Chira Island is home to 3,000 people and is made up of several rural communities. Chireños earn a living primarily through subsistence fishing or farming; beyond these, there are few opportunities for employment. In the last fifteen years, fish stocks have declined due to overfishing as well as to pollution and global warming. Residents, especially those who depend on fishing, have recognized that fish stocks are not limitless and that they must look to other sectors to get by. Locals, foreigners and various levels of government have looked to tourism as an alternative to fishing. This May, ten of our students spent time in the community of Palito, Chira Island to learn more about communities, development and ecotourism. Beyond their volunteer work with the Montero y Palito elementary school, our students visited La Amistad, a rural, community-based eco-tourism operation run by a small group of women, participated in a eco-friendly jewelry-making workshop with a cooperative of female artisans and read about ecotourism and traditional tourism. Beyond this, our students lived with community members, many of which are taking courses in rural or community-based tourism, and many of which work in the fishing industry.
Our group did not visit the Costa Rica that you see on TV or read about in most travel books. Chira Island is a dry forest (not a rain-forest) and there are no big hotels, swimming pools, air conditioning or zip-lines through the forest. The community would like it to stay this way in order to preserve local culture and the natural environment. To date, Chira’s saving grace may be the fact that they don’t have white, sandy beaches.
But for some time, Chira residents have felt the pressure from government and from wealthy foreigners to develop in a similar manner as other Costa Rican resort communities. The government has threatened that families no longer own their homes or their land – meaning that at any point, they could be forced to relocate for the construction of marinas or big hotels. Foreigners have illegally purchased large parcels of land. One such foreigner attempted to build a runway on the island, clearing land, delicate mangrove forests and negatively impacting and threatening local ways of life and the natural environment. The same women’s cooperative that runs La Amistad was successful in fighting the land purchase and the attempted construction of a runway in court, bringing attention to their venture and their cause.
Traditional tourism (big, foreign-owned hotels, marinas, swimming pools etc) are a threat to Chira Island and its delicate eco-system. The community is not looking to bring in large numbers of tourists, but to find a way to preserve the environment, provide opportunities for empowerment and provide sustainable employment opportunities for residents. Those advocating for community-based tourism are looking for lodges that consist of ten rooms or less and ventures that support local networks. For instance, those visiting La Amistad support locals by purchasing eggs and produce from the community, and by arranging local tours with La Asociación de Mujeres Artesanas, La Asociación de Pescadores Cuerderos and La Asociación Mujeres Sembradoras de Piangua. The latter two groups offer tours that demonstrate sustainable fishing and clamming practices, visits to Isla Paloma, a beautiful island that’s a paradise for bird watchers in nesting season, and the mangrove forests that surround the island, the largest remaining mangrove forests in Costa Rica. Isla Paloma sits in the middle of a 4km stretch of sea that is reserved for sustainable fishing (fishers use only a hook on a string – rods and nets are prohibited).
Visitors to the island’s community-based tourism ventures are encouraged to conserve water and minimize their use of natural resources and electricity. La Amistad, as well as other women in the community, cook beans using an innovative solar cooker that takes advantage of the island’s hot sun.
A total of 15 small organizations on Chira Island are fighting the Costa Rican government’s plans for large-scale, traditional tourism by offering locally owned and operated ventures that are committed to preserving the local environment. Their dream is to see Chira Island preserved as it is now, welcoming a small number of socially conscious tourists each year, who are also committed to preserving Chira’s environment and local way of life.