Conservation Area (250,561.5 ha.). Of these, about 35% (76,707 ha.) was reserved for biodiversity research purposes only. Although the Land Plan affected the resource use of 108 communities in the area, the local residents were neither informed of the process nor included in the decision-making that was to significantly change their lives and livelihood. These changes not only raise ethical and social justice questions but also cast doubt on the effectiveness for ensuring environmental protection.

In general, the Land Plan has resulted in the following changes:

Biodiversity has been redefined as "natural capital." Once ecologically, socially, and culturally embedded in local communities, "nature" has now become a resource for free appropriation by industries and corporations;

Wildlife has been appropriated as a mere resource for scientific research and for the exclusive use of researchers to maximize the exploitation of genes;

Land has been confiscated and separated from people's intimate knowledge. This separation of people from nature has created a sense of disorder, alienation, fragmentation, and uncertainty among the poorer members of the community;

Local economic livelihood has been undermined. Land enclosure has destroyed the rights of the communities to their own territory and resources, and thus, transformed community members into criminal intruders.

In my fieldwork I saw how the people in three of these communities -- the Arenal Basin of La Fortuna Area, Z-Trece and Abanico -- have been affected by this Plan.

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