The Monteverde Community:
A Whole Greater than Its Parts

 

Quint Newcomer

It has long been recognized that community-based mountain tourism projects can be more responsive to the social, cultural, economic, and environmental needs of the community than other projects. Such initiatives can lead to wider sharing of benefits....[and] be a vehicle for empowering local communities without which the institutional process of sustainable development cannot be initiated.1

—Pitamber Sharma

 

Monteverde is a small town located high on the Continental Divide in the Tilarán Mountains of central-northwest Costa Rica. It was founded in the early 1950s by a small group of Quaker families who set up a factory to receive milk from small farms around the region. A stable economy developed around the production and sale of cheese, which remained the central focus of industry for three decades.

Once accessible by only a rough ox-cart trail (which has since been improved so that vehicles can pass), Monteverde remained a small community for many years. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, biologists began to arrive to study the wealth of flora and fauna present in the area’s cloudforests. The Resplendent Quetzal, a breathtakingly beautiful and endangered bird, was one of the inhabitants of the cloudforest that caught the attention of young researchers.

Monteverde today is surrounded by protected forests amounting in size to some 43,000 hectares (95,000 acres). This is the result of two developments. In the early 1970s, George Powel#151;then a student researcher at the Tropical Science Center in the capital city of San José—began working with local residents to establish the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. This private preserve’s initial 328 hectares (720 acres) has since grown to about 10,000 hectares (22,000 acres).

A second and larger rainforest preserve was created in 1989 through the efforts of the fledgling Monteverde Conservation League. The Bosque Eterno de los Nipos (Children’s Eternal Forest), known worldwide since its inception, has received donations from school children in 45 or so countries, and is planning an educational center to bring together children from around the world to learn more about tropical rainforests.

By the end of the 1980s, Monteverde had grown considerably in population, with accompanying growth in homes, vehicles, and businesses supporting the ecotourism industry in the surrounding forests and wildlife preserves. Rapid growth in rural areas is often accompanied by pressure on the surrounding natural and social environments, and Monteverdians from all sectors of the population have come together in various forums to address community issues.

Monteverde today is a place of interest to anthropologists and sociologists as well as biologists. It has become a widely-studied example of the impact of ecotourism on a local community working to preserve its environment in the face of change. Or, put another way, Monteverde offers a good case study of the critical role of the community in the successful achievement of sustainable development.

Community: The Crux of Sustainable Development

Visitors who spend much time living in Monteverde almost invariably make reference to the term “community” as they reflect upon their experiences here. In fact, the Monteverde community consists of a number of smaller communities engaged in different activities, but joined together in the pursuit of common purposes.

At 4:00 a.m. each morning, hundreds of dairy farmers—the Monteverde milkshed community—begin their daily rounds of milking and transporting their products to the central dairy plant in town. The agricultural workers who live in and around the “milkshed zone” form their own neighborhood community, but are part of the community of milk producers and the larger community as well.

The Quaker community, with its meeting house and school, form another part of the whole. Consisting mostly of North Americans who live along the dirt road leading up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, its members are held together by shared philosophical beliefs and common enterprises as well as by their geographic proximity.

Then there are the park rangers who daily patrol the vast forestlands that protect the Arenal watershed. This watershed, home to many thousands of species of flora and fauna, feeds Costa Rica’s main power-producing hydro plant. The biologists and social scientists engaged in research here form another community based on academic interests. And, I could go on to describe the community based on tourism, the community of resident artists, and the local Adventist, or evangelical, community.

Finally, there are the multitudinous communities of non-human inhabitants—among them the avian communities of Resplendant Quetzales and Three-Wattled Bell Birds. Many who live here measure the seasons by the arrival and departure, the nesting and fledging, of our feathered companions. And, I suspect that most of the 50,000 visitors who come here each year are more interested in seeing these birds than in visiting with the human population.

 

The Real Meaning of “Community”

Community is not simply the place called Monteverde (neither the little town nor the greater milkshed or conservation zones). It is not only the many groups, with their varying activities and interests, described here. To me, “community” means the relationships and interactions among all these groups as they work toward the achievement of shared purposes.

Community is at heart the attitude of social responsibility that exists here. It is when fifty people get up in the middle of the night to help put out a fire, or drop everything for a day to help find a lost student in the forest. Community is a group of residents joining together to create a protected forest corridor across individual property boundaries, because they want to make a visible and lasting statement about shared values and the importance of conservation.

For me, what is distinctive about the Monteverde community is how so many diverse groups come together to address issues confronting us: tourism, economic and infrastructure development, conservation of biodiversity, education, health, youth opportunities, and prevention of crime and domestic violence. We cross boundaries of nationality, language, race, religious beliefs, and even gender (not common for a rural Latin American society) in order to design, construct, and maintain the place and the intricate set of relationships that we call our community.

It’s not wonderland. Conflicts and differences of opinion weave their way into the fabric of our lives—subtly or overtly—and challenge our ability to move forward. But we seem to share a desire to rise above these issues and to find a way to identity, both as individuals and a group, with this community called Monteverde.

Notes

1. Pitamber Sharma, “Introductory Statement, Theme 2: Working Together-Organizational Structures of Community-Based Mountain Tourism,” Community-Based Mountain Tourism: Practices for Linking Conservation with Enterprise (The Mountain Forum, April 1998).

Quint Newcomer is the former Executive Director of Instituto Monteverde, a nonprofit educational institution located in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

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