Sustainable Development in Costa Rica: An Approach to the Geography Curriculum


Douglas Heffington and Judith Mimbs

It is evident that we as a species are transforming Earth’s surface in ways that may be detrimental to future generations. As global citizens, it is incumbent upon us to learn more about forms of environmental management that can help guide human-land relationships. One concept fundamental to managing environments is that of sustainable development. As defined by the World Commission on Environment in Our Common Future, it means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1

The challenge of sustainable development involves a marriage of opposites, these being preservation and change. While most governments today support the idea of sustainable development, there is endless debate on how to resolve its central contradiction, with some viewing the term itself as an oxymoron.

This article explores how the tools of geography can help meet some of the challenges inherent in sustainable development by looking at changes in land use patterns among the Bribri Indians of Costa Rica. Our study is supported by NASA and has garnered additional support from the Tennessee Geographic Alliance and assistance from a Teacher Education Grant from the National Geographic Society.


The “Laboratory” of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is sometimes referred to as the “Jewel of Nature.” This small country located in the southern portion of Central America has in recent years become a living laboratory of flora and fauna for its own people and others to experience. Today, nearly 30 percent of its land is protected in some capacity, with slightly more than 10 percent lying within the national park system.

Costa Rica has a reputation for preserving its natural environment.2 As a country of only 51,000 square miles (or, slightly smaller than West Virginia), it contains no less than 13 national parks and 6 biological reserves. Weaver states that “taken together, approximately one-fifth of Costa Rica’s land base, in theory, receives protection from deforestation.”3 However, according to Vandermeer, Costa Rica during the early 1990s experienced the highest rate of deforestation in the world. So, even with its great strides in land management, it faces the same problems as many other developing nations, and appears to present itself as an enigma in terms of natural resource preservation.4

Included in Costa Rica’s protected lands are properties set aside for native peoples, the most populous among them being the 2,000 member Bribri tribe. The Bribri Indian Reserve is couched within the La Amistad National Park, high in the Talamanca Mountains of southeastern Costa Rica. The park is a recognized World Biosphere. Because the Bribri are twice-confined with regard to land and resources—living on a reserve within a park—sustainable development takes on added importance for this indigenous people.

The Bribri land consists of flat river plains set amidst rugged mountainscapes. The Bribri farm large plots of plantain and bananas in the river valleys. Some live in the valleys, while others come down to work these fields from their smaller subsistence farms on nearby mountain slopes. However, population growth and the ability to farm more land using modern technology are causing some Bribri to seek the higher elevations of the mountains. There, they live on dispersed farmsteads in a somewhat more traditional pattern of settlement.

The high mountain slopes with their tropical forests are also the scene of timber activities, though seldom with the consent or involvement of the Bribri. The kind of “wildcat,” or unregulated, timbering that is now taking place— though still small in scale on the Bribri Reserve—typically constitutes the first inroads in the process of deforestation.

The pattern of deforestation is commonly as follows. Loggers select an area for harvest and build an access road. The harvested area and the road are left as residuals of their activities, with the road providing peasant farmers (in this case, the Bribri) with access to new lands, which they carve out into small farm plots. The more logging roads, the more small farm encroachment, until the land becomes crisscrossed with this pattern. A common next step is for the small farms to be replaced by larger forms of agriculture or ranching, thus furthering the damage to the natural environment.5 This description of the pattern, while simplistic, is generally accurate.

For the Bribri within their “protected lands,” this process has not reached the level of large-scale agribusiness seen outside their valleys. But the initial stages have been set in motion. The challenge to the Bribri, who recognize the limitations of their reserve, is how to manage growth. Does their own traditional slash and burn agriculture pose a threat to the reserve, even before considering the actual and/or potential encroachments of outside timbering and agricultural interests?

Although still in its early stages, rapid depletion of the Bribri’s land and resources could occur without the management and monitoring that are key to sustainable development . It is in the management of natural resources, as well as the documentation of changing cultural landscapes, that geographical study can be most useful to the Bribri.

Applying Geography to Environmental Management

Observation is key to the discipline of geography, and the “field” is the laboratory for observation.6 It is here that geographers record phenomena—such as landforms, settlement patterns, house types, languages, and ways of making a living —that allow for drawing comparisons and contrasts about different regions of the world. The end result of field observation is the universal language of geography: the map.

To aid the Bribri in the management of their physical and cultural resources, geographers have been using direct field observation along with advanced spatial technology. The work accomplished to-date constitutes the beginning of the monitoring process so necessary to achieving sustainable development. It has provided the Bribri with the tools and data to better understand their landscape and its changing patterns of land use in order to develop a long-range plan for management.

Among the most important tools are two forms of satellite imagery, Landsat and Radarsat. A Radarsat image of the Bribri Reserve provided by remote sensing appears on page 85. Although it is difficult to detect small-scale changes in land use on this map, it does provide a base for observing large-scale changes. Geographic information systems (GISs)— with their capacity to assemble, store, manipulate, and display information collected in the field—provide a good supplement to satellite maps.7 Global positioning systems are also useful in the location and compilation of geographic data.

In sum, geographers are helping the Bribri to manage their reserve using a combination of advanced mapping tools for landscape description and appraisal. According to Mitchell:

The outcome of landscape appraisal is often a map. Isachenko suggested that five types of maps are necessary for resource management. An inventory map presents a picture of the present state of the phenomena being analysed. An evaluative map classifies the different components of the environment according to their suitability for proposed use. Predictive maps suggest likely future response by the environment to alternative activities. A recommendatory map outlines the measures associated with the preferred alternative. Finally, a synthesized map interrelates information from the preceding maps and places it in the context of both natural and cultural attributes of the landscape. All five of these map types are pertinent to landscape evaluation. [emphases added]8

Our study of land use changes and possible approaches to sustainable development on the Bribri Indian Reserve is still in the “inventory” map phase, though we plan to advance through the other four phases as time progresses. The issues involved here are not limited to one group of Amerindians, to Central America, or even to the developing world. How the peoples of the world can sustain themselves while maintaining the productivity of their land and ensuring the quality of life for future generations is the central issue underlying the concept of sustainable development. Geography’s tools and methods of inquiry are of essential importance in this endeavor. G



1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987).

2. Christopher P. Baker, Costa Rica Handbook, 2nd ed. (Chico, Calif.: Moon Publications, 1996).

3. David Weaver, “Ecotourism in the Caribbean Basin,” in E. Cater and G. Lowman, eds., Ecotourism: A Sustainable Option? (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994), 170.

4. John Vandermeer, “The Human Niche and Rain Forest Preservation in Southern Central America,” in L. Sponsel, T. Headland, and R. Bailey, eds., Tropical Deforestation: The Human Dimension (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 217.

5. Vandermeer, 217-218.

6. National Research Council, Rediscovering Geography: New Relevance for Social Science and Society (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1997), 49-57.

7. U. S. Geological Survery (USGS), Geographic Information Systems (Washington, D.C.: USGS, 1992).

8. Bruce Mitchell, Geography and Resource Analysis (London: Longman Group,1979), 147; citing A. G. Isachenko, “On the Method of Applied Landscape Research,” Soviet Geography 14 (1973): 229.



The authors wish to thank several funding agencies for making this study possible to-date: the National Aeronautical and Space Administration through a NASA/JOVE Grant (Dr. Jeff Luvall, mentor); Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Faculty Development Grant (Dr. Don Curry, graduate dean); MTSU Project International Grant (Dr. Ken Tillery, advisor); and National Geographic Society through a Teacher Education Grant. Dr. Ron Zawislak, chair of the MTSU Department of Geography and Geology, and Steve McClure, principal of Loftis Middle School, graciously allowed the authors time and support for the probject. Margaret Nickell edited and typed the manuscript version.

A special thanks goes out to all members of the Bribri, who have so graciously opened their homes and provided the authors with valuable information. Thanks also to Henry Chavez of the National University in Heredia, Costa Rica, who has proven indispensible to this project.


Douglas Heffington is an associate professor of
geography at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro.

Judith Mimbs is a geography educator at
Loftis Middle School and the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga.


Geography Lesson: Comparing Regions and Environmental Issues


Geography is a way of studying the world that takes as its basic unit the region. This lesson should begin with a discussion of regions that helps students understand that: (1) “’region’ is a concept used to identify and organize areas of Earth’s surface for various purposes,” and (2) regions are defined by common physical and/or cultural features, and may vary in scale from local to global.

In this activity, students will explore the geography of Costa Rica (part of the larger region of Central America) and the geography of their own state (part of a larger sub-region of the United States). The activity calls for students to do research using maps, standard references, current magazine articles and trade books, and the Internet. Finally, students will use their knowledge to compare and contrast the two regions, and to discuss environmental issues facing each region.



This activity may benefit from consideration of several of the standards for a “geographically informed person” described in Geography for Life. These standards view the world in terms of six broad categories: The World in Spatial Terms, Places and Regions, Physical Systems, Human Systems, Environment and Society, and The Uses of Geography. These categories are subdivided into eighteen individual standards, the following of which relate specifically to this activity.

> Standard 4. The Physical and Human Characteristics of Places

> Standard No. 5. That People Create Regions to Interpret Earth’s Complexity

> Standard No. 14. How Human Actions Modify the Physical Environment

> Standard No. 15. How Physical Systems Affect Human Systems

> Standard No. 16. The Changes that Occur in the Meaning, Use, Distribution, and Importance of Resources.



Students will know and be able to explain that:

> places are distinctive in terms of their physical and human characteristics

> human activities and cultures create a variety of different and similar places

> regions are basic units of geographic study defined by common physical and/or cultural features

> the term “region” is a conceptual tool that helps us make general statements about complex reality

> each culture sees different possibilities and constraints in the physical environment

> human activities can dramatically alter the physical characteristics of places

> places can be damaged, destroyed, or improved through human actions or natural processes


> Globe and world map

> Maps of each region to illustrate various geographical phenomena, e.g., physical, topographical, meteorological, ecological, political, and cultural (including language)

> Reference sources–encyclopedias and atlases, trade books and articles, Internet


Glossary of Terms

(Note: the following definitions are adapted from Geography for Life unless otherwise indicated.)

agribusiness: the application of business practices to the operation of specialized (usually large) commercial farms

biodiversity: the variability among living organisms; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems (UN Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992).

biosphere: the realm of Earth which includes all plant and animal life forms

deforestation: the destruction and removal of forest and its undergrowth by natural or human forces

ecosystem (ecological system): a system formed by the interaction of all living organisms (plants, animals, humans) with each other and with the physical and chemical factors of the environment in which they live

environment: everything in and on Earth’s surface and its atmosphere within which organisms, communities, or objects exist

fauna: the animal life of an area or region

flora: the plant life of an area or region

geographic information system (GIS): a geographic database that contains information about the distribution of physical and human characteristics of places or areas; in order to test hypotheses, maps of one characteristic or a combination can be produced from the database.

indigenous peoples: traditional peoples whose ancestors inhabited a territory before people of a different ethnic origin came to dominate it (UN Commission on Human Rights, 1982).

region: a part of Earth’s surface that displays internal homogeneity and is relatively distinct from surrounding areas according to one or more criteria

remote sensing: information gathering about Earth’s surface from a distance (e.g., using aerial photography or satellite images)

satellite image: an image produced by a variety of sensors that measure electromagnetic radiation; the data are converted to digital form for transmission, and then reconverted into images that resemble photographs

sustainable development: the capacity to balance human economic and social needs with preservation of the natural environment over time



(Note: The following activities could be performed in part or whole depending on the time and resources available.)

1. Students working in groups will use various maps to locate the physical and cultural features of Costa Rica. Group members will then do research to prepare a geographical fact sheet on Costa Rica. This could include information about, for example:

> climate (temperature, precipitation, seasons)

> topography

> natural resources

> ecosystems

> biodiversity (flora and fauna)

> population size (total and urban vs rural)

> language(s) spoken

> cultural activities

> indigenous groups

> forms of livelihood (including agriculture and industry)

> land preservation (public parks and private reserves)

> environmental problems

> other phenomena students consider important.

(Note: The fact sheet could be presented in the form of a poster with visuals to accompany the data.)


2. Students working in new groups will repeat this activity for their own state.


3. In a class discussion, students will compare and contrast the regions in terms of how geography affects human lifestyles and how people affect the natural environment. They could consider ways that humans try to manage the environment (e.g., the creation of parks and reserves, the passage of environmental laws, forms of sustainable development, and international efforts to preserve the environment). The discussion could culminate in listing environmental problems (1) common to both regions, (2) distinct to Costa Rica, and (3) distinct to their own state. This requires some thought. For example, is the problem facing the Bribri tribe of Costa Rica distinct to them, or is the issue of forest preservation relevant to the students as well?

4. Students working individually should choose one of the environmental problems identified and write a paper explaining the importance of this issue and offering possible solutions to it.


For websites useful in research on sustainable development in Costa Rica, see the article by Richard A. Diem, “Using Computer Technology to Understand Development Issues” in this article of Social Education.


† Geography Education Standards Project, Geography for Life: National Geography Standards 1994 (Washington, D. C.: GESP, 1994), 72.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.