Monteverde: trees, cheese, and gringos

Disclaimer: The events mentioned in this blog sound completely unrealistic movie plot, but they are actually true

In 1951, a small group of quakers emigrated from Alabama to a mountainous region in Costa Rica. The region had no electricity, no medical care near by, and no name. In the lecture today, I had the pleasure of listening to one of the quakers, Marvin, the history.

Marvin and his family came to Costa Rica to escape the militarism of the USA in that time. They traveled for over 3 months, facing many challenges throughout the journey. After arriving in the luscious green mountains, the quakers called the region Monteverde. The challenges did not end once in Costa Rica, and Marvin knew no Spanish, and had to adjust to the secluded rural life in the mountains. He eventually opened a dairy factor in the region, and delivered cheese around San Jose.

I feel the need to note that I came into today very skeptical. I have written numerous papers about the negative effects of volunteering abroad and mission work in general. These work trips to impoverished countries often don’t offer longterm benefit to the locals, or don’t take their voices and needs into consideration. This also creates an unequal superiority complex, implying that the villagers are helpless. These volunteers also are typically unqualified. I’ll offer a small anecdote: this past semester I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. While I believe that it is a great organization with  great intentions, we, as students, are not qualified to do the work that we do. There’s the option to go abroad and build houses in Thailand over the summer. And while this is a great idea, it would be much more beneficial to the community to donate money to employ local contractors to do the job and stimulate the local economy.

Back to the Quakers, what I think makes Marvin and his family’s story unique, is that they moved to Costa Rica not to save the locals; they did not exemplify a sense of superiority over the Ticos. Marvin, himself, provided medical care to his neighbors, as he was trained as a surgical assistant in the military, and the closest hospital was over a 6 hour drive away. Another quaker that came was a school teacher. She opened a bilingual schoolhouse that still is running today, with over 120 students attending. In 1957, another quaker migrated to Costa Rica and brought an electric hydropower generator, providing the growing community with electricity. The local provider did not come and offer electricity to the region until 23 years later. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a protected area that was expanded from a mere 5,000 acres to over 27,000 acres largely by efforts of the Quaker immigrants.

I mentioned the beneficial impacts of the Quakers on preservation of the Cloud Forest, and refrained from mentioning negative consequences of the occupation, largely because I was only exposed to one side of the story. I mentioned my reservations on the topic of foreign help and influence, but do not have specific examples from Monteverde. While I do think that the influence of foreigners has boosted the ecotourism industry by showcasing Costa Rica’s natural beauty, there is no doubt that they have added to deforestation in the process. One side of a story is never enough, so I hope that I’m able to explore this topic deeper later in the week.

Leave a Reply