By Jackie Trahan
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — How Monteverde is defined depends on whom you ask. Its boundaries vary in relationship to its history and growing foundation as a ecotourism hot-spot.
Politically, it’s a collection of communities surrounding Santa Elena in the Puntarenas Province in Costa Rica. By the Quaker’s definition, it includes only the Quaker village area up to the cheese factory. And in the eyes of economics, Monteverde stretches up to a two-hour drive away from the political border based on the time some workers travel to work within the limits.
Monteverde wasn’t always the booming ecotourism location it is now. It was a rainy, forested area seen as too hard to live in or grow anything. That changed when 11 Quaker families started the settlement.
To encourage settlers to come to Costa Rica, the government developed a land ownership program. Civil and Family Code of Costa Rica, articles 279-286, state “Squatters can gain possessory rights to private lands after making improvements to the land and after one year of continuous, public, and good faith occupation.” Improvements to the land included cutting down trees and making the land more usable.
Although the Quakers that came down from Alabama weren’t squatters, they did purchase much of their land from squatters.
Original Quaker Marvin Rockwell said what drew the Quakers to Costa Rica in 1951 was the political stability, lack of war and the abolishment of the Costa Rican Army in 1948. These aspects were important to the peace-loving Quakers, whose formal group name is the Religious Society of Friends.
The Quakers built a cheese factory that has grown exponentially into a large and successful operation in Monteverde. The Costa Rican government attained the settlers and “improvement” it had wanted. But, deforestation became a concern.
The Costa Rican government referenced policies in the United States and other countries around the world to form their own parks and nature reserves. Some of the reserves are publicly owned and others are privately owned and operated.
In 1972, George Powell helped found the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Powell was one of the original Quakers that arrived in 1952. In the reserve, Powell founded the Tropical Science Center that aided the new idea of “Science Tourism.” The Center increased primary research and scientific developments such as “canopy science.”
Suggested contributions to the popularity of Monteverde and the ecotourism boom are a 1978 BBC special, a 1983 National Geographic article and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias in 1987.
According to Anibal Torres, sustainable futures coordinator at the Monteverde Institute, the tourism of the ‘80s was nothing like the Monteverde of today. There were no hotels and no restaurants; there were only the communities that had already existed around the protected areas.
In 2010, around 60,000 visitors came to Monteverde. The tourism has diversified businesses, with new options for lodging and dining. There has also been an increase in tourist attractions including seven horseback trails, four night hikes, four zip lines and at least three coffee tours.
80-90 percent of businesses in Monteverde are owned by locals, which keep the tourism directly benefitting Monteverde’s communities. However, Anibal Torres said that the tourism ay have made people more concerned about themselves and their businesses than the community as a whole.
In an effort to encourage community and sustainability, the Monteverde Institute was established in 1986. The Institute is a non-profit organization. Their motto reads, “Una comunidad sostenible por un mundo sostenible,” or one sustainable community for a sustainable world.
The Monteverde Institute strives to benefit the local community through education, research and engagement. The institute partners with students, professors and members of the community to work on sustainable projects. The projects are diverse and include water, public health, and land use and urban planning.
For water, the Institute study issues and respond to them. They deal with issues of waste, erosion, run-off and shortages. They recently suspended a water improvement program, “Adopt-A-Stream.”
For public health they have worked towards educating the community about food and exercise. They have successfully worked to get funding for a community center in San Luis that holds exercise classes.
For land use and urban planning, the Monteverde Institute has spent many years working with the central government to be able to install sidewalks and greenways. Most of the work in this area is obtaining the permission to implement projects.
With every aspect of its operations, The Monteverde Institute believes creating a more sustainable globe is at the heart of community.