By Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld
Costa Rica is a small country that could, acre for acre, fit inside of Washington State over three times with ease. With just under 5,000,000 people, it is also smaller in population than Washington State. Yet what it lacks in area and human inhabitance is made up for by the ultra-dense biodiversity that is almost unparalleled in the whole world.
Here on an IFSA-Butler trip coordinated by Brenda Burns in the Office of International Programs and Development (OIPD), I was whisked away for the first week of my trip to the Monteverde cloud forest, a hotspot for biodiversity, and home to the Monteverde Institute. Called a cloud forest because of the jungle’s propensity to wick moisture directly out of the clouds that roll gently over the hills, the area became home to a group of Quakers in the 1950’s who sought refuge from the American draft during the Korean War.
Prior to the Quakers’ arrival, the area had been significantly impacted by the colonial settlers’ regime of clearing the natural vegetation to make way for grassy cattle pastures. Indeed, the area still has large swaths of land vacant of native vegetation that stick out in sharp contrast to the bordering lush jungle.
As word spread about the lush environment, conservation efforts became harder and harder to maintain with the overwhelming influx of tourists. In 1986, 28 founding members, many a part of the Quaker community, wrote the constitution for the Asociacón Instituto de Monteverde in order to help manage the impact of tourism and to try to help the local population cope with the effects of globalization.
The Institute dedicated itself to bringing students like myself to the area to learn Spanish, live with members of the community and study the surrounding region through the lenses of biology, ecology, sociology and conservation. Additionally, programs were developed to focus on public health, exercise, cultural preservation, reforestation and other issues that the community has identified as being important.
As part of our first week in Costa Rica, we stayed with host families spread throughout the hills of Monteverde in order to better experience the culture and assimilate with the community. The Monteverde Institute coordinates all of the homestays, much like the OIPD does at Saint Martin’s, and the result is a rich cultural exchange.
Dinner conversations ranged from the natural beauty of the area and the changes it has seen because of tourism, to the sports that my host brother Luis played (soccer and BMX biking) and the current political situation in Costa Rica. We also got to learn about the emphasis on organic agriculture in the area, the fruits that are grown in the area, the wildlife in the cloud forest, and a traditional dance that was developed by the farmworkers of Costa Rica.
To end a long week filled with overwhelming Spanish lessons, intense discussions and cultural shock, we spent our last Friday zip lining over the jungle canopy, touring a coffee and cacao farm, and performing the traditional dance we learned for our host families, who gathered at the Institute that evening to send us off in grand Costa Rican style.
The Monteverde Institute is well known in the community, and for good reason. They have had a significant effect on the surrounding community, teaming up with farmers to reforest fallow pastures, promoting healthy lifestyles, and bringing students from around the world to learn about what is being done there. Along with the rest of my group, I felt very welcomed by the Monteverde community, and it was hard to say goodbye to such a beautiful place where so many positive endeavors are taking place. Luckily, Costa Rica is full of natural beauty and wonderful people, and more adventures are already in the works!