Back to the Land
“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
OK, as things have turned out, Bob Dylan might have been ahead of the curve a bit back in 1963 when he wrote the song “The Times They are a’ Changing.” Nowadays however it seems blatantly obvious that, as Heraclitus said a couple thousand years before Bob hit the studio, “Change is the only constant in life.”
Reality has the unfortunate habit of staying the same even if you don’t pay attention to it. Costa Rica got a big reprieve during the historic accomplishments of the national team during the World Cup Soccer Championships. Even the local foreign transplants got caught up in the frenzy that just wrapped up a couple days ago. Now, the players are headed back to heroic welcomes in their home towns and as the stupor wears off, the potholes are still there, the national debt is still a big issue, and the bloated bureaucracy is still engaged in infighting to see who gets the blame for the mess.
As I write, Costa Rica is also caught in a bit of a climate conundrum. Guanacaste is suffering from a drought, while any number of neighborhoods on the Caribbean Coast have become ‘swim only’ access. What appears to be the onset of the periodic ‘El Niño’ phenomenon, this one just may have a bit of extra punch due to the fact that 90% plus of all the extra heat from global warming has gone into the deeper strata of the oceans. The Ministry of Agriculture just issued an official alert, so at least someone at the upper echelons is taking the issue seriously.
During a recent interview in La Nación, the head of the United Nations Climate Program’s “adaptation division,” really laid out the challenges for small countries in black and white. Nothing that Costa Rica does will influence the ‘big picture’ that is steamrolling towards us. The much ballyhooed national ‘carbon neutrality’ policy might serve for PR purposes, but does nothing to protect us down the rough road of the predicted ‘hell and high water’ of global warming. In the words of Monsieur Van Ypersele, the “science of adaptation” needs to become a national priority.
You don’t need to have a Ph. D. in atmospheric sciences to figure out one thing however. Global warming is going to hit hard in the whole area of food production. And that’s going to affect prices, and ultimately availability. From a wide range of sectors pondering scenarios for the future is emerging a simple but obvious consensus. “Food security” as it is referred to, is easier to guarantee when the growing is closer to home, closer to markets, using local inputs and wherever possible, generating employment for local people who might also be facing ‘job insecurity.”
On a personal note, I’ve been planting and growing food for 20 years now here in Guanacaste. Some successes, plenty of failures, but between formal education and experience on the ground, there’s plenty to share with folks who choose to sink their hands into the soil. Along the way I had the good fortune to help start a small organic farm at a nearby development which found itself with some promising land that was unsuitable for home sites. Given the specifics of the site, it was hard to have a ready flush of marketable vegetables in time for the tremendous demand of our short high season. In strictly financial terms, it was hard for the farm to survive. At the same time, prospective clients were enthused about the efforts and homeowners always happy to receive their baskets of produce fresh from the farm on their own ‘common land.’
Given the downturn in demand in the wake of the global economic slump, it is not that surprising that many developers have cast aside all pretense to ‘sustainability’. Like mushrooms after the first rain, signs are sprouting all over pushing minimum size lots, low down and monthly payments and even less commitment to ensuring a viable future for their residents or the neighboring communities.
Given that rather somber panorama, a ray of hope came in the form of a surprise phone call. As it turns out, a group of Canadians had gotten their hands on two big tracts of land, with both spectacular view sites and prime land for farming. Once we got over the language difficulties—it took me a while to realize that a ‘gairage’ was for the cars and ‘aboot’ was not always footwear—things got moving in a positive direction, right where they needed to, on the land.
You don’t have to be a genius to surmise that a drought year would complicate farming just a wee bit. If fact, the dry weather has worked to our benefit. These blokes didn’t just want a patch of veggies to impress clients fresh off the plane. We’re talking “whole hog,” here, starting with a big patch of reforested Gmelina trees that had to be thinned, harvested, turned into lumber and are now being crafted into small buildings for a local farmer’s family, animal pens, storage shed and fences. The whole thing is being designed using permaculture concepts to optimize production by setting up the different elements—annual crops, livestock, and tree crops—in a design that maximizes nutrient cycling and other functions among the different components of the whole system. As permaculture founder and guru Bill Mollison once confessed, “ I find it much more intellectually stimulating than, say, chess.” But I can tell you, when the order comes down to figure out a way to incorporate fish fillets and fresh produce for restaurants in nearby Tamarindo, for this designer, it is back to the drawing board, and most importantly, back to the land to get a firm visual orientation of how the ever changing pieces can fit together in a way that flows together and enhances the natural beauty of the site.
All and all it’s a hopeful sign for an ever changing future that some folks are more than willing to put their money where their mouth is and try to tackle global issues in the best way we can—at the local level. And farming, like life, never fails to turn over heaps of fruitful irony. As luck would have it, buyers from San José, many of whom are now getting their retirements and looking more and more at resettling in Guanacaste for their golden years, are even more excited that the gringo buyers about discovering a bit of agricultural paradise within walking distance from their new homes. For Ticos, there is a huge nostalgia for the olden days of family farming in the Central Valley. When they come to Guanacaste and see gringos dedicated to restoring a facet of their collective history that they have seen paved over and swept away by the wave of ‘progress’ that has laid waste to the Grand Metropolitan Area, the first response is “Pura Vida.” Depending on the developer and the sales people, the next response may well be, “Where do I sign?”
Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 19 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. firstname.lastname@example.org