Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No a TLC - Protesting in the Lowlands

Yesterday we drove down the mountain to the low lands to march in protest against TLC (Tratado Libre Comercial), known in the US as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement). For the last two days there has been a nation-wide strike of students, farmers, and governmental employees. Costa Rica is the last of the Central American countries and Dominican Republic to ratify the treaty. Ironically, it was the first to push for it.

Julietta, Jenny, Leslie, Brendan, and I all crammed into to Jenny’s little sedan to drive down the bumpy road to Ciudad Neilly and over to Rio Claro where the marchers from Neilly and Golfito were to converge. It was foggy on top of the mountain, but as we dropped below the clouds, we saw the coastal plains open up and caught a glimpse or two of the ocean. Leslie is an intern from Nebraska. She had never been down to the lowlands. As we were driving down the mountain, I started to explain to her the irony of going to a strike against free trade in what used to be a United Fruit Company town. Now the area is all palm-oil plantations; now mostly privately owned by small-scale farmers after La Frutera disbanded.

As we rolled into Neilly, the marchers were gearing up to march to Rio Claro via the Panamericana. We ended up at the front of the line, along with the rice farmers’ union and all their tractors. It was hot. We pushed to the front of the line mostly to get some air flowing. We ended up ahead of the protest waiting with the ICE (Costa Rica’s government-run energy and telecommunications company) for the rice farmers and university students to meet them.

This is what we have learned is at stake in TLC (pronounced TAY EL-AY SAY):

The idea is to create a free-trade zone in Central American and the Dominican Republic.

This would lead to the privatization of many governmental agencies such as ICE. Talking to a representative from ICE, he told me that the fear is that the prices would skyrocket as there is would be no governmental subsidies. The “northamerican” idea would be that once the market was “liberated”, competition would lower the prices (maybe not as low as ICE), but to what is a “reasonable” market value. The problem I mentioned to the representative with ICE is that they are backlogged, flooded with work. Many people in our neighborhood have been soliciting phone lines for months. He thinks that free trade is not the answer because the people of Costa Rica are too poor to afford the increase in price.

It would bring jobs to Costa Rican including weapons manufacturing plants. Many Costa Ricans feel that this goes against the peaceful culture of a country that abolished its army in 1948. The current president, Oscar Arias, was also president during the 80s and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating between the US-backed Nicaraguan Contra (Counterrevolutionary) army and the socialist Sandanista Party. Oscar Arias (as well as Costa Rica) is considered the diplomat of Central America. Currently he is aiding in negotiations in Colombia between the FLN (Frente de Liberacion Nacional – a U.S.-labeled terrorist organization) and the Colombian government. Many Costa Ricans are now calling him a hypocrite for supporting a treaty that would bring a weapons manufacturing plant to the country.

Another major fear of TLC is the entrance of agricultural corporate giants such as Monsanto. This would increase the price of seeds and fertilizers. It might require local farmers to adhere strictly to Monsanto’s regulations and recommendations. There is also the fear of the introduction of genetically-modified plants and the contamination of the local genetic pool especially in the production of corn. The rice farmers repeatedly said throughout the protest, “Diga no a arroz gringo” (Say no to Gringo Rice).

Costa Rica is the only country in the agreement that hasn’t ratified the treaty. It is almost inevitable that they will within the next few weeks.

Eliot’s Beliefs about TLC

I believe that Free Trade is a beautiful philosophy created a long time ago in a country far away (England I’m pretty sure). Opening free markets does and has helped many people in this world. But the enforcement of it has also brought many wars, genocides, and other horrible atrocities (Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, Iraq…). With the advances of technology (like the internet especially) free trade is inevitable. For example, you can buy coffee over the internet directly from farmers here in Aguabuena. That is Free Trade in its essence. And currently it verges on illegal, because it is just sliding under the scope of governmental export taxes. In this way opening up free markets DOES help.

BUT, it is hard for a small country to benefit from a free trade agreement with huge countries with trillions of dollars waiting to pour into the country via socially irresponsible corporations such as Monsanto. I don’t say NO to TLC, I say HOW can make it fair, environmentally and socially? This is the task of 21st century. I hope it turns out better than the last one.

The protest ended up blocking the Panamerican Highway.

Jenny put a sign in the back of her car to protest.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Field Trip #2

This last weekend we took the Jovenes Ecologicos on a grewling 15 km hike up to the top of Las Brumas mountains to gain a better sense of the region and to pick trash that had been dumped in the forest. We woke up early and hiked up and up. We passed this huge Ceiba tree, as we climbed to the top of the ridge. The weather surprisingly held up, and even though it was foggy on top of the mountain, the clouds cleared for a second so we could see the ocean.

We talked alot about rainforest ecology, teaching the names of trees and how a forest works. We drank from a clean spring on top of the mountain. Many of the kids were surprised that clean water even existed. We picked up trash that had been dumped next to a quarry on top of the mountain. The kids were really into it and took initiative to figure out how to lift the trash out of the steep ditch it was in.

The trip lasted 8 hours, and by the time we got back to Copabuena everyone was ready to fall asleep. The kids are excited for the next field trip. They said they are going to miss us when we go home next week.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Harvest Time

The coffee berries are getting ripe, but the Cooperative still doesnt have a functional beneficio. The beneficio is supposed to start processing the coffee next week, but there is still a lot of coffee to be processed in the mean time.

Coffee has to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting. This makes coffee a difficult crop to deal with as it adds a great deal of transportation costs. Every day the ripe beans have to picked and taken to the local beneficio (processing plant). The beneficio washes and removes the skins of the beans so they can be dried and stored for roasting at a later date.

Since the Coopabuena beneficio closed down two years ago, the new cooperative (Coopepueblos) has been without a beneficio, taking the raw berries to be processed by the nearest beneficio in Sabalito (13 km away). This added alot of costs to last years harvest. This year UCSC researchers, Karen Holl and Rebecca Cole, loaned the cooperative $6000 of the $10,000 needed to buy a micro-beneficio. It arrived a few weeks ago, and the cooperative has been hard at work getting it ready for this years harvest. It should be up and running by next week.

Este beneficio es puro columbiano!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Rainy season is here

Up until yesterday, it seemed like the rainy season would never come. This is our first rainy season to spend down here, so we dont know what it is like. It is supposed to start at the beginning of October and last until December, but for the last two weeks it has hardly rained at all (only like every other day). All the farmers we talk to mention how dry it has been. Flor said it has been dry because of El NiƱo.

But yesterday it RAINED. The day started beautiful and sunny, but by noon it was sprinkling and by 1 it was pouring. Brendan and I were working on our plan for next year, typing on the computer, shouting over the pounding rain on the tin roof. At one point, we looked out the front door, and the bridge to our farm was flooded. We were stuck on our farm. This was the first flood that had reached over the bridge. We ran outside taking pictures. It was cold. The flood almost got to our seedlings, but they were safe luckily.

Right now it is raining again and the sky is a very strange orange. I think the rainy season has finally come.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Treking up the Rio Salto

On Friday, Eliot and I met with Jovenes Ecologicos to explore the Cuenca del Rio Salto (River Salto watershed). This ecological youth group was created to introduce youth to environmental issues through local field trips, eco-activities and group discussions. This was our first outing with the high schoolers and it was a great success. We treked 5 kilometers up stream, ending up at the 20 meter waterfall which feeds the river. It was a suprise to me that the majority of the kids had never seen this waterfall, or a monkey for that matter. At the waterfall we had a discussion about the importance of a forested watershed and how it filters and protects the water resource.

We then hiked up above the waterfall to have lunch under a shelter. We talked to the kids in English so they could practice their skills. We talked about this upcoming year, planning for our High School Cultural Exchange Program. They were excited to share experiences like this trip to the waterfall with kids from the US. When we asked them what else they would like to do...they came up with some crazy ideas like tug-of-wars in the mud and karaoke comptetions. I think next year will be a lot of fun.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jovenes Ecologicos

Part of our new responsibility in the “Grupo Ambiente Saludable”, is creating a group of high school students called “Jovenes Ecologicos” (Ecological Youth). We are going to be facilitating projects that these students want to carry out to improve the environment. We will give them the power choose what kind of ecological projects they want to do, and we will be there to help them. The big idea of this “Ambiente Saludable” movement is to attract tourists to Aguabuea if the community can gain the “Bandera Azul” (Blue Flag) certification. The region of Coto Brus is one of the least popular destinations for tourists in Costa Rica, but this is probably going to change soon.

Today, we interviewed 23 “Jovenes Ecologicos” to pick 15 tourists guides that we will train to encourage ecological literacy. It was hard to choose. The students ranged from 8th-10th grade. We judged them on their use of English, their enthusiasm, and their knowledge of the area. Some of the students speak very well, and it was easy to pick them. Some of them were shy and quiet, and it was hard to figure out if they were just terrified by the inquisition-like questioning we inflicted upon them. We were a panel of judges (Eliot, Brendan, Jacob, Trina), and the students (one by one) sat across from our panel in an otherwise empty class room while we drilled them. We asked them: 1) Tell us about yourself. 2) Why do you want to be a guide? 3)What is your favorite place in Aguabuena?

After eating lunch in the cafeteria (beans, rice, eggs, cheese, salad, and a tortilla), we met with the principal and the secretary to announce the winners. All the potential guides were waiting outside the office for the announcement. We had a mix up between a girl named Adriana and one named Andreina. We had to retest them. Even though Andreina had a higher grade average, we chose Adriana. We were given all of the students grades and GPAs, although I made it clear to the principal that that was not a deciding fact for us.

Tomorrow we have our first meeting with the elected Guides.