Community Mapping in the Costa Rican Highlands

By Megan LaManna and Jenna Lewis

On a hike through deforested areas of San Luis, Costa Rica , an intern dropped a GPS waypoint with the push of a button on an iPhone.

These waypoints, or digital landmarks, are used to map a trail that will one day be part of a network of trails connecting communities from the highlands of Costa Rica to the Gulf of Nicoya to promote tourism.

Nat Scrimshaw, the international educational programs coordinator for San Luis Community Center, and a group of four American students, are working on an innovative project that includes building a Wikiguide and mapping trails via GPS. This is to promote an unconventional form of tourism that takes the tourist out of the typical factory tours and hotels, and into the environment.

Scrimshaw and others said they want to develop community-based rural tourism through the Sendero Pacifico project as opposed to the highly concentrated approach used in Monteverde.

Larger attractions, such as Monteverde, end up having clusters of infrastructure and smaller businesses that feed off of the main attraction and cater to tourists, such as restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops, Scrimshaw said.

As the tourism industry expands, the need for infrastructure goes up. This increases the deforestation rate as grounds are cleared for new buildings. Sendero Pacifico hopes to break this pattern by involving different communities and using resources that are already available.

With attractions in Monteverde bringing in large crowds, small landowners try to create mini versions of the same attractions and market separately. Scrimshaw says individual marketing is a huge challenge because there is so much more competition. He believes connecting these smaller attractions and marketing together will bring about a new sort of eco-tourism.

Many hill communities began to disappear as tourism took over. Scrimshaw said this left many unused farmhouses in the mountains.

Scrimshaw’s vision is to create an economic benefit by keeping land ownership within community. He suggests renting out those old farmhouses to tourists and having the original owners profit from their use instead of selling the land or rebuilding the farms.

Scrimshaw says this is an example of how the trails can support local families modestly without large investments. But there needs to be a flow of hikers to make this worthwhile.

Scrimshaw said the Sendero Pacifico project is “an organic slow growth process that will grow with the interest from the locals and tourists.”

Social media, another component, will allow locals and tourists to interact with each other and share information. The vision is to create a wiki that will expand as people use the network of trails.

The ability to use social media and the wiki opens the lines of communication, eliminating the need for a main body behind the project. This cuts costs and further implements the idea of creating tourism in a modest way based on community involvement.

Scrimshaw said he wanted to maximize the current potential of the land instead of replacing it with modern infrastructure.

“I told [a local landowner], ‘I don’t want to buy your land. I want you to keep your land and maybe make a little money by having it,’” said Scrimshaw.

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