Unlike most law school students nearing the end of whatcan be a less than enjoyable experience, I spent my final semester living and working in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica. This experience was life-changing and led to the establishment of The Rich Coast Project, a community storytelling and collective history project aimed at supporting and protecting the cultural heritage of coastal Afro-Caribbean populations and other communities living along Costa Rica’s Talamanca coast.
In an effort to learn more about the challenges facing communities in coastal Talamanca, I began interviewing people about their history, the precarious state of land tenure, and the threat this poses to their cultural survival. I quickly realized there was a story to be told – one that asks how environmental conservation measures can and should be balanced against the needs and rights of local communities. Better yet, how could these measures include the communities and incorporate the knowledge and best practices they have gained over centuries of stewardship to these lands?
Coastal Talamanca is a place that, until relatively recently, lived in virtual isolation, nestled between the lush forests of the Talamanca Mountains to the West and the Caribbean Sea to the East. English speaking Afro-Caribbean fishermen began settling this coastline beginning in the early 1800s, and built their communities where they lived and worked: right next to the water.
Paula Palmer’s seminal folk history book, What Happen, traces the history and traditions of the area’s people up until 1979, the year of the book’s publication. Around the same time, the construction of a road connected these small towns to the larger port city of Limón and, by extension, to the rest of the world. Modern developments brought drastic and rapid change – both positive and negative – to the daily reality of area residents.
Costa Rica has developed an admirable policy imperative to protect and conserve its vast natural resources and has established itself as an international leader on environmental issues. As this reputation has grown, so have the instability of land tenure and economic insecurity of the people living within the country’s vast protected areas.
Over the past several years, local landowners in coastal Talamanca have been stripped of their property rights and economic development has been paralyzed. Homes and businesses have been threatened with demolition orders and residents have faced criminal charges for pursuing better lives for their families.
The Rich Coast Project wants to make sure that these communities have a chance to tell their own story. Our goal is to work within these communities to combine storytelling, visual advocacy, and interdisciplinary research to update their recorded history, expose their present situation, and explore their hopes for the future of their children and neighbors.
To do so, we’re teaming with local residents, socially-engaged artists, and scholars from a range of disciplines to explore better approaches to the competing aims of environmental conservation and sustainable development through the example of this community’s experience. Law students at Northeastern University are researching the issue from Boston, and our partners at the Center for Digital Storytelling will help us work with local advocates to produce a collective memory of the area and its people through a community storytelling initiative. Experts and students in archival studies will help us develop a digital community archive to ensure that those stories have a home forever, even if the communities do not.
This winter a small team of researchers and filmmakers will join local residents to launch the community storytelling initiative and continue the collection of documents for the community archive. We’ll be taking our lead from the locals, letting the community drive the development of the project and considering how this approach – combining local storytelling with legal research – can be leveraged to support other communities in different parts of the world.
If you'd like to participate or support this project, you can:
Contact us. We are seeking partnerships that can help us maximize the potential impact of our work. If you’re an interested organization, grantmaker, media outlet, creative professional, academic, or anyone with good ideas, we want to meet you!
Join our volunteer network to get involved. We are looking for folks who are passionate about protecting local communities and cultural heritage, and interested in the future success of The Rich Coast Project and similar initiatives.
The Rich Coast Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Rich Coast Project must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.