Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Costa Rica/Sustainability on the Brain

I just got an email today from the alumni network of the School for Field Studies, the organization through which I studied abroad in Costa Rica in the fall of 2002. The experience decidedly changed my life in terms of the way I think about the business of living, and was my first glimpse at a Latin American country.

The email was about a return-visiting Alumni program:
Sounds like a wonderful opportunity and a thought-provoking experience. I am definitely thinking about getting back to visit (and had been before I read about the program)--not only because of my amazing experience there at the center, but because Costa Rica certainly seems to be ahead of the game in terms of sustainability and solutions to common problems.

Indeed, I am constantly comparing my specifically Central American experience there to the one here in Honduras. There´s quite a big difference in the way trash is dealt with in Honduras, Costa Rica, and in the states. For example, while recycling facilities do exist in Honduras, there is no official pick up. In fact, garbage day might as well be called scavenging day. No one separates their trash into recyclables/non-recyclables so there are plenty of people roaming the streets on trash day going through people´s garbage to pull out the recyclables. This would not be so bad, except that people also throw away their toilet paper instead of flushing it, and I feel like that´s more of a public health/sanitary issue than trash in the US. Anyway, I personally have started separating my recyclables to at least save people a little dignity. Other folks who go scavenging are looking for something specific to salvage, such as the man asking if we had any used shoes.

By comparison, trash was separated into trash and recyclables in Costa Rica, with 2 pick-ups weekly... one for trash and one for recyclables in a town MUCH smaller than Comayagua. A local association of disabled citizens earned income by sorting and packaging the recycling and selling it to distributors. While the Center for Sustainable Develpoment Studies amounted to a small farm and was probably not the norm, I was impressed that we burned our toilet paper trash, composted our food scraps, separated non-compostibles for the hogs next door, and saved many of our recyclable materials for re-use (art projects and collage postcards). We even discussed making our snacks more sustainable by creating less packaging waste, and ended up doing a lot of baking instead of buying plastic-wrapped goodies from the pulpería (a kind of convenience store). I really felt as though I was living the ¨examined life¨ that Socrates was talking about.

Overall I think the fact that someone is willing to salvage other people´s trash is a good thing, and there really is a thriving market here for used goods, but I wish that it could be dealt with in a way that really does provide a more dignified income for people. Not sure how that would be... other than having separate bins for things, or modeling the system in Costa Rica. I think the fact that dumpster diving is illegal in the states is moderately ridiculous. The only reason I can see for the law is to protect people from identity theft, but I feel like if you are too lazy to take something to the thrift store and someone else knows how to fix it/use it, I see no reason to prohibit people from salvaging.

Another comparison between Costa Rica and Honduras is regarding it´s land use. While it is a point of pride and a somewhat well known fact that Costa Rica has approximately 25% of its land area as national parks or protected private preserves, what is not as commonly known is that Honduras has a higher percentage (around 32%) and an overall higher acreage of forest cover to its name. Granted, Honduras is a slightly larger country anyway, but... Unfortunately, while there are many national parks, much of this forest cover is preserved almost by accident, simply by not being developed, and has many current and future threats from squatters, logging, and ranchland (Costa Rica has many of the same problems, but designating the land as protected slows it down to some degree).

Anwyay, I am definitely comparing my experiences in the two countries in many other ways, but that´s all for now.

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