When we finished our degrees in Development Studies/Management at the London School of Economics (LSE) this summer, we didn’t expect that within less than two months we would be visiting university campuses (and cafeterias…) regularly again. Well, it has happened, and we are quite excited about it! But let’s start at the beginning.
Ever since our arrival in Costa Rica five weeks ago, we knew that despite our intensive desk research in London there were quite a few things we didn’t know yet about the actual situation on the ground. In order to gauge that gap, we have been speaking to as many people as possible; from an 88-year old indigenous women in the hinterland who still sells tortillas every day and who told us about prices of tortilla ingredients (and their changes between then and now), to a Californian surfer who recommended the beaches that could be interesting for our tourists; from a taxi driver who knew a very entrepreneurial yet poor family in his home village, to a multimillionaire American expat who explained us his way of dealing with the Costa Rican authorities. And of course, we were keen to hear the insights from local academics so that we could build upon their knowledge and approach the communities with the best local tools to deal with the current issues they are facing. We want to collaborate as closely as possible with on-going university projects, as well as to involve interested students in our microfinance work.
With this goal in mind, we have been looking to create linkages with the ‘Universidad de Costa Rica’ (UCR), both in San José and in Liberia (the capital of Guanacaste, the province we live and work in). Amongst others, we have met the dean of the Economics department at UCR, the dean of their MBA program and the dean of UCR’s branch in Liberia. They were very helpful and gave us a detailed picture of the region’s current problems and how they have evolved. For example, income-generating activities in the Guanacaste region are mainly related to tourism. However, in the economic crisis after 2008, tourism plummeted and local communities have suffered a rapid decline in employment without alternative possibilities. Land has been taken over by the hotel industry (for ridiculously low prices) so that the possibility of subsistence farming is no longer available to many families. How are these communities then currently moving forward?
In fact, they are not. Many people live on a day-to-day basis that is as cyclical as luck. If they manage to sell something, anything, they will eat; otherwise they are dependent on government food transfers. The dean of the UCR Liberia told us this is indeed a critical problem in the region, and one that is having long-term consequences such as a strong decrease in health and education. However, agronomists in the University are working with development projects around the region to try different methods for ensuring that people have food every day. For example, Prof. RC is trying to introduce rabbit to the local diet. Rabbits are not only cheap (where we come in as providers of low-interest loans!), but they also reproduce quickly and have a relatively fast growth cycle, making them an ideal source of protein for a large family. Similarly, the professor is testing farming in very small spaces. We found these alternatives very interesting and with the help of the local communities we can adapt these and other ideas to the present context. We are indeed looking forward to speaking to him soon!
Elena and Malte