HII in Costa Rica: Reflections on Directions, Peace, and Making an Impact

We arrived in San Jose to a four-star hotel and instructions to never walk anywhere. As Melissa and I are here to learn about the work that our Costa Rican counterparts do, the schedules were strictly set, with little time to explore on our own. The thing about San Jose is that most people don’t seem to like it, including the locals. The traffic seems to be 24-hours and the carburetors seem to be non-existent, with fumes flying out of the back of cars and trucks in every direction. One of the most confusing of cultural differences between the U.S. and Costa Rica is directions. If you want to get to a location in San Jose, you need to know the story of the community. There are very few street names anywhere in Costa Rica, and if there are, then NO ONE knows what they are. Instead, if you want to go to a particular restaurant, the directions that you’d need to tell a taxi would be something like, “From the church in San Pedro, go 400 meters to the west and then turn left at the large tree (which may or may not exist anymore) and it’s close to the house with the red door.” Mind you, that would also be the actual address of the restaurant too. One of our American colleagues who now works in Costa Rica said that his old house address was, “500 meters west of Kentucky Fried Chicken” and that’s what you’d have to write on his mail if you wanted a letter to get to him. So, you can imagine that it’s nearly impossible for tourists to find their way around the city.

The first day, however, we took the bus straight up to the campus of University for Peace, our country host for the educational portion of the Women’s Empowerment Program and Fellowshipof the U.S. State Department. Nestled above the coffee plantations of the small town of Colon, UPeace houses about 200 students at-a-time, seemingly mostly from the U.S., and has a list of classes that makes any liberal environmentalist get goose bumps. The high point of the U Peace campus for me where: a) the solar cooker oven (yes, I’m a dork!), b) the shaded hammocks, and c) the possibility of seeing monkeys while daydreaming out of your class window. During our time there, we shadowed Alicia at the Earth Charter, who had spent two weeks with us at theHuman Impacts Institute’s (HII) offices in NYC during April. For me, it was fun to see Alicia, Douglas, and Nora, as we had actually been partnering on three different projects of HII’s throughout the year (this exchange, our MobilizeUS! Campaign, and Road to Rio+20). A total coincidence, it was amazing to be thousands of miles from home and know half the people in the office. To add to it, a colleague from Cameroon just happened to “be in town” at the Earth Charter, as well. Sometimes, the sustainability world truly is small.

The work of the Earth Charter is to really investigate an ethical framework (the Charter itself) for sustainable development. It’s an interesting way to look at an action-based idea and is, for me, a bit of a chicken-or-egg debate. Do we work together to transform mindsets or actions first? Or is it a simultaneous process? Personally, I tend towards the action approach first, with ethical or philosophical changes to come in the long-term. But I also see that HII’s approach to “making the environment personal” is a way to integrate sustainability into a communities or individuals current ethos, by emphasizing the connections between our everyday lives and the environment.

Back in San Jose, we moved from ideas to action, visiting both Andrea at CGESTI, which focuses on sustainability consulting for small-to-medium size companies in Central America and Carolina at Fundecooperacion, which has projects ranging from South-South cooperation to microfinance to the creation of the Costa Rican carbon market. For me, the most interesting part of visiting each of these organizations is to see how they work as NGOs, their varying approaches to tackling the same issues we are, and to think about how we might partner in the future. For Fundecooperacion, I saw a lot of parallels between how they manage projects—i.e. trying a lot of different things and avoiding specialization—to be very similar to the HII approach. Looking at CGESTI’s work, I can see that some of their “do-it-yourself toolkits” for sustainability assessments will be good learning tools for our Ecopreneurs program. One of the things I have been thinking a lot about here is how we monitor and evaluate our programs. It’s a bit of a dull topic for the action lady that I am, but I’m learning more and more that how we tell the story of our programs and our impacts is beyond important. It’s this story that we weave over time, that will also allow our programs to live on and have impact well into the future.

By Tara DePorte, Founder and Executive Director, Human Impacts Institute

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