Penn State research guides innovative sustainability initiatives in Costa Rica

While Costa Rica is a popular vacation spot known for its beaches and biodiversity, many residents of the small Central American nation struggle to achieve economic growth.

Carter Hunt, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Penn State, working with researchers at Stanford University, studies the factors associated with delayed development in certain regions of Costa Rica in order to identify solutions for local residents who face poverty, wealth disparity and environmental degradation. Results of their recent work were published in the fall 2015 issue of “Human Organization” by the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Hunt has worked extensively in the Osa and Golfito region, which National Geographic refers to as one of the most “biologically intense places on the planet.”  The biodiversity makes the region popular for ecotourism, defined by The International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

However, the region is also where a primary driver of deforestation -- African palm oil production -- is growing, Hunt said. Furthermore, the government is contemplating major infrastructure for the region, including a new international airport and Central America’s largest hydro-electric dam, he said.

Such developments could jeopardize the environment and the ecotourism industry that depends on it, Hunt said, so there is growing interest in alternative forms of development that preserve the environment and protect local people while still benefiting the economy.

Hunt and colleagues’ recent study revealed that a lack of social capital – the benefits that derive from social relations – may explain ongoing development challenges in Osa and Golfito and indicate where development-related investments are most likely to be successful.

“Our finding determined that collective action in the region was primarily confined to civic activities within communities, while interaction between communities in the region or with powerful actors at national and international scales was largely absent,” Hunt said.

This can create a bottleneck to more meaningful forms of development, Hunt said. The research suggests that future investments in forms of social capital that foster greater cross-regional engagement of local residents in planning processes would likely help reverse historical patterns of top-down development and provide local residents with increased capability of achieving a good quality of life, he said.

“The region remains well behind national averages in terms of poverty and extreme poverty,” Hunt said. “Creating strategies for improving human well-being without jeopardizing the globally significant biodiversity required a better understanding the obstacles hindering better development outcomes.”

The research has already inspired efforts to foster collective action between community leaders from across the region. For instance, the Caminos de Osa program connects new small-business owners with entrepreneurial mentors among the region’s more established tourism operators. By connecting individuals from isolated rural communities with key actors at the regional level, this effort is increasing both bridging and linking forms of social capital.

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Last Updated May 19, 2016